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May 23, 2018
by Oscar Tollast
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YCI Project Helps Develop Historical Understanding of Memphis’ Past and Present

YCI alumni Steven Fox’s Project Gratus responds to issues affecting Memphis and links up with MLK50 project Fox was the commissioned poet for the I Am A Man Plaza (Picture: Cliff Garten Studio)

A creative-writing project initially designed to bridge divides and help Memphis’ underserved communities thrive will leave behind a lasting physical imprint.

Project Gratus, the brainchild of Steven Fox, highlighted the theme of gratitude to create workshops that kick-started intergenerational conversations between the youth and elderly generation.

In addition to project-based workshops, dialogue and reflection sessions also took place, which then evolved into financial literacy workshops for youth and an MLK50 project Fox was selected for.

Fox said, “The mission of these workshops was to develop [a] historical understanding of past and current events, invoke empathy and leverage self-confidence, self-worth, creative and critical thinking skills necessary to help citizens thrive artistically, socially, educationally and economically.

“The need for this innovative approach was and still is high due to the persistent issue of childhood poverty, high crime rates and failing students/schools in the Memphis community.”

Fox is a writer and spoken-word artist who attended the third session of the Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Innovators. After participating in the session, Fox received a follow-on grant to push ahead with Project Gratus.

In June 2017, Project Gratus hosted financial literacy workshops at Ed Rice Community Center in the Frayser Area of Memphis, Tennessee. Educator and volunteer Dione Smith used a financial literacy curriculum called JA Our City.

In five sessions, twelve students from a third-grade social studies class were introduced to subjects such as the importance of economic exchange and how money is managed by people and businesses in cities.

As a result of the program, students were able to examine the importance of money to a city, why people pay taxes and develop an understanding of how entrepreneurs promote a healthy economy within a city.

Between August and September 2017, Project Gratus worked alongside Cliff Garten Studio, the City of Memphis, and the Urban Art Commission.

Together they looked at community workshops focused on the I Am A Man Plaza, based next to Clayborn Temple, a gathering place for Martin Luther King Jr. and sanitation workers before they marched during the Sanitation Workers Strike in 1968.  

As part of the interactive plaza, which opened last month a day after the 50th anniversary of King’s death, a stone sculpture was built. Fox wrote the text that is etched in it. He was recommended for the role by Lauren Kennedy, a fellow member of the Memphis YCI Hub. The plaza gives visitors the opportunity to interact with art and inspire future generations to stand up for positive change.

Discussing the content of the workshops, Fox said, “Each workshop included project details and proposed design elements for the I Am A Man Plaza, as well as a review of quotes and text identified from prominent civil rights leaders that will be incorporated in the plaza design. As collaborator… I led a conversation with participants to derive contemporary text for the plaza design.”

Project Gratus hosted workshops at the New Chicago Community Development Corporation, Orange Mound Community Center, Clayborn Temple, and Whitehaven Community Center.

Fox asked visitors how to honor the sanitation workers and if there was something they could say to them now, what would that be? Citizens were encouraged to be present with one another, learn from one another, and recognize the impact of the Sanitation Workers Strike.

Commenting on this methodology, Fox said, “When we do this, we will fulfill the purpose of the I Am A Man Plaza with intention, and it will truly be a place of reflection, inspiration and hard work. Through these workshops, our hope is that the community will recognize opportunities and actions through our commemorating the strike in the history of Memphis.”

For more information about the Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Innovators, please click here.