Open Dialogue

Imagine Memphis unites youths and adults for stronger city

By Aisling Maki

Ask a group of teenagers whether they feel their ideas are taken seriously by adults and it’s pretty much guaranteed the response will be a unanimous, resounding “No.”

But if those teens participate in Imagine Memphis, a citywide initiative designed to connect youth and adults to imagine and create a better Memphis, the response to that question is likely to be an overwhelmingly positive one.

Mary Jo Greil, left, is founder of Imagine Memphis, and University of Memphis sophomore Katelyn Nichols is an Imagine Memphis original design team member. The program promotes dialogue across cultural, racial, economic and generational boundaries to create positive change in the community.

(Photos: Lance Murphey)

“I ask them why they’re involved in Imagine Memphis and they say that it’s because they’re being heard by adults,” said Imagine Memphis founder Dr. Mary Jo Greil. “In a way, I think that’s so sad. Oftentimes, youth feel like they’re on the sidelines in our community rather than an integral part of the decision-making process.”

Imagine Memphis removes adults and youths from the confines of their generational daily duties by letting them sit face to face in a forum of equals to participate in open, constructive dialogue about Memphis. The resulting conversation cultivates mutual respect between the generations and shared enthusiasm for the direction of their city.

“When the youth come together with the adults, making meaning out of these conversations, the youth tap into the wisdom of the adults, and the adults tap into the energy of the youth,” Greil said. “It’s a very special combination that occurs.”

Greil is president of the Memphis-based Carson Greil Group LLC, which helps leaders grow both individually and corporately through consulting, leadership development and executive coaching. She donates time by applying her skills and services to the broader population through community development.

“I was frankly tired of us being on the bottom of so many lists of surveys,” Greil said. “I think Memphis has bought into this idea of being at the bottom of every list, and basically, it’s given us poor self-esteem. The start of Imagine Memphis was in wanting to have a different conversation that’s focused on what makes Memphis so unique and special.

“My experience in Memphis is that of a rich, authentic community, and I’d really like us to change the story and this viewpoint of what our city is all about. I think this can be done through connecting youth and adults in conversation. We have a uniquely talented youth population here.”

Greil modeled Imagine Memphis after Imagine Chicago, a successful initiative started by Bliss Browne in 1992 that today continues to inspire the Windy City.

“Some people think it helped to shift the mindset of that community,” Greil said. “Now I think Imagine Memphis is not only about this idea of shifting mindset, but it can also be a process that can be used for community building.”

Imagine Memphis began in the spring of 2007 when representatives from Carson-Greil Group, Christian Brothers University, Downtown Neighborhood Association, Leadership Memphis and Midtown Development Corp. met to reflect on the future of Memphis and united to define and sponsor this new initiative.

Part of the goal is to tackle talent retention starting earlier.

“I love Memphis, and going to school in Mississippi, more negative things kept coming up. I got tired of hearing about it. When I went to the first board meeting at Imagine Memphis, I just became really attached to it because I loved everything they were doing.”

– Katelyn Nichols, Imagine Memphis original design team member

“If that connection isn’t made, they’re going to live in other communities,” Greil said. “Rather than waiting until a person is 30 for them to feel a real sense of ownership in their community, what would happen if they already felt that way in high school, to such a degree that they wanted to make improvements in their community?”

Greil said she became increasingly frustrated each time Memphis was ranked poorly by an external list, which in recent years have identified the city and its residents as dumb, dangerous, corrupt, miserable and sedentary.

A design team consisting of diverse cross-section of the community – including seven high school students and spanning five ethnic/cultural groups – was formed to guide the Imagine Memphis process, to be the voice of diversity, and to ensure that the results of the initiative were acted upon in meaningful ways.

The team attracted representatives from Bridges USA; Community Development Centers; Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare; Mid-South Reads; MPACT; National Civil Rights Museum; New Direction Christian Church; United Way of the Mid-South; Uptown Partnership; and Youth Congress.

Youths come from both public and private high schools and are recruited through groups and organizations such as Bridge Builders, Girls Inc., Memphis Challenge and Youth United Way.

Meanwhile, adults, typically those identified as community influencers or change agents in the community, come to Imagine Memphis through organizations such as Leadership Memphis, which connects leaders to each other and to their community.

The Imagine Memphis approach uses dialogues based on a process called appreciative inquiry, a proven method based on leading research across multi-cultural and economic strata that focuses on building an organization based on existing strengths, thereby motivating participants, rather than trying to fix what doesn’t work, which can be negative and de-energizing.

“We’re about a shift of mindset that focuses on the strengths and gifts of our community in a way that’s foundational and sustainable, rather than focusing on the problems of our community,” Greil said.

That shift of mindset is what attracted Katelyn Nichols, an original design team member, to the program when she was a junior at Southern Baptist Educational Center, a private school in Southaven.

Nichols, who’d previously attended Grace St. Luke’s Episcopal School in Midtown Memphis and still spent much of her free time in the city, first learned about Imagine Memphis through her involvement in Bridge Builders, a leadership program for high school students.

“I love Memphis, and going to school in Mississippi, more negative things kept coming up about Memphis,” said Nichols, now 20 and a sophomore studying theater performance and organizational leadership and communications at the University of Memphis. “I got tired of hearing about it and wanted to know what could be done because I knew there were positive things going on. When I went to the first board meeting at Imagine Memphis, I just became really attached to it because I loved everything they were doing.”

Imagine Memphis uses what are called discovery interviews, in which youths ask adults constructive questions focused on the values and strengths of Memphis, for example: What has been the high point of your experience living in Memphis? What do you value about Memphis? What do you hope for Memphis?

“The interview process, talking to all the different people, just gave me a more in-depth look at what other people see in Memphis,” Nichols said. “It was really interesting to see people recognize that they really do love Memphis.”

Tiegst Ameha, left, and Ripley Neff are juniors at White Station High School. Ameha, who has participated in Imagine Memphis, said the organization promotes the good things about Memphis and seeks to make them sustainable.

The very first discovery interviews, which involved about 20 teens, took place at the New Ballet Ensemble & School in Midtown.

Word spread quickly, and by the time the second set of discovery interviews were held at New Direction Christian Church on Winchester Road in the middle of the week in December, 60 teens participated – proof positive that Memphis’ young people are eager to be heard.

“Over the course of the interview, they end up having a rich and engaging conversation,” Greil said. “I had a professor from the University of Memphis who’s an anthropologist, and she was absolutely amazed by how the high school youth could develop such probing questions. She said they were almost on par with the many of her students at the university level. We sorely underestimate the capability of our youth when they’re really focused.”

After the interviews, participants are asked to collectively participate in a summit to synthesize the results into common themes, which typically have included strategies to build stronger schools and safer communities, see more minorities in leadership roles and improve communication between different groups of citizens.

“Our challenge now is to say, ‘How do we take action from these interviews?” said Greil. “They become a catalyst for individuals to take action. We’ve had some wonderful testimonials of people who’ve gone through these discovery interviews.”

Some participants have been called to action on an individual basis, like the nonprofit executive so moved by the Imagine Memphis experience that he decided to start considering high school students for internships, or the female executive who bonded with her interviewer and ended up accompanying the girl to the National Civil Rights Museum, a place she’d never been.

“Now we’re trying to figure out how Imagine Memphis can be a catalyst for bringing about movement on a community basis, on a broader scale in Memphis,” Greil said. “Community building that’s sustainable changes the narrative that citizens have about their community.”

Griel’s goal for 2011 is to find a home base for Imagine Memphis, which currently receives no funding, increase the number of interviews happening across the city, expand the design team and broaden the program’s reach. She’s also interested in seeing the model brought into the public school system.

Hutchison School sponsored an event that brought together teens from Hutchison, White Station High School and nonprofit Girls Inc.

Meanwhile, Leadership Memphis and Bridges have integrated use of the discovery interview into their programs, and Bridge Builders has changed some its program strategy to identify strengths rather than tackling problems.

When White Station teacher Mark Sturgis was tasked with helping to rewrite his school’s mission statement, he found inspiration in the Imagination Memphis model.

“We tried to make it purposeful, re-imagining White Station’s identity in the community,” said Sturgis, also an Imagination Memphis Design Team member. “I took the ideas from Imagine Memphis, looking at our strengths and connecting youth to administration, sharing positive experiences. Through that, we built a little bit of movement here to rethink what we’re doing, and we’ve had some positive outcomes.”

When students and administrators sat down together, they realized that they wanted the same things: a great school and a strong community.

“We’ve never really talked about it on equal footing,” Sturgis said. “The administration’s role is seen as punitive and not really personal, so it was a way to bring down some of those barriers.”

Imagine Memphis helped set Nichols on the path to leadership. She’s now enrolled in the Emerging Leaders program at the University of Memphis.

And she stays in contact with Greil, whom she said “continues to be part of my life. Relationships really form through Imagine Memphis.”

Nichols plans to move to Los Angeles after graduation to pursue a career in the film industry, but she said she doesn’t “want to lose contact with Memphis. No matter what, I still hope to be active with Imagine Memphis and to continue to spread the positive energy of Memphis with others.”