The Engage Memphis event was held by Facing History and Ourselves and BRIDGES in an effort to increase voter turn out in the city and to engage the community’s future voters. The event took place in Memphis, Tennessee (United States), on September 28, 2018.
Problems and Purpose
Two years after the election of President Donald Trump, the sociopolitical polarization in the United States sparked a national campaign to increase voter turnout in the 2018 federal, state, and local mid-term elections. That said, the primary issues addressed at the Engage Memphis were: 1) Lack of youth voter-turnout in the greater Memphis area and 2) Lack of civic engagement opportunities for youth under the age of 18. While disinterest, lack of understanding, and failure to provide space for students in the democratic process are age-old national sentiments, leaders in the Engage Memphis initiative refused to sit idly by . It was decided that the purpose of the event was to approach the issue of low youth voter-turnout by creating a platform for youth to voice their opinions, share experiences, and learn about the myriad of democratic-participation opportunities.
Background History and Context
The Memphis-Shelby County area has been historically marked by issues of racial divisiveness, economic disparity, and social injustice. The year 2018 marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was shot and killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in the heart of downtown Memphis. King’s tragic death served as a catalyst for deepened racial, economic, and political schisms throughout the greater Memphis area . A pivotal component of the African American civil rights movement was the mobilization of disenfranchised groups, a great number of whom were young community members. In the context of voting rights and the current state of voter turnout in Shelby County, echoes of the fight for civil rights are etched into the fabric of the city. Fortunately, a stronger force prevails. There is a rich legacy of organized social change in Memphis and there are a great number of people dedicated to keeping it alive, particularly advocates for increasing civic engagement in the election process.
According to The Tennessean, in 2018 Tennessee was ranked 49th in the nation in voter-turnout . As the mid-terms were rapidly approaching, many stakeholders and public figures urged all Tennessee residents to take part in the vote. Due to the nature of campaigning and advocacy in the 21st century, more youth were exposed to this encouragement via social media, news outlets, and in some cases- youth-development organizations. Two key players in the Memphis-based mobilization movement were the local chapter of Facing History and Ourselves (FHAO) and BRIDGES USA’s Bridge Builders program . Together, these organizations brought together youth, staff, service members, and community stakeholders to plan and implement Engage Memphis.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
Student representatives and staff from FHAO and Bridge Builders engaged in planning sessions to get the ball rolling. Using organizational resources, a curriculum was crafted by both youth and adult representatives from BRIDGES and FHAO. The Memphis FHAO network consists of 147 local schools, and students within the Bridge Builders program represent over 200 schools in the mid-south area. The event was hosted at the Jim Boyd Bridges Center in downtown Memphis (central location for Bridge Builders programming) and run by BRIDGES and FHAO staff and students. Outside funding was secured in the form of sponsorships by International Paper and the Assisi Foundation of Memphis . Workshops and large group sessions were co-facilitated by students and staff members.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Given the reach of FHAO, the organization was represented by those involved in the leadership group, while also recruiting student/teacher representatives from a number of schools that offer Facing History as a course. There are more than 1,000 students in the Bridge Builders Collaborate program, and even more in the extended network of youth served by the organization's various levels of programming. Youth were encouraged to attend as a program requirement for Bridge Builders, and given course credit if attending through FHAO.
Methods and Tools Used
The primary facilitation method used was the experiential education model, wherein students drew opinions and talking points based on their own lived experiences. Students were randomly assigned to breakout groups at the event check-in table as a means of intentionally encouraging attendees to meet new people and build new community relationships.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The event began with a large group breakfast and welcome session. Attendees were then directed to their morning breakout sessions. Afterwards, there were two guest speakers who shared their experience as young people advocating for voting rights and participation, followed by a lunch break. Students were then facilitated through a competitive activity designed to test their knowledge of the municipal government functions in the city of Memphis. Next, they transitioned into the afternoon session, and finally closed the day out with a large group closing session. A voter registration table was set up for participants to learn more/register to vote during free time. While there was not a large media presence at Engage Memphis, an education news source called Chalkbeat, sent reporter Caroline Bauman to cover the event.
During breakout sessions, students were prompted to discuss the challenges they face in their schools and larger community contexts . Participants were also asked to contemplate times where their voices and opinions were taken into consideration, and challenged to identify instances when they felt left out of important decision- making processes. Having identified commonalities and differences , participants worked collaboratively in discussing how increased civic engagement was a strong solution. Additionally, they were urged to reflect on existing initiatives they might pursue to address their expressed concerns.
The two guest speakers were Frankie Dankin, a Bridge Builder alumnus, and the youngest elected official in Tennessee history. He shared stories of triumph and struggle he faced when running and serving amongst far older colleagues, reminding students that their age should never be a deterrent from having their voices heard. Given the summit’s proximity to the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis, the planning team invited Charles Mauldin to be the keynote speaker. At fifteen years old, Mauldin stood next to Dr. King in the Bloody Sunday riot in Selma, Alabama. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, of which Mauldin was a proud member, marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in downtown Selma in a peaceful demonstration demanding voting rights for the African American community . Many demonstrators were young adults, youth, and even some under the legal voting age. Mauldin’s story served as an inspiration for participants who were eligible to vote, and empowered youth who are not yet 18 that their voices remain a vital piece of the puzzle .
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
In her article, not only did she provide a detailed overview of the summit, but she also included an interview with Bridge Builders student, Morgan Fentress. When asked about the impact of Engage Memphis, Fentress responded:
“I hear people talk about voting in terms of getting out to the polls and making sure your voice is heard, but we’re not told or taught what we should be voting for, what the issues are we should care about,” Morgan said. “I wish modern politics were taught more in school. But coming here and hearing what issues other students are passionate about, it’s been really good” .
Additionally, participants were surveyed at the close of the day, providing the organizations involved with general feedback of the summit (see External Links for survey link). Respondents were asked to answer questions related to events of the day, with response options ranked as such: 1-Strongly disagree, 2-Disagree, 3-Neutral, 4-Agree, and 5-Strongly Agree. Listed below are the questions and response averages (from 1-5) relative to event impact (V. Rangaswami, personal communication, October 3, 2019).
- I know more about the role of youth activism in the civil rights movement
- Average response: 4.2
- I know more about the effort to achieve voting rights
- Average response: 4.4
- I have new information or skills I can use to make a difference in my community
- Average response: 4.2
- I plan to take action to make a positive change in my community
- Average response: 4.2
- I plan to encourage others to vote, either as part of Engage Memphis or on my own
- Average response: 4.2
- I learned that young people can be leaders in their community
- Average response: 4.6
Given the high response average, Engage Memphis clearly had a positive impact on participants’ understanding of youth led social change and agency to get involved.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The Engage Memphis Youth Summit was instituted to give youth a platform to have their voices heard regarding issues in their community. In addition, event coordinators hoped to build understanding of civic engagement opportunities amongst Memphis-Shelby County youth, particularly in the form of political participation. Survey data indicates that students felt an increased opportunity in making community change, showing also that the majority of participants planned to take action in addressing the issues named throughout the summit. The youth vote is essential in the democratic process, for these same individuals are being directly impacted by decisions made by elected officials. Creating a platform to empower young people and provide organizational support in their endeavors has generated a new wave of student leadership in the greater Memphis area, highlighting just how impactful events such as Engage Memphis can be.
 Allison, N. (2018, August 28). Tennessee is ranked 49th in voter turnout. Why aren't residents voting like they should? Retrieved from https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/politics/2018/08/27/tennessee-voter-registration-turnout-panel/1115860002/
 Bauman, C. (2018). Too young to vote, Memphis teens lead voter-engagement campaign in
advance of midterms. Retrieved from https://www.chalkbeat.org/posts/tn/2018/10/09/too-young-to-vote-memphis-teens-lead-voter-engagement-campaign-in-advance-of-midterms/
 BRIDGES, USA. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/pg/bridgesusa/photos/?tab=album&album_id=10155994344044010&ref=page_internal.
 Ben Hooks Institute. 1968, The Sanitation Workers and Dr. King. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.memphis.edu/benhooks/mapping-civil-rights/1968.php.
The first version of this case entry was written by Corinne McClure, a Master of Public Service candidate at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, and then edited. The views expressed in the entry are those of the authors, editors, or cited sources, and are not necessarily those of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.