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Self-healing hood

Advance Memphis is in an all-out fight against ghetto nihilism

Self-healing hood

(James Allen Walker for WORLD)

MEMPHIS-To understand Advance Memphis, you first have to understand its neighborhood-Cleaborn and Foote on the edge of downtown. The residents of Cleaborn/Foote live in decaying bungalows, ramshackle apartments, and squat redbrick housing projects. They live with the daily threat of violence: Telephone poles decorated with teddy bears dot the neighborhood, memorials to murder victims. Drug dealing and prostitution are the neighborhood's traditional enterprises. Its 38126 ZIP Code is one of the poorest in the country. Every societal ill can be found here.

Most of Memphis tries to ignore Cleaborn/Foote. Reporters don't write stories about murders here. A freeway whisks traffic by. The housing projects were due to be demolished and replaced five years ago. For most residents of Memphis' white and wealthy suburbs, Cleaborn/Foote might as well not exist.

That's exactly why Advance Memphis has its offices in Cleaborn/Foote. The ministry has a plan, audacious in its simplicity, to help this neighborhood heal itself by helping its unemployed residents find work. "God has ordained and called us to work," Steve Nash, Advance Memphis executive director, says. "This is the key to seeing a life change. When you have a high-profile drug dealer working and holding a job for the first time in his life, that is a positive witness for change."

By helping residents find work and manage their money, Advance believes it addresses a whole host of needs. "If you have direct deposit and a savings account, you can avoid predatory lending," Nash says. "That has the potential to affect crime because if you have your cash in a bank, it's not on your body. This is introducing a new paradigm for children and adults: Seeing mom and dad going to work is modeling out different behaviors for the community."

Lahara Rose just got out of prison: "I don't know how to do nothing," he said. Rose is one of the 20 neighborhood residents in Advance Memphis' Jobs For Life program, a six-week curriculum in soft job skills and financial literacy. Every morning, students learn about weekly budgets and business etiquette. Every afternoon, they take GED classes or receive one-on-one tutoring from volunteers.

Rose is paying attention as class starts, the lights go out, and the projector comes on, spreading Joel Osteen's toothy smile across the whiteboard. In the YouTube clip, Pastor Osteen is standing in front of his multitudinous congregation and spreading his arms while music swells behind him, giving his benediction-cum-sermon. "You have not seen your greatest victories yet!" Osteen grins to the camera: "Every day is a new beginning! God has greater things ahead of you! Everyone deserves a victorious life! Praise precedes the victory!" The music stops and Osteen's face freezes, then fades. The lights come back on.

Brandon Russell, who normally teaches financial literacy, is leading the class today, and he seeks not to praise Osteen but to bury him. He gently leads the class in discussion, praising students' contributions and never forcing his viewpoints. He puts two columns on the whiteboard, "Agree" and "Disagree," and the class puts each of Osteen's statements in a column. "Praise precedes the victory," goes into the disagree column: "It reduces God to a vending machine. Put in your quarter of praise and get out your Coke of blessing." Russell tells his class, "I've seen bad people do really well, and I know you have too. At the end of the day our job is to be faithful."

There's a reason why a class ostensibly on job skills and finances is watching Joel Osteen videos, and Russell is happy to explain: "We have to be on the same place with identity and values before we get to behavior and decisions, or it all breaks down. The value of financial education isn't just learning to manage money, it's about critical thinking and decision making. Bad theology affects the way we live. It leads to disillusionment toward God."

By teaching about stewardship and how everyone is created in God's image, Advance fights the prevalent worldview of the inner city, what Russell calls ghetto-nihilism: "It says, 'I'm gonna get what I can today, because it just doesn't matter.' You hear people who have just turned 21 saying, 'I never thought I'd make it.'"

As Rose found out, that worldview leads to destruction: "I'm a family-oriented person. Everything I do is for my family. I'm trying to help them and support them. I want to have a job and not go back to jail. I had a job but I wanted to live that street life and they don't mix. That landed me in prison, and I've had my days of that. I'm sorry it took me so long to change." He wants to be able to take care of his mother and 97-year-old grandmother.

In another part of Advance Memphis, Kim Wright leans in and adjusts a loose thread. Over 20 jumbo-size spools thread to six sewing heads of the $20,000 embroidery machine. When she's satisfied that all the threads are in the correct place, she presses a button on a computer screen. The machine starts embroidering an AutoZone logo above the breast pocket of six shirts.

Advance Outsourcing, which provides Jobs For Life graduates with additional training and supervision while they earn a paycheck, got the contract to produce these shirts, bringing to Cleaborn/Foote jobs formerly done in Pakistan. Wright is the sole master of the embroidery machine, and proud of it: "I'm the only one here who knows how to run this machine. So I'm in the spotlight right now."

The job requires hard work, concentration and attention to detail, and Wright knows exactly why she's doing it: "I'm a responsible person so that's why they picked me. They noticed the way I worked back then."

Theresa Alexander, who works in a warehouse for an outside company, also has pride in her work. Advance Staffing, the ministry's in-house staffing agency, placed her in that position. "When I didn't have a job I was so lazy," Alexander says. "Now I'm going in on my off days, they're calling me in when they need someone to work. My attitude has changed a lot. Now I'm a people person."

The Outsourcing and Staffing programs allow Advance to monitor graduates' development as they work toward permanent positions. Advance requires drug tests every 90 days and sets up direct deposit of paychecks, making sure that employees plug into financial institutions. Alexander saves money for her daughter's ballet clothing and puts a percentage of every paycheck into a separate account for her daughter to go to college.

Advance wants to turn Cleaborn/Foote into a community of savers who can build stable financial lives. Graduates can save up to a thousand dollars in Individual Development Accounts (IDAs). Advance matches that money two-to-one so they can purchase a car, make a down payment on a house, or take higher education courses. Russell, who runs the IDA program, believes that IDAs can help bring to the inner city the incentives traditionally offered to the middle and upper classes. "Behaviors are found in response to structures and incentives," he says. "There are tons of incentives for the upper and middle class to enter into home ownership, in the form of tax breaks and mortgage tax deductions. We're trying to offer incentives for people to build assets here, where there's traditionally been a means-tested disincentive."

Darlene Gandy, who got a warehouse job through Advance's in-house staffing agency, showed off a used Toyota RAV4 that she bought with money saved through her IDA. Standing in the parking lot, wearing a hard hat, she beams at her car: "I love it, isn't it cool?"

Gandy loves her job, and her employers are happy to have her. Advance employees have a growing reputation with Memphis businesses. Nash attributes this to the loyalty the six-week course builds with employees: "Normally if you get hired by a staffing company and you get fired, you just move on to the next one. We've got a relationship with our employees, so the quality of work is night and day. The marketplace is grading us and scoring us." He stops and grins, "They have a choice and they want Advance. They want us from the bowels of the city."

Click here to listen to WORLD editor in chief Marvin Olasky discuss with Alisa Harris the South regional finalists.

To view a video profile of Advance Memphis and of each of the other 2010 regional finalists and to read profiles of finalists and winners from 2006 through 2009, visit WORLDmag.com/compassion.

Advance Memphis Factbox

Location: Memphis, Tenn.

Founded: 1999

Mission: Helping Cleaborn/Foote residents find work and build community economic life

Size: Six full-time members, one part-time; over 250 volunteers a year

Annual Budget: $500,000 per year

website: www.advancememphis.org

Daniel Olasky

Daniel Olasky