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VOL. 130 | NO. 216 | Thursday, November 5, 2015

Conference Aims to Spark Positive Change, One ZIP Code at a Time

By Don Wade

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The world can be a big place, even within one city or a single ZIP code. But the world also can be made smaller when the right kinds of lines are crossed.

ER2 general manager Tyler Whitney, left, with Advance Memphis executive director Steve Nash at ER2’s facility in the South City area. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Steve Nash founded nonprofit Advance Memphis in 1999, beginning an ambitious project without end. His goal: bring economic sustainability to the people living in and around the Cleaborn/Foote Homes public housing developments in South Memphis’ 38126 ZIP code, the poorest urban ZIP in Tennessee.

The statistics seem daunting: In 38126, 70 percent of residents are unemployed, 58 percent of households do not have a car, and 47 percent of residents have less than a high school degree.

However, partners have come alongside Advance Memphis over the years, and numbers document the progress being made.

In 2014, for example, 131 residents found employment through the Jobs for Life/Advance Memphis Staffing programs. And 56 Jobs for Life graduates were hired directly into permanent positions with benefits. Another 16 residents earned their GEDs.

Nearby, ER2: National Electronic Recyclers, a company based out of Mesa, Ariz., has purchased and restored a 60,000-square-foot warehouse. Today, the warehouse is operational and over time, the company will employ 20 to 30 residents from 38126. Some already are working there.

“There’s a lot of advantages to being here,” said ER2 general manager Tyler Whitney. “One, you get cheaper real estate. Two, everybody thinks that this is a community or a workforce that doesn’t want to work, and some of that may be true, but we’re finding it’s just an underdeveloped community.

“When you give them a chance, a lot of them really start to come along and turn out to be every bit as good employees as we could pull from anywhere in the city.”

In Nash’s view, Memphis and other cities can – and should – have a lot more stories like this one. On Tuesday, Nov. 10, the Cook Convention Center will be the site of the second Market Solutions for Community Transformation Pre-Conference, an event tied to the Christian Community Development Association National Conference being held from Nov. 11-14.

Rick Krug, one of the founders of ER2 and an Advance Memphis volunteer, already had a vision for community transformation when starting the firm in 2010. Krug and co-founder Chris Ko operate their company with a culture they’ve dubbed “ARC” – short for “Accountable for our actions. Refining Constantly. Conscientious of others.”

The acronym plays off the work they do because, as they explain on their website, ER2.com, “An electric arc is caused by an electrical pulse that bridges a gap between electrodes. In the same way, in order for us to bridge the gap between our best of intentions and actually making an impact, we must ARC.”

Meanwhile, the Assisi Foundation, Nash said, recently helped Advance Memphis acquire a 24,000-square-foot warehouse in 38126 where companies will be able to lease space and graduates from the Advance Memphis jobs program can find steady work.

Nash hopes the audience at the Nov. 10 preconference will include people who want to emulate what ER2 has done, get involved with the new warehouse or have other ideas for job and business creation in the inner city.

“We’re interested in business owners,” Nash said of potential audience members. “We’re interested in men and women thinking, ‘What’s next in my career, or how might I start a business or do job creation that would be beneficial to our city?’

“We are looking for folks that are pastors that would want to have more fodder for their congregation in telling a businessman or businesswoman how they might apply their faith in the marketplace, how they might run their business to where they are expressing more Biblical principles into their business.”

Advance Memphis is faith-based, but Nash says, “Anybody is welcome to come through the front door. It doesn’t matter what your faith position is. We are inviting people to explore. Everybody picks that up or leaves it alone differently. We’re not telling anybody what to believe.”

Except for this: Believe in investing in your community. By the time graduates have come through the Advance Memphis jobs program, they’ve had several weeks of training for entering the workforce and passed an extensive drug screening.

Whitney says ER2 has found that new employees are not necessarily finished products when they start, but that’s just part of the process. In his office, Whitney has helped employees build a personal budget, talked through personal challenges, helped them to understand the benefits of a 30-day bus pass over paying on a daily basis, and helped create a plan for saving to buy a car.

“You kind of have to treat it like a parent, except you’re choosing these people,” Whitney said. “And you try to develop all of them – not just as an employee – and realize they might have issues at home and didn’t have a parent or mentor to help them. It’s rewarding.”

The Nov. 10 event is built around the theme “Illuminate” and will focus on four broad categories: social enterprise, entrepreneurship training programs, impact investing and “kingdom-minded businesses.”

The preconference runs from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and will feature numerous speakers, including Roshun Austin, COO of St. Andrew African Methodist Episcopal Church and president and CEO of Works Inc.; Dick Gygi, who co-founded a retail thrift store concept to create jobs in poor communities; Michael Rhodes, director of education at Advance Memphis; and Shaun Sipe, senior vice president at Barnhart Crane & Rigging, which is heavily involved with Advance Memphis and the inner city.

Visit ccda.org/mksolutions to register for the Market Solutions for Community Transformation Pre-Conference.

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