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VOL. 129 | NO. 86 | Friday, May 02, 2014

Coletta: ZIP Codes Don’t Define Destiny

By Don Wade

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It’s not often you hear a featured speaker identify herself by ZIP code, but that’s just what Carol Coletta did Thursday morning at the ninth annual Alliance for Nonprofit Excellence conference at Temple Israel.

“Because talent is mobile, the most educated people in society move the most across metro areas.”

– Carol Coletta

Coletta, who graduated from the University of Memphis and once ran the Memphis-based public affairs consulting firm Coletta & Co., is now vice president of Community & National Initiatives at the Knight Foundation in Miami.

She called speaking at the conference “an excuse to come home” and said she was a girl raised in the 38106, or South Memphis. Her larger point:

“If ZIP code is destiny, the American dream is dead.”

By title, her speech was “Breaking the Stranglehold of Community Mythology.” By practice, it was an instructional for nonprofit leaders on how to recognize problems and opportunities in the Greater Memphis community and where to put the focus as they strive to move the city forward.

The Knight Foundation was started by newspaper editors, so Coletta was comfortable starting her presentation by pointing out that the media still have a habit of pushing storylines that are not necessarily grounded in fact.

Pervasive crime is but one example. Coletta lived in Chicago for several years, and she saw this every time she picked up a Chicago Tribune. In Memphis, the latest shooting remains a popular story for the top of a television newscast. Yet Coletta said that since 2006, violent crime in Memphis is down almost 30 percent.

Coletta used to sit where her audience members were sitting. So she knows how difficult it is for a nonprofit to raise money, to even just stay up and running. But today her job involves reviewing grant requests – and that is its own challenge.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time,” she said, “it’s a contest between a good cause and a good cause.”

Yet she understands that the business world is more competitive and demanding than ever, too, adding, “It’s very tough today to get a corporate CEO in a room to talk about community.”

At the Knight Foundation, she says they have drawn their focus down to three areas: talent, opportunity and place.

Memphis, she said, is doing a good job at working to attract talent to the city.

“It’s not trivial work; it’s critical work,” she said. “Because talent is mobile, the most educated people in society move the most across metropolitan areas.”

This is especially true for young people, Coletta said, adding that talent, opportunity and place tend to converge.

“Place should be an accelerator for talent and opportunity,” Coletta said, noting that young people often pick the city in which they want to live first, and then start looking for a job.

“You know and I know Memphis still has a lot of challenges,” she said. “How often have we mistaken development for growth? They are not the same thing. Why have we been so slow to re-energize Downtown and (invest) in transit?”

All big cities, but Memphis more than most, suffer from “economic segregation,” she said.

While Coletta applauded the job nonprofit leaders are doing, she called on them to reach for more. She said whenever they are about to take action, they need to ask two questions: Will what they are about to do help increase the talent and opportunity in the community? And will it increase economic integration?

“You have leadership (ability) that extends so far beyond your own organization,” Coletta said.

She also offered an optimistic game-day shout-out, sounding much more like a Memphian than someone who lives in the same community as LeBron James.

“How about those Grizzlies?” Coletta said. “Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh. Dominate the Thunder!”

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