Brad Watkins is Executive Director of the Mid South Peace & Justice Center, the April focus of Orion Gives Back. The non-profit is an amazing force for change on issues that some of our most powerless citizens face. Brad here shares stories, a little of his background, and his thoughts on why our city needs grass-roots organizations to raise the concerns of the poor – and solutions to their problems – to the highest levels of power.
How did you become involved with the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center?
I’m a Memphis native and as a kid, it was just myself and my mother the vast majority of the time, day to day. We moved quite a bit. I lived in various neighborhoods in our city and attended 9 different schools between K-12th grade. That experience largely shaped my ideals and the core of who I am. From an early age, I met people who were different from me, different races, different income levels, different religions. One thing that jumped out at me from an early age was the basic inequality that divides neighborhoods and how the “rules” seemed to change as far as what daily life is like in various parts of the city and how it’s easy to be unaware of these things when you are only in one place, with one crowd.
As a young man, I was bound and determined to “GET OUT” of Memphis as soon as I could. But as I grew older, my views changed and I began to think more and more about how I could do my part. I was always very active in civic matters – mostly voter registration, some volunteering work. It was not until 2004 that I began to look at other ways to get involved.
I became involved in the Howard Dean for President campaign. It was an incredibly educational experience and I would not trade it for anything. After the campaign ended, I became the Memphis Organizer for Democracy for America and in 2006 was elected to the Executive Committee of the Shelby County Democratic Party. It was an educational experience, but it also convinced me that partisan politics was not the place for me. I wanted to work directly on the issues and policies and the legislation that takes place between elections. So I became a volunteer for the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center and Workers Interfaith Network, among others, and was a part of the local living wage campaign and the Coalition against the Privatization of Prisons in 2005 and 2006. In 2008, I was accepted as a Fellow with the Center for Community Change in Washington DC as part of their GenChange program. This was a godsend, a two week intensive training in the skills of community organizing with a six month fellowship where I was assigned to The Memphis Peace and Justice Center to conduct a voter education operation in four low income communities of color to increase voter turnout around 10 amendments to the city and county charter. We held town halls, canvassed and phone banked and had poll workers with plain English explanations of what these amendments would do. All 10 amendments passed by comfortable margins.
At the end of my Fellowship in December of 2008, I joined the staff of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center and was privileged to oversee the Center’s programs and campaign efforts on homelessness, blight, foreclosure, criminal justice reform and electoral organizing. I was honored to become Executive Director of MSPJC in 2014.
I was a part of the start of both HOPE and Memphis Bus Riders Union and I am overjoyed by their success and now I am committed to us finishing the job and preparing these groups to become independent 501c3 organizations. We are committed to movement building.
What are the core principals of The Memphis Peace and Justice Center?
MSPJC works around two core principles, the first is that no amount of education or empathy can equal the experiences of those who have lived under a problem, and those who are most affected by a problem must be part of the solution in order for initiatives and interventions to be successful.
The second is that we operate only in issue areas where strong organizations do not already exist. We work to build capacity in these issue areas, to build new organizations made up of – and led by – those most affected by an issue.
This work manifests itself most notably with our incubation and support of groups like HOPE [Homeless Organizing for Power and Equality] and the MBRU [Memphis Bus Riders Union].
Could you share some of the memorable experiences you’ve had during your involvement with The Memphis Peace and Justice Center?
The story of our friend Cynthia, or “CC” as we know her, stands out to me the most.
CC is a member of HOPE [Homeless Organizing for Power and Equality]. I have watched for years as she worked every day trying to rebuild her life. She has jumped through hoop after bureaucratic hoop to secure housing and win back custody of her daughters. Even though it took years of work on her part, she stayed the course and was able to reunite her family. Not only that, she worked tirelessly on several projects for HOPE. She was an advocate in HOPE’s campaign for increased local funding for homeless services; she conducted street-level outreach with the city’s Point in Time Count of the homeless and Project Homeless Connect; she worked with the 100K Homes Campaign (a portion of whose funds were the direct result of HOPE’s advocacy campaign).
What makes her story so heartbreaking is that the housing that CC was finally able to secure was a unit at the Warren Apartments, a section-8 complex that turned out to have rampant code violations that made the apartments unlivable. CC, remembering her workshops and trainings via HOPE, began to work with her neighbors and fellow tenants to find solutions via collective action. She called on The Memphis Peace and Justice Center for assistance and we came. What we saw in the complexes disturbed and appalled us as an entire community: bedbugs, sewage backup, faulty electrical work, widespread mold and even structural damage to floors and ceilings. The cries of the residents and our suspicions were vindicated two months ago when HUD officials recognized the code violations and ended subsidies to the complex – but also notified the tenants that they would have to relocate.
There currently is no organization in Memphis that helps organize tenants into associations or engages in grassroots efforts organizing around renters rights. Brave folks like Cynthia take great risk standing up for their rights and they need more support than is often available.
The Memphis Peace and Justice Center is working to take this on as part of our mission, reaching out to other tenants in other properties to work with them to have real and independent tenant associations to fight for their rights via our new RENTER’S RIGHTS PROJECT. Access to quality, affordable housing in Memphis is the largest unaddressed civil rights issue in Memphis, particularly for people with disabilities. We are committed to this work and inspired by what people can do when provided the right tools and the space to find their own way. That is what we are all about, not speaking for others but working with others so that their voices are heard. CC is the core of what our work is all about.
The Memphis Peace and Justice Center does so much good in the community – what would make it possible for you to accomplish even more?
One of our chief challenges is that a lot of people may not understand what we do since we cover a great many issue areas. Though people may see our work, they don’t realize MSPJC is connected to it. Memphis does not have a tradition of organizing, or a culture of civic engagement as some of our peer cities do. This is especially true in the nonprofit sector, which is large in Memphis but concentrated in direct service as opposed to advocacy or grassroots organizing.
We are not social workers or service providers, though we often work in those areas to support and assist our members. We work exclusively in issue areas that are not being served by existing organizations so there aren’t established revenue streams for us, as there is for things like education advocacy. Thus all that we do is with limited resources here on the local level. This is starting to change.
Mostly, we want people to know that they can make a difference and that the movement across issue areas needs them to get involved. There is a place for everyone and everyone has skills and talents and abilities that have a valuable place. We have no shortage of people fighting for their communities and this city. What we need are people-led organizations to raise those concerns and solutions to the highest levels of power. We will continue to stand with those voices and lend our energy to theirs.
To learn more about the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center and ways that you can help or get involved, visit www.midsouthpeace.org.