Just Getting Started: My Thoughts on Our First Two Years

Defining the main goal of our work is one of the most straightforward parts of my role as executive director of Whole Child Strategies. Ever since we started in the summer of 2017, our objective has remained steady and simple. Whole Child Strategies focuses on ensuring students graduate from high school on time, and ready for careers and college.

Getting to that goal is where our work becomes more complex. We take a holistic approach, which requires a longer-term strategy than many other organizations and
individuals with similar intentions. We take this approach because data has shown that more than 60 percent of what determines student academic success has to do with factors outside of school. Instead of primarily addressing what happens inside of schools and classrooms, Whole Child Strategies is more concerned with the obstacles outside of the schools -- in the lives, communities and families of students.

This requires some steadfast commitments. First, we vigilantly support, serve and stay proximate to the people and communities that are most affected -- the community
stakeholders. And we define community stakeholders more broadly than many others do, including not only students, parents, school leaders and staff, but also neighborhood residents, community-based organizations, faith-based entities, and government and business leaders. Also, we do not direct this work ourselves. Instead, we are there to bolster and coordinate the efforts of this wide range of stakeholders as they pinpoint their own neighborhood needs, recognize their neighborhood assets, and align the two wherever possible. Where gaps are identified, we back stakeholders as they craft long- term solutions. Necessarily, this whole process leads us all to face down the root causes outside of the schools that keep students from showing up at their school building, staying in their school building, and learning in their school building every day.

In Memphis, that means reckoning with the fact that more than 48 percent of African American children live in poverty -- our city's chronic crisis. For most of my career in public education, I have seen us become pretty good at stemming some of the tides of that crisis. I call it the triage approach. And I know it is not easy to do. I have been part of implementing some of those effective remedies and wraparound services. If students can't afford to eat, we give them free meals at school. If students need clothing, we supply them with uniforms or coats. Of course, treating these symptoms is vital in the moment. It has to continue, and it can be very satisfying work. And yet, as I have come to see it, we can no longer stop there, pat ourselves on the back, and walk away.

As we know, triage, alone, does not solve the longer-term, systemic problem of why mom can't get a living wage job to afford the food or uniforms. What it doesn't address or change are the cycles and systems that have perpetuated poverty for generations. And, it doesn't fully engage or empower the people and communities that have the most at stake in the outcome. Meanwhile, our crisis never seems to end.

Whole Child Strategies was founded with the idea that we have to stop applying situational poverty solutions to generational poverty problems, and then expect to see lasting results or to eliminate poverty altogether. Instead, we seek to mitigate poverty by operating under the premise that long-term solutions can only work if they involve everyone who is part of the systems that are failing much of our population, especially the people who feel the impact the most.

While Whole Child Strategies is not a service provider, we are there to support, coordinate and sometimes fund the efforts of service providers who can address the gaps that
community stakeholders have identified. But, because we recognize how the enduring effects of continual neglect in a community are more substantial than any one organization can tackle, we also see our role as keeping everyone's eyes on the longer-term prize of empowering the whole life experience of children and their communities.


To do that effectively, we employ a neighborhood strategy. We have started with learning from the work in one neighborhood, and eventually, we will expand to another neighborhood. Since 2017, all of our initial work has been in Klondike Smokey City, in North Memphis.

Also, we have remained open minded, and maintained a flexible internal structure. That has allowed us to be nimble -- pivoting and responding where the community and the data lead us. So far, our internal structure has evolved in two particularly effective ways. One is our neighborhood council -- made up of Klondike Smokey City community
stakeholders who are dedicated to the process of changing this city's approach to mitigating poverty. The other is our outreach team -- three staff people who immerse themselves in the community, building relationships and supporting residents as they navigate unresponsive systems, and empowering residents and community partners with the tools, training and connections they need to change the entrenched structures that hold them back.

This change doesn't happen overnight. It doesn't take a year or two years. This takes time. I meant it when I said this work was complex. We all have these altruistic intentions. And I think sometimes we have oversimplified the solutions, so that we can get the satisfaction of some quick fixes. But we have to understand this is not about us. Truly doing the work means you are invested in the long haul, and you realize this is going to be a long haul. When you're looking at how factors work together -- or don't work together -- to affect our children's ability to graduate on time, ready for careers and college, it's complicated. But we are dedicated to unraveling the complexity, and removing the complications.

Now, as we approach the two-year anniversary of our founding, we have a solid foundation for diving deeper into that quest. And we look forward to sharing what we are doing and learning, as we continue the work of making sure all Memphis students, their families, and their communities have equal access to the privileges and tools for self- determination that make for productive citizens from every neighborhood in our great city.

Natalie McKinney