Smart, Prosperous and Resilient? Memphis Named as 1 of 6 Sites for New Climate, Health and Racial Equity Initiative

Guest Blog | February 27, 2017 | Climate Change, Energy Efficiency, Energy Policy
North Memphis community members attended a meeting to learn more about the SPARCC initiative.

High energy burdens, sub-standard housing, pervasive poverty, poor public transportation access, poor access to health care and food deserts are all too common in North Memphis. Large community re-development projects in Memphis have often left communities like North Memphis behind – resulting in more divided neighborhoods and displacement of low-income and minority communities. Many are left asking – when is this ever going to change?

As it turns out, a change may be coming thanks to a novel opportunity known as the Strong, Prosperous, and Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARCC). Memphis, specifically North Memphis, has been chosen as one of six SPARCC sites – along with Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles and the San Fransisco Bay Area. The three-year SPARCC initiative is focused on fostering collaboration between communities and government and industry leaders, which could lead to multi-million dollar investments in community driven projects. SACE has been heavily involved in conversations with the North Memphis community, where many homes suffer structural problems that make them ineligible for existing energy efficiency and weatherization funding.

At a Feb. 21st community meeting, a large crowd gathered to learn more about SPARCC. Some community members shared frustration with the three year timeline – that wouldn’t bring and opportunity for much needed, large capital investments until the later years of the grant. Other community members were thankful that SPARCC puts the focus on the community and its needs, creating a collaborative structure between community and city leadership that hasn’t happened before.

SACE staff join community members, non-profits, City Council members and Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland at a press event announcing SPARCC in Memphis


SPARCC will invest $1 million at each site, spread over three years,  to provide direct grant and technical assistance support for communities as they work to create and enact policy changes and identify community driven projects that could receive large capital investments down the line. With a section of North Memphis vulnerable to floods, suffering significant damage during flooding events in 2011 and 2016, SPARCC could also help build on work already being done to make the area more resilient to extreme flooding. Thanks to a $60 million grant by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, there are already significant investments being made to help protect neighborhoods from future flood events, which will increase due to climate change, and to expand the greenways and recreation areas along the Mississippi River and its tributaries.

North Memphis, is a community with a strong cultural heritage. It is also an area that lost major economic engines when several industries closed in the area. For example, one North Memphis neighborhood, New Chicago, is named for the number of Blues musicians who migrated from Chicago. The area used to be home to a Firestone manufacturing plant, as well as the Jackson Cookie Company, Maybelline Cosmetic Company and other large employers.

Once industry moved out, however, poverty moved in. With poverty came the usual ills: failing housing stock, increased health problems and desperation that comes with trying to hold your community together. As personal capital began to dwindle for the area, utility bills began to soar, as inefficient housing and outdated appliances caused families to fork out 15% or more of their annual income to keep the lights on.

Dr. Carnita Atwater's one of a kind African American History Museum, located in North Memphis, is one shining example of how community members are already working to revitalize their neighborhoods and enrich the lives of their neighbors.

In spite of the setbacks, New Chicago, and North Memphis at large, have no shortage of dedicated residents and community leaders who work daily to improve the lives of their neighbors. Dr. Carnita Atwater, founder of the New Chicago Community Partnership Revitalization CDC and the African American International Museum and Foundation, both housed in the old Firestone Union Hall, is one such leader. Not only has she created the only African American history museum in the region, she also provides meeting spaces to local groups, hosts community events in the former Union Hall, and provides a safe haven for neighborhood children in the summer months. As part of her child education program, Dr. Atwater teaches kids about solar energy, making use of a scale model house fitted with working solar panels. Dr. Atwater is hopeful that SPARCC can help may a real impact in her North Memphis neighborhood.

“We must be transparent and totally inclusive of all people from the start,” said Dr. Atwater, “so there is no confusion down the road that will lead to marginalizing African-American communities and adding to racial inequities. The center of the SPARCC grant must be the community – and the community will drive these funds and these conversations. If we get this process wrong, then shame on us because the children of North Memphis will have to absorb the consequences of our failures.”

SACE remains hopeful SPARCC can serve as a pathway towards addressing policy gaps caused by the limitations of current energy efficiency and home weatherization programs. If successful, SPARCC supported initiatives could lead to reduced energy burdens, repaired homes and demand for more local construction jobs. SACE, as part of the Just Energy Memphis partnership, will be focused on informing implementation of current local weatherization and low-income energy efficiency initiatives and using these programs, and lessons learned, to help create better energy efficiency policies for housing in North Memphis that can inform programs across our region.

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