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Project Town Gown

Project Town Gown


The neighborhood surrounding Rhodes College suffers from high infant mortality rates, among other ills; but the college refuses to stand by and watch its community deteriorate.

By Sally Walker Davies


The fence.

At first glance, the seemingly impenetrable fence surrounding the urban campus of Rhodes College seems to represent the academic and social isolation of the liberal arts college.

Inside the fence are manicured lawns, beautiful buildings of stone and stained glass and a student body comprised mostly of affluent White young men and women.

Outside the fence, just to the north, lies the gritty reality of one of Memphis’ most neglected neighborhoods: Hollywood Springdale. Vacant, trash-filled lots, a high crime rate, deteriorating homes, rampant poverty and the zip code with the highest infant mortality rate in the country.

But in the minds of the Rhodes community and neighborhood residents, that fence is nonexistent. There is instead a tangible sense of a growing relationship between the two communities.

“We’re trying to think beyond the walls,” says Rhodes Provost Charlotte G. Borst. “We’re looking beyond the gates and trying to use the city of Memphis as our larger classroom.”

The Rhodes Hollywood Springdale Partnership started when Dr. Mike P. Kirby, an associate professor of political science at the college, toured the neighborhood’s low-income housing with a group of urban studies students. What they saw was a decaying neighborhood filled with residents who had given up hope.

“When we came in, the neighborhood was really beaten down,” recalls Kirby. “There was a lack of public services. No garbage pick up … police weren’t answering calls. People were in survival mode.”

Dismayed by what they saw, the students quickly decided to take action. Kirby brought his concerns to top administrators, and almost immediately a plan was devised for the college community to embrace the Hollywood Springdale neighborhood. Ninety-five percent of the Hollywood Springdale neighborhood is Black. Conversely, at overwhelmingly White Rhodes College, only 15 percent of the 1,700 students are from minority groups, and there are only 97 Black students currently enrolled.

The Urban Team

The administration put together a group dubbed “The Urban Team,” led by Dr. Russell T. Wigginton, a 1988 Rhodes graduate and the college’s vice president of community relations. After working with the neighborhood to identify and review existing outreach programs, the team developed a list of new programs that could help the neighborhood reverse its downward spiral.

“We’ve always kind of nibbled at these things,” says Wigginton, “but we never had the institutional support for it to be — quote, unquote — part of our regular job. Suddenly, it was.”

The Urban Team also pursued and obtained a Community Outreach Partnership Center grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The grants, targeted for higher education community outreach programs, are notoriously tough to land. Rhodes’ grant of $400,000 was one of only 13 awarded in 2005.

Securing that funding was just the start of the partnership. The college still had to convince the residents of Hollywood Springdale that they were committed to a lasting relationship. Kirby knew that getting them to accept the involvement of the college and the students was going to take time, trust and a lot of work.

“First, we had to do something that was quick and dirty, and very visible,” he says.

A neighborhood cleanup was scheduled, with students and faculty joining together to tackle the vacant lots that had turned into dumping grounds. They specifically chose lots on Shasta Ave., a central neighborhood thoroughfare that was also one of the most blighted. The cleanup gave residents on Shasta a look at the kind of hard work the college was willing to commit to the partnership.

While the weekend cleanup piqued residents’ interest, it wasn’t enough to convince them that Rhodes was determined to be a part of the revitalization. Wigginton says many of the residents were wary of being treated like an experiment.

“Their attitude was: ‘We sure hope you don’t get the grant money, show up, do research and disappear,’” he says. “All we asked was an opportunity to prove ourselves.”

Overcoming Skepticism

Dorothy Cox was one of the residents skeptical of the college’s motivation when the grant and partnership were announced.

Cox spent most of her childhood in Hollywood Springdale before moving to Atlanta to work for AT&T. She says that every time she came home she was surprised how the area continued to deteriorate.

“When I used to come back here, I would get off the interstate and drive through the neighborhood, and think ‘somebody ought to do something,’” she says. “Little did I know I would be that someone.”

After retiring from AT&T, Cox returned to Hollywood Springdale to start a nonprofit agency, Community Outreach Services Inc., with her sister.

During a neighborhood health council meeting where Kirby and his colleagues were presenting the partnership and grant information, Cox voiced her skepticism of their long-term commitment. They responded to the challenge with a job offer, asking Cox to become the project manager for the partnership.

Most days, Cox can be found at Shasta Central, the once-dilapidated home that has become the hub of the partnership. She’s a blur of action — sweeping off the drive, conducting walking tours of the neighborhood and assembling brown bag lunches for the residents who come to Healthy Thursday. The weekly lunchtime get-together is part social activity, part educational forum — a chance for residents to get their blood pressure checked, take an HIV/AIDS test or learn more about diabetes and other health issues.

However, in Hollywood Springdale, the most pressing health issue is infant mortality. In 2002, the most recent year infant mortality statistics are available from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate among Black Memphis women was 19 for every 1,000 births, compared to 6.7 for White women.

Zip code 38108, home to Hollywood Springdale, has the highest infant mortality rate of all. Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen recently announced a $5 million grant to establish a women’s health initiative in Memphis. As part of the Rhodes partnership, sociology professor Dr. Tom McGowan and his students educate residents about prenatal and other services offered through the Shelby County Health Loop, part of the Regional Medical Center.

Student volunteers begin by participating in one of Cox’s walking tours, which gives them a chance to see the improvements and the work still necessary. The tours also let them meet the residents and begin establishing a rapport with the people they’ll work with. Despite her status as resident and insider, Cox still finds she must win over residents who are skeptical about the partnership.

“I sat on a lot of front porches last summer, and I didn’t make any promises,” she says. She assured people that if they became involved, they would see results.

“Most [of the residents here] have been taught, ‘They will change it for us,’” Cox says. “I tell them ‘No, we’re going to do it together.’” She says even cleaning off a front porch or repairing a broken window can start a domino effect among neighbors on a single street, and she expects those improvements to lead to bigger ones.

Violent crime is down overall on Hollywood Street, sometimes just by a few percentage points, but sometimes by a huge number. For the second week of October 2006, for example, violent crime was down 31 percent from the same week in 2005. Overall, drug arrests are up, and arrests for prostitution are flat.

Cox recruited Barbara Truly, who also grew up in Hollywood Springdale, to help form a neighborhood association that would champion the neighborhood’s interests. She said a more cohesive neighborhood would force the city to become more responsive.

While Cox and Truly organized the neighborhood’s residents, Kirby and McGowan used their considerable influence with Memphis’ civic and political leaders to get things done on their end. Working with law enforcement, members of the partnership personally confronted business owners who allowed drug dealers to set up shop in their parking lots. Before long, the dealers were gone from the neighborhood. Students devised GPS maps of the neighborhood and, in tandem with code enforcement officers, identified homes that had been neglected by landlords. The reemergence of regular city services brought more hope to the residents.

“We all had the same vision,” says Truly. “As a resident, I had it; as a college, Rhodes had it. But it wasn’t until all those pieces came together, until the partnership came together, did we see the successes.”

Inspiring the Next Generation

Back on campus, the administration kept reaching out to the community with small gestures. Rhodes hosted resident receptions and offered its stadium for the Cypress High School homecoming game. The partnership has become something of a movement on campus, as students clamor for the chance to become involved. Many, including Lizzie Phillips, found a way to combine their interests with a need they saw in the community.

A senior from Little Rock, Ark., Phillips is an international business and economics major and a former member of the track & field team. When she realized her rigorous academic schedule, including a stint studying overseas, would no longer allow her the kind of time necessary to compete at a top level in track, she gave up the sport.

Although Phillips was a dedicated volunteer in a variety of service projects, she hadn’t found anything she could pour herself into, until she read about a program called Girls on the Run in North Carolina. Phillips designed a similar program for students at Cypress Middle School, and with the help of the local Girls Inc. chapter, she launched a program called Great Strides in the fall of 2005.

“I had no expectations the first few weeks,” says Phillips, who was shocked at the program’s immediate popularity among the middle school girls. “Forty to 50 girls came those first few weeks, and I only had four volunteers.”

Initially, the program was simply about improving physical fitness and helping the girls make healthy lifestyle choices. What Great Strides turned into was part workout, part mentoring session and part discussion group.

“The mentoring aspect opens us both up,” says Phillips, who says it’s “frightening” how much the girls know about sex and drugs.

Great Strides participants meet twice a week with Rhodes students, doing everything from running to theatre. Some of the girls are working on a dance routine to present at an upcoming Rhodes basketball game, others are planning to run a few miles in the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital Marathon.

And while the girls themselves were initially skeptical about Phillips and her corps of volunteers, this year has brought a change. “Now they realize the volunteers enjoy being with them … this year is more heartfelt; the girls are really sharing things. We’re bringing girls to campus to see the possibilities … talk a lot about their futures and possible careers. It’s what keeps me afloat.”

Knowing that her graduation is drawing near, Phillips is currently looking for a freshman or sophomore to take charge of the program once she’s gone.

A Change in Fortune

The most visible changes in Hollywood Springdale since the creation of the partnership are the physical changes. Vacant lots still exist, but they are mowed and free of trash. Porches and sidewalks are swept, and fresh paint is slowly covering over worn exteriors.

Behind the fence at Rhodes, the changes are much less visually apparent. More than 40 faculty-sponsored programs involving the community are in place, as are dozens of smaller, student-led initiatives, and the school’s curriculum was recently enhanced to include a public service component.

“These are not practice exercises,” says Kirby. “These are exercises with tangible outcomes.”

Community service, says Borst, has always been a hallmark of Rhodes, and she says the college has always attracted students interested in serving their communities.

“I think this will stay with them, and increase the likelihood they’ll be civically engaged, wherever they go from here,” she says.

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