Amber Hamilton may be a proud Memphian now, but she’s still a Newark native at heart. “I am a true New Jersey girl, down to my accent (which I have learned to hide), and my temper, which may or may not include table flipping,” she jokes (or is she?).
Fortunately, Amber hasn’t flipped a table in Memphis yet, though she may still be in the throes of culture shock. “I started working on a short term consulting assignment for the Memphis Music Initiative. I was doing some grantmaking and coaching with music nonprofits across the city. Someone warned me that Memphis has a way of slowly reeling you in and before you know it, you live here. That person was right,” she says.
Amber, an alum of both Howard University and Georgetown University, is learning to navigate the city as a new Memphis resident, and she is working to become a major force in the local nonprofit community. Amber is now the interim CEO of the Soulsville Foundation, leading the organization in a new direction as she galvanizes community support at the site of the original Stax Records. We chose Amber because of her potential to be a major player in the local nonprofit scene, and you’ll see below that she is willing to flip some tables for some good causes! As an outsider looking in, Amber has some great insights about how to overcome the status quo in our city!
What has been your favorite part of your move to Memphis so far?
In no particular order, the food, the ready availability of live music, the lack of traffic (coming from DC, this is traffic utopia), the reasonable cost of living, the lack of chain stores and restaurants downtown (love that almost everything is a local business, although I would not object to the addition of just one Chipotle), and the strong contingent of smart, progressive, woke people I’ve met, most of them native or long time Memphians.
You’re serving as the interim CEO of Soulsville. How is Soulsville’s work helping to support the surrounding community?
The Soulsville Foundation includes the Stax Museum of American Soul, the Stax Music Academy (our after school and summer program) and the Soulsville Charter School. We serve hundreds of children every day from across Memphis by providing both high-quality academic enhancement and top-notch music instruction to our young people. We have lots of data on rising ACT scores and stories of students receiving music scholarships that speak to our success with the young people we serve, which is wonderful. But the fact is, the need in the Soulsville neighborhood continues to grow.
The number of disconnected youth, young people not engaged in school or work is wholly unacceptable, and the Soulsville Foundation must be in a place where we can respond to the crisis brewing. We have to create more programming that connects to young people in Soulsville, activities that engage their minds and spirits, engagement that gives them both artistic expression and focus that aids them across all areas of their lives. And we have to let young people in Soulsville know that the museum, the music academy, and the charter school belong to them—those entities are born of Soulsville and exist to support their success.
We have multiple resources that we are rolling out now to help us be more effective in Soulsville; there will be more educational and summer programming for youth through the museum, new music programs for students in Soulsville even if they don’t sing or play an instrument, and more outreach from the charter school. But we will continue to work to do much, much more because Soulsville deserves the very best of our work and thinking on how to be part of the solution.
What is the favorite part of your job?
Working with and supporting the staff. Working with young people every day is challenging, and the staff genuinely cares so much about the work we do to engage and support our kids. I love coaching and planning with the staff to design how we make a more effective Soulsville Foundation on every level.
What do you see as some of the biggest challenges facing Memphis?
Memphis is facing similar challenges to many cities across America—the income inequality, the school to prison pipeline, the inadequate systems to address poverty. All of it. But I actually think one of the biggest hidden challenges is the fact that the systems that exist here—the city government, the social services, the school system, the funding and the nonprofit communities, are set up in a way that exists only to perpetuate the current status quo, not get any deep traction to truly resolve problems. These systems don’t leverage each other, they don’t spur innovation, they don’t challenge each other for better results, they have legacies of deep institutional racism and a lack of understanding of matrixed community need, they are hesitant to address root causes of the social injustice that reveals itself across the city in so many ways. These systems don’t collectively say, “We are going to do whatever it takes to create opportunity and social justice by any means necessary—even if that means we have to get very real and turn inward to address and dismantle our own ineffective and unjust practices.” If you are holding them to the highest standards of effectiveness possible, these systems read more as, “We’re going to try to help some folks.” That’s not good enough. This phenomenon is in no way limited to Memphis, but for some reason to me as a newcomer, is feels more clear and distinct here because of the obvious lines drawn around race and influence here.
What should Memphians do to help mitigate those challenges?
Have higher expectations and continue to loudly challenge the gatekeepers of the systems. I’ll speak specifically to the nonprofit community first because that is where I work. We need to push ourselves to use every resource available, including leveraging each other much better, to meet community need. We need clearer goals, more data and information, better boards, and aggressive leadership. We are not going to get any of those things if we are satisfied with our own work. And we need to pursue more funding outside of Memphis, because being insular and relying only on the systems that exist here is not going to get it done.
We also need everyday activists to ask critical questions of leadership, from the mayor to the police to the leaders of community organizations. Every one of them, including myself, should be challenged regularly on why we aren’t doing more and if what we are doing is effective by any objective standard. If we can’t answer those questions, we should be forced out. Swiftly. People should be challenging me every single day about what the Soulsville Foundation is doing to meet rising community need. I rarely get asked about it, and that is a shame.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen in Memphis?
Hmmm…I don’t know that I’ve seen anything that I’d consider truly weird (I grew up spending a lot of time in NYC, so my bar for weird is very, very high). But I can tell you something I have found that was unexpected—Memphis has a great appreciation for street art. Granted, most of it is commissioned work (I’m sure the cops may not be huge fans of tagging), but I did not expect this city to encourage so many public and visible spaces to be used for artist expression and murals, usually telling a uniquely Memphis story. It gives Memphis an interesting controlled visual narrative. It’s something I don’t see in the U.S. much and I find it surprising and telling.
What are your three favorite restaurants so far? I so wish I could be hipper and cooler about this answer. Even in a city with so many amazing food options, I haven’t visited nearly enough restaurants and my typical meal is usually a turkey burger from my freezer and steam-in-bag Brussel sprouts. That said, I’m going to go with Flight, Soul Fish Café, and Irie Vegan Kitchen (delicious vegan Jamaican food).
If a friend were coming in town to visit, what would your itinerary look like?
I can’t give the underground, super-cool hidden gems of Memphis tour yet because I don’t know them yet. But I would, of course, recommend the Stax Museum of American Soul, the Civil Rights Museum, some live music. What is cool about Memphis is that it is distinct—it’s one of the few American cities left where it doesn’t feel like you’re just anywhere in America when you visit (sorry Atlanta, yes, that was shade).