Local officials’ role on the nonprofit board presents a conflict of interest in their public service duties

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — On Monday, April 3, the Justice & Safety Alliance (JSA) sent an open letter to the local elected (and some appointed) officials who sit on the nonprofit board of the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission (MSCC), urging them to step down and avoid conflicts of interest that could unduly influence their official service to the residents of Memphis and Shelby County. 

The MSCC often presents and lobbies its viewpoint to public officials and bodies as a unilateral body. These viewpoints have traditionally been led by the particular perspective of MSCC staff leadership, as might be expected from an “independent, non-profit 501(c)(3) organization.” By serving on the board, elected officials and justice-related appointees, whose offices would be greatly impacted by the MSCC’s recommendations, imply that they agree with and condone the Crime Commission’s views. This can limit the fair exchange of ideas as different viewpoints are expressed, which allows the MSCC an outsized position in the public discourse. The presence of decision-making officials on the nonprofit’s board directly contradicts the democratic principle that an elected official works for and represents ALL of the community they serve, instead of just one segment. 

“The Crime Commission positions itself as fully representative of the community with an implied view that it is a public/private entity, when fundamentally, it is a nonprofit that supports an agenda that does not represent the interests of our entire community. There has been an implication that the MSCC presents objective data, research, and recommendations, when in reality, the nonprofit has traditionally presented data, ‘research,’ and recommendations that support their ideological perspective, which clearly prioritizes increasing incarceration and policing.” said Cardell Orrin, a representative of JSA. 

The partner organizations of the JSA represent justice-impacted communities, young people, families, educators, faith leaders and practitioners, legal professionals, and workers. Together, we are formally asking the following elected and appointed officials to remove themselves from the MSCC’s Board of Directors: District Attorney Steve Mulroy, Juvenile Court Judge Tarik Sugarmon, Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner, County Mayor Lee Harris, County Commissioner Erika Sugarmon, City Mayor Jim Strickland, City Councilman Frank Colvett, Police Chief CJ Davis, and U.S. Attorney Kevin Ritz.

A copy of the JSA’s official letter to the elected officials currently on the MSCC board can be found at: https://justiceandsafetyalliance.org/open-letter-to-local-public-officials-on-crime-commission/.

Our hearts are with everyone who experienced The Covenant School shooting on Monday, March 27. Nothing will bring those children and educators back, but we can channel our grief and rage into action so gun violence stops being a “normal” part of school life.

Before we dive into actions, we encourage everyone to prioritize your mental health & remember, in the face of tragedy, you are never alone. If you or any loved ones need support, here are some resources to get you started:

As we discuss the “why” behind these tragedies and how we can prevent them in the future, we must state the obvious: gun violence would not exist without guns. TN’s irresponsibly lax gun laws are merely choices: the majority of our lawmakers are actively choosing to accept, allow, and enable gun violence with every vote they take to strip our gun laws and all the fear-mongering they push to sell more guns. In fact, Tennessee has some of the weakest gun laws in the country, and we’re now in a place where guns are the leading cause of death among Tennessee children and teens.

Despite the choices politicians make, Tennesseans across race, place, and background know our children’s worth. Our voices matter. Together, we can call on our current elected officials to enact meaningful change and elect future leaders who truly understand the value of our children. Join the call for common sense gun reform and connect with groups already engaged in the work: https://forwardtn.org/gun-safety/ 

Advocating for more resources that center students’ mental and emotional wellbeing are also equally as important when we talk about student safety. How students feel in school carries into how they feel in the world. If they don’t feel supported in the place that’s supposed to lay the groundwork for their future, we are setting them up to fail. But we still need to remind many lawmakers in our General Assembly that everyone—regardless of sexual orientation or gender expression and identity—deserves to see themselves represented in libraries and school curricula and feel a sense of belonging and safety.

While extremist lawmakers will try to use the shooter’s transgender identity as fuel for their hateful agenda, we know that transgender and gender non-conforming people are far more likely to be victims of gun violence than perpetrators. TN’s anti-trans, anti-drag, and school censorship laws will only add to the cycle of trauma, simply due to some lawmakers’ unfounded fear of identities they don’t understand. Take action to stop these bills from harming more students: bit.ly/edtrustaction

Regardless of the laws passed in Nashville, we know teachers and faculty are doing the best they can in supporting and teaching kindness to students. Providing students with the proper support and resources in schools AND changing gun laws is the only way to prevent these tragedies for good. 

And we echo our partners: Safety does not mean increasing police presence in Black, Brown, and low income communities. It means passing common sense gun laws that protect our children and families from mass shootings and all other types of gun violence. It means passing trauma-informed and inclusive policies that create community and school spaces where everyone–regardless of race, class, gender expression and identity, sexual orientation, and ability–feels a sense of belonging and care.

We will keep The New Covenant students, staff, and families in our hearts as we continue to call for meaningful change from our current and future elected officials, so that no child, family, or educator experiences school gun violence again.

Over the past two weeks, and in the wake of hearing from his parents at the January 23 press conference, we have been holding Tyre Nichols and his loved ones in our hearts. We mourn another young life taken by an unacceptable and preventable act of police violence, and we join the calls for more transparency from the Memphis Police Department. Even though the individual officers involved in Tyre’s arrest and killing are starting to be held accountable, the fact remains that systemic racism and lack of accountability for law enforcement run deep throughout the entire criminal legal system. These systemic problems require systemic solutions, bringing us back to the urgent need to reimagine policing entirely.

The case is now a federal civil rights investigation, and the whole country’s eyes are once again on Memphis. True justice means making sure these acts of police brutality never happen again, and we will continue to work in beloved community to create a city where we are all free from police violence, where we all have our basic needs met, and where we all have the chance to not only survive, but thrive.

According to the MSCS Handbook, possession of pepper spray is a suspendible offense, yet the adults in charge of protecting student safety are free to use this harmful chemical agent against students at their discretion with little to no accountability. This excessive use of force by school officers and/or school resource officers (SROs) to break up a fight between students at Melrose perpetuates a toxic culture of criminalizing and endangering youth in schools under the misguided assumption that adult-inflicted violence somehow makes young people safer.

In 2021, Momentum Memphis worked alongside students to call on the Board of Education to remove law enforcement acting as SROs from all public schools in our “Counselors Not Cops” campaign. To our great disappointment, after all that effort the Board voted unanimously to renew their contract with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. This decision effectively puts our students in danger of unnecessary interaction with law enforcement, often without parental consent.

This school year, school officers and/or SROs have been using pepper spray against young people at an alarming frequency–almost once a week by the District’s own numbers. It should go without saying that chemical agents should never be used against our students. By doing so, the school officers, SROs, and other adults in charge are setting a dangerous example– effectively saying that using more violence is the best way to resolve conflict. When students respond to conflict with more violence, they face the risk of  suspension  or even expulsion; yet the adults responsible for ensuring student safety face little to no consequences when they respond with violence. 

In October 2022, Board Member Sheleah Harris called on the rest of the Board to pass a Code of Conduct for school security staff that would hold them to a higher standard. We stand with Board Member Harris, and we stress that the Code of Conduct would include requirements for trauma-informed de-escalation training and practices. 

Security staff have a responsibility to protect ALL students, including those who may be in conflict with each other. We will continue to advocate with and for our young people so that these violent incidents become things of the past, paving the way for prevention and restorative justice to come first and foremost. 

We are deeply disturbed and saddened by yesterday’s horrific shootings, on the heels of the kidnapping and murder of Eliza Fletcher, among so many other instances of violent crime in our community. Our hearts are with the people who were shot and killed yesterday, and with their families and loved ones. We grieve with the survivors, knowing how hard it will be to heal from this trauma of gun violence. We are also grateful for all of the emergency responders who risked their lives to keep the rest of us safe. 

All of us have the right to feel safe and secure, to know that we can walk around outside in our hometown without fear of violence. When we work together with the goal of authentic safety, accountability, and healing, we can create an environment where violence prevention is prioritized, so that this level of emergency response is no longer necessary. While well-intentioned, the default reaction of calling for more police and more punitive prison sentences has failed to make our communities safer. We cannot keep using the same responses to violent crime and expect different results. 

In order to reach true public safety, we need to create systems of care that ensure everyone has their basic needs met – access to housing, healthy food, education, transportation, healthcare, and mental healthcare. These solutions won’t happen overnight, so in the near term, we must invest in mental health support systems for youth and adults that will prevent horrific crimes like this from happening. These systems of care include early therapeutic interventions, crisis interventions that support healing, and diversion programs to keep people in their communities and accountable to healing. 

Our city and our communities are strong and resilient. We’re keeping all of Memphis in our hearts, and we hope everyone is able to take some time and breathe, hug someone you love, and rest today. Take care of yourselves, together we’ll rise up to create a brighter future for us all. 

In these final days of 2021, we want to thank so many of you – our members, leaders, volunteers, staff, partners, and broader community. We appreciate all the time and energy you generously gave to advocate in support of young people of Memphis and Shelby County and their families and communities.

In spite of the ongoing pandemic over the past year, we took some huge action steps in building coalitions towards educational equity, youth justice reform, breaking the school-to-prison pipeline, improving early literacy, increasing graduation success rates, and securing more equitable funding for education and other essential social services. We are excited to continue our partnership with you in 2022, and we would love to hear from you about how you want to engage with Stand for Children in the new year by filling out this survey! https://bit.ly/standTN21

Don’t forget to register for our three-week Momentum Memphis Organizing Fellowship starting on Thursday, April 15, from 6:00-8:00 pm via ZoomLearn foundational concepts and skills for community organizing and network with others in your community who are passionate about working to make lasting change! The fellowship is FREE to attend, but we ask that you commit to attending all three sessions to receive your official certificate of completion. To reserve your spot, register today!

 If you didn’t know, lawmakers in Tennessee and across the South are taking aggressive measures to suppress Black citizens from exercising their right to vote. That’s why we need you to join us at the Shelby County Voter Alliance: Partner Interest Meeting to hear how you can join local organizations, places of worship, neighbors, and peers in laying the foundation for a multi-racial democracy in the Mid-South. To RSVP, please click here.

You’re also invited to join us on Wednesday at 5:00 pm for another episode of Cardell’s Soapbox with special guest Carrington J. Tatum, MLK50 reporterAs a reporter with MLK50, Carrington Tatum provides another perspective on the debate over the Byhalia Pipeline. We’ll touch on his road to covering the Memphis community, issues about the pipeline, and other areas of his coverage. It’s sure to be an exciting interview and will prepare you to get engaged in this critical issue facing Memphis!

After a much-needed break, “Cardell’s Soapbox” will return today at 5:00 pm via Facebook Live! Today’s special guest is Ekundayo Bandele, CEO of Hattiloo Theater!

Ekundayo Bandele has been a leader in this effort by founding and developing Hattiloo Theatre into a Memphis institution. One of only a few freestanding, independent Black theaters in the country, Hattiloo has grown from humble beginnings to being an anchor (in a few ways) for the Memphis theater district and the region’s growing national reputation and influence.

Ekundayo’s determined and innovative leadership of the theater has always focused on continuous development for the future while recognizing and paying respects to the people and organizations who came before in the Black theater movement in Memphis and across the country.

Join us today to hear Cardell and Ekundayo discuss the need for Black-focused and led arts and culture in communities and its role in moving Memphis & Shelby County forwardHave a question you’d like to ask or a topic to discuss? Please email us at [email protected] to be featured in the next episode!

You’re also invited to pre-register for our joint virtual Momentum Memphis Education Task Force Meeting on Monday, March 1st, at 6:00 pm via Zoom! Hear updates on our advocacy efforts and how you can get involved in our movement to make educational equity a reality for all students in Memphis and Shelby County.

If you haven’t already, please consider taking our SCS Childcare and Back to School Perspective Survey. Shelby County Schools has delayed starting in-person learning for the spring semester, and we want to hear your feedback on the matter! Let us know your thoughts on continuing distance learning at home by taking the survey today!

See you soon!

(Written January 7th, at about 1 am while watching members of the US House continue argument over opposition to the certification of electoral votes from Pennsylvania)

I woke up this (Wednesday, January 6th) morning to finalize and upload new rubrics for discussion prompts in my Contemporary Issues class. In those rubrics I laid out the criteria of success for building an effective argument – to make a clear claim that directly addresses the prompt or situation, to provide evidence for that claim from diverse sources, and to explain how that evidence supports the claim.  To demonstrate an exemplary argument in the discussion board, also anticipate and respond to counter-claims and identify particular solutions or resolutions, as applicable.

The second part of the rubric lays out the requirements for demonstrating the ability to disagree with people whose experiences and/or ideas are different from yours, while maintaining community and respect – criteria such as engaging with ideas while connecting with people, by doing things like addressing each other by name and identifying points of agreement where possible. 

Hours later, we (my 9th and 10th graders and me – I want to make sure to clarify the “we” I refer to) began class with a recap of the news, as we usually do – recognition of the proceedings in the Congress over the electoral college certification had just begun and that there would be objections. We also noted that one GA Senate race had been called and the other was pending (it was called within the hour – what an hour in US history!). We proceeded to share our hopes and dreams for 2021, as it was our first day back together after winter break. Following, we listened to excerpts of the Trump/Raffensperger call from the New York Times Lesson of the Day this week and began to discuss the goals and arguments of both Trump and Raffensperger. We were just turning to analyze it using the rubric when student DMs and news media alerted me that the US Capitol had been breached by the mob of insurrectionists. 

I quickly wrapped up the day’s essentials, and we watched together as white terrorists wearing Trump gear proclaiming “Civil War,” waving banners proclaiming “Jesus Is My Savior, Trump Is My President,” and bearing firearms and zip ties and explosives, invaded the US Capitol building (a building in which on my last visit I had the miracle of passing John Lewis in the hallways of the Congressional offices, but that is a story for a different day). I had almost no words for my students except to say that what we were watching has never happened before. While our (and when I say “our” here, I mean “America’s”) past has been continually violent, this particular scenario has never occurred before in our country – a domestic attack on the US Capitol over the refusal to allow a peaceful transfer of power. Even so, certainly to anyone with knowledge of history or who has heeded Dr. Angelou’s words about what to do when people show you who they are, it came as no surprise. But that’s the thing with violence – it doesn’t have to be surprising to be traumatizing.

As we watched, most kids were quiet.  One young man made references to the fall of the Reichstag in Nazi Germany, and one young woman stopped us all before class ended and required we note the contrast between the response of police to the armed Trump insurrectionists today and their response to peaceful BLM protesters just months ago. The young people know what’s happening, even if adults all the way up to the heights of power will rush back as quickly as possible to “nothing to see here” or “let’s move on from this” and “restore order.”

As I sit up tonight (Tuesday and into Wednesday) and watch Republican lawmakers from Pennsylvania (among others), seated just three days ago, based on November election results, continue to oppose those same election results by which they claim their power and which have been refuted as baseless by their own state legislature and courts of multiple levels, I am wondering if I should go back and change those rubrics. As I consider the same rhetoric used in the call with which we began class and witnessed throughout the day from their feckless leader, I wonder what “success” is for which I’ve listed criteria. 

Perhaps I should adjust them: your argumentation will be effective if – you claim a lie, repeat it loudly, cite no evidence at all or evidence which you generate out of thin air. Continue talking until even you can’t remember how your explanation supports your claim. Perhaps I should characterize effective discourse with your peers – name call, threaten, beg, plead, and well, anything you have to do to maintain your power – so long as your skin is lily white. If not, it doesn’t really matter how correct, dignified, affable, or brilliant you are, because people cannot hear your voice while they’re blinded by the color of your skin. 

But I won’t do that. For several reasons. 

First, because one of my great learnings of 2020 was that hopelessness is a privilege. As I watch and read and listen to and follow and vote for and buy from Black organizers and creators and authors and leaders, I am held accountable to hope. And to recognize that their motivation, while it will create a better world for me and my own kids, too, lies in fighting for survival, for the right to send their kids out to play in the park without fear of being killed. I don’t think they’re organizing in Georgia because they love the Democratic Party so much, they’re doing it because they refuse to give in to the white supremacy actively suppressing their vote in ever-more-creative ways. They’re doing it because they know the stories (and often the families) of Ahmaud Arbery and Jordan Davis shot in cold blood because of the level of melanin in their skin, and even 17-year-old John Lewis getting his head bashed in on a bridge 55 years ago, are not simply historical events, but daily possibilities.

The stories and arguments of Black leaders today are echoes of Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. DuBois, Mary Church Terrell, and countless others – a deafening chorus of truth.  And while white ears may have opened briefly this summer and maybe for a moment this afternoon – as Van Jones, Brittany Packnett Cunningham, and Joy Reid, among countless others, tried to explain – I fear that they will be closed again by morning, trying to explain today’s events without directly engaging race.  That’s one of the strongholds of our whiteness – we attempt to explain a situation before it is even over, using the language and examples with which we are comfortable. As I write, I am listening to that happen overnight in the very place where a treasonous mob waved a Confederate flag hours ago. 

In my other classes I’ve taught the last two days, we have closed class, and begun the semester with the poem “Invitation to Brave Space” by Micky Scott Bey Jones.  And I’m glad we did – because it will take bravery to hold the conversations that we must have.  I think the rubric for those conversations might need to include these criteria for success, beyond discussion norms: the imagining of a different reality, the courage to enact those visions, and the hope of a beloved community. Although bravery is needed for the conversation, what will take real courage is transforming them from hot air to effective action. 

As I sit awake watching the House continue to deliberate beyond 1 am, I am reminded of staying awake the night of the 2016 election – wondering if what I had taught my own children about extending kindness and seeking the common good was folly.  I am reminded of imagining the worst-case scenarios under a Trump presidency – many fears that have come true.  It is disconcerting, even terrifying, but certainly not surprising.  This day is the natural end of the hate and fear emboldened by the Republican leadership, arm-in-arm with Christian nationalism, and fed by desperate white supremacy. 

As I acknowledge my fears, I also recognize where my trust and my hope lie.  First and ultimately it lies in the sovereignty of a merciful God, whose dominion has no boundaries, and if it did, those boundaries would most certainly NOT line up with the boundaries of the (Dis)United States of America.  

And second, my trust and hope lie in the recognition that while this day might be one of the scariest of my lifetime for me, I can follow the leadership of Black women and men, who have walked through and continue to lead despite and through trauma that I will likely never know. The leadership and mobilization that liberated itself from slavery 150 years ago and flipped Georgia yesterday is more than worthy and able. 

And third, I can love well and learn with my own three kids and the young people in my classroom. Today and every day, as we build brave spaces in beloved community. And also as we learn to build effective arguments, if ever they become relevant again.

Yesterday’s insurrection at the U.S. Capitol was a direct assault on democracy.

A violent, white supremacist mob incited by the President tried to subvert the result of a free and fair election.

In stark contrast to the often brutal suppression of peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrations last summer, yesterday’s weak and even permissive law enforcement response to rioters brutalizing police officers, looting and pillaging Congressional offices, and disrupting the peaceful transfer of power was white supremacy and privilege on display.

Is the bar for acceptable behavior now at rock bottom?

That depends on how people who actually value democracy, decency, and justice respond.

Anyone who grew up in, has spent significant time in, or has studied democracies that became dictatorships knows that nothing is guaranteed.

Some elected and corporate leaders who encouraged or enabled yesterday’s riot appear to have come to their senses, at least momentarily, but it is up to us to prevent craven political ambition and greed from ever again trumping democracy and decency.

This morning, as I do every morning, I prayed: for God to grant me the courage to change the things I can, for the Lord to make me an instrument of peace and to let me sow love where there is hatred and light where there is darkness.

Individually, can we shore up the foundations of our shaky democracy or root out the deeply embedded racism that infests our society? 

No, but what we do individually and what we collectively insist that elected leaders and corporations do matters a great deal.

So, let us recommit to fight together today, tomorrow, and every day in this pivotal year for democracy, decency, and justice with courage, a deep sense of urgency, and a loving spirit.