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VOL. 132 | NO. 60 | Friday, March 24, 2017

Grizzlies Scholars Launches Next Generation of Leaders

By Micaela Watts

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Memphis stands at the threshold of incredible possibility. In this series, we introduce innovative Memphians who are driving our city forward and forging its future success.

Handing drums to a group of eighth-grade boys may not sound like the most relaxing way to spend a Saturday. But according to Frank Shaffer, it makes perfect sense.

“Who can show me excitement?” he asks, beating a staccato rhythm on a large, African drum. “Who can show me anger?”

Shaffer has led the Memphis Symphony Orchestra’s Drum Project since 2010. Today he’s at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts, working with an innovative youth mentoring program called Memphis Grizzlies Scholars.

Marico Davis, Willie Grace and Isaiah Henderson are among the participants in the Grizzlies Scholars Program.

(Micaela Watts)

With their knees clasped around African congas and djembes, mentors and mentees go around the room, offering up their name along with a signature drumbeat. The others take up the rhythm and play it back, producing a call and response on stretched lambskin.

“That’s nice,” says Shaffer. “Take what you’re feeling and let it show up in your drumming.”

Currently in its pilot year, Grizzlies Scholars is a partnership between the Memphis Grizzlies Foundation, New Memphis and REACH Memphis funded by Mid-South Ford Dealers. It is designed to help these young men apply and succeed at the high schools of their choice.

That’s a big deal because, while each was chosen for his exceptional talents, many come from underserved communities where not many students attend elite schools.

Over the course of the year, each scholar is paired with a high-achieving mentor, a graduate of New Memphis’ leadership development programs. Together they learn 21st-century leadership skills in preparation for admissions tests, interviews and the rigorous academic environments that await them in high school.

“We built this program to better prepare students of color for college by ensuring they have a rigorous academic experience in high school,” says Diane Terrell, executive director of the Memphis Grizzlies Foundation. “Through this program, our scholars begin to develop a sense of who they are and who they want to become that is unbounded by race and class.”

“Children thrive – and our community succeeds – when caring adults invest in them,” says Nancy Coffee, president and CEO of New Memphis. “It’s the remarkable collaborations among organizations that care so deeply about our community’s progress that make Grizzlies Scholars such an innovative, successful endeavor.”

Today mentors and scholars are working with musicians from the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. Gathered on the fourth floor of the Cannon Center, they sit in a semicircle as short passages of classical music are performed by a woodwinds trio. Then the eighth-graders select emoji that represent their feelings about the music and text them to the program coordinator.

The emoji are displayed on a TV screen, which serves as a jumping-off point for a discussion about emotions and emotional regulation.

“We all have a powerful voice inside of us,” says clarinetist Andre Dyachenko. “But sometimes we need to reel it in and be a part of the group.”

The goal of the exercise isn’t necessarily to launch careers in the performing arts; rather, it is to harness the power of classical music to instill important life lessons about focus, collaboration and growth. Who, after all, will be the composer? Who will conduct? How does each instrument fit into this symphony? And what’s the best way to offer constructive feedback?

Over the course of the day, using a rubric called the Continuous Improvement Cycle, mentors and scholars actually write and perform a short piece of music together. The curriculum is adapted from MSO’s leadership development workshop, Leading From Every Chair – and the results are worth listening to.

“Look, I already know I’m going to be the next Mozart,” says Marcus Walker, a slender young man. “What’s cool is that you don’t know what talents somebody has until you play together.”

“The whole group had each other’s back,” says KeJuan Jones, nodding.

Still in its pilot year, Grizzlies Scholars can already tout some impressive results. Several of the young men have received hefty academic scholarships to schools like Memphis University School, St. George’s Independent School, Harding Academy and Lausanne Collegiate School. Meanwhile, admissions news continues to roll in.

Looking forward, administrators hope to grow the program’s impact so that more Memphis kids can have access to this kind of intensive leadership training. In coming months, the scholars will attend daylong engagements with Shelby Farms Park and Bridges USA. But for now, they’re content to make beautiful music – and get a little better each time they perform.

“At the end of the day,” says Marcus Walker, “what we do as a group is more important than what we do as individuals. That’s how we’re going to change the world.”

Grizzlies Scholars is a partnership of the Memphis Grizzlies Foundation and New Memphis Institute. Learn more at grizzliesfoundation.org.

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