Welcome to The Dean’s List! The Dean’s List will profile up-and-comers in Memphis who are certain to be the next group of leaders in the nonprofit, corporate, government, and faith communities. The Dean’s List is curated by Kevin Dean.
When speaking at events on behalf of Refugee Empowerment Program, Executive Director Cam Echols is often asked, “What country are you from?”
Her response–“right here”–always leads to laughter. Cam has been working with refugees for the last fourteen years after varied career in the nonprofit sector. While working as a social services director for a local ministry in Binghampton, she was approached by a group needing space for a small after school program to help about a dozen refugee children.
“The children in particular seemed thirsty for knowledge,” Cam says. “I was immediately drawn to this diverse community of newcomers so eager to learn and so committed to the idea of education as empowerment.”
Cam began volunteering time with the small program, quickly becoming invested in the children and the mission. Cam advocated for school supplies and tutors, helping to raise money and awareness of the program. A few months later, Cam transitioned to a full-time staff member.
We chose Cam for The Dean’s List because of her unwavering support of refugee children in Mid-South, an often under-served and politicized group that has become an important part of Memphis’ changing landscape.
If you could describe your feelings about Memphis in three words, what would they be?
Love; Inspiration; and Welcome
Tell us why your job is important for Memphis.
Each year, our city resettles dozens of refugee families. Unfortunately, far too few Memphians know of this special population. So many of us tend to see the social, political, and economic issues of our city as black and white, but Memphis is rich with diversity. Over 20 different nationalities are represented in Binghampton alone. My work is important because it helps give voice to the strangers in our city, eager to be friendly neighbors and productive citizens. We work to build a welcoming community that finds strength in diversity and views education as the key to individual empowerment and community betterment.
Another reason my job is important to Memphis is that so many people in our city are unaware of the daily realities of poverty and the many obstacles their fellow citizens face. This is not because they do not care, but because they have been so disconnected from its impact, particularly in regards to children. Volunteering with REP exposes people to the myriad of ways in which poverty shapes the lives and development of young people. This exposure is unintentional yet unavoidable. Refugees arrive in this country destitute, and as a result, they face many of the same social, political, economic, and structural challenges faced by the city’s native poor. Refugees cannot be empowered in a vacuum. Alleviating their plight means addressing the structural inequalities that have plagued the city for generations. We help to open hearts and minds to the broader struggle for justice and equality by providing opportunities for Memphians to be involved with our work.
Donald Trump hasn’t been a friend to immigrants and refugees. What concerns do the people you serve have about the upcoming election?
They are nervous. People are afraid that if he is elected, they will be sent back to Africa and to the violence and persecution that made them flee for their lives in the first place. Trump’s rhetoric makes them feel like they are not welcome here. Our country has benefitted greatly from embracing immigration, and it is distressing to think that our tradition of welcoming the oppressed is under threat. Each year, the US welcomes between 60,000 – 70,000 refugees, and they deserve to be welcomed into communities that value and support them.
What’s the best part of working at Refugee Empowerment Program?
Each day, I get to collaborate with people from all different backgrounds working together for one common goal: welcoming newcomers. Between REP’s staff, interns, volunteers, and participants, we are awash with diversity in life experience, culture, and socio-economic backgrounds. Each day, I get to witness firsthand Memphis social fabric become more enriched as relationships develop between people who otherwise likely would never have met.
Name three people in Memphis that you view as mentors.
That is a tough one, Kevin. I could have quite a long list. At the top would be you, Kevin, for the way you are revolutionizing our city’s approach to non-profit leadership.
I also admire and seek to emulate Bridgette Bowman for her lifelong commitment to juvenile justice reform.
I must also recognize the strength and wisdom Meredith Pace shows in her efforts to uplift the city by advocating for greater social justice, cultural intelligence, and community inter-connectivity.
I know you said three, but I would be remiss for not calling attention to Ruth Lomo. REP would not exist if it were not for her vision and commitment. Ruth is a kind, passionate, driven leader. She overcame tremendous obstacles to get herself and family out of Sudan to make a new life in the US. However, her efforts to protect and support those she loved did not stop there. After being resettled in Binghampton, she was stirred to action by the need in her community for more robust advocacy and awareness surrounding the refugee experience. In particular, she understood the need for greater educational and life skills support for refugee youth. Throughout her life, Ruth she has always believed the power of collective action and potential of women to change the world. Her efforts to inspire and unite those with a passion to empower refugees continues to guide my efforts everyday.
What’s the one Memphis restaurant you couldn’t live without?
That would have to be Caritas Village in Binghampton for both its food and its heart.
What makes Memphis different from other cities?
Memphians are intentional in how they spend their time. They work hard to cultivate a sense of community and belonging. People here believe in and work for change at all levels, from individual youth mentorship to lobbying the state senate to oppose discriminatory laws targeting refugees.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
I see myself leading community integration efforts at a new transitional school tasked with preparing newcomers, both immigrants and refugees, to excel in traditional schools. Refugee youth are placed in grades according to their age, not their skill level, and are often fast-tracked through school. This makes it very difficult for them to take full advantage of the opportunities our schools have to offer. A transitional school helps get kids and their families ready for traditional school by allowing them to learn English as well as American social and educational culture in an environment that considers their unique backgrounds. Academic success hinges on addressing the needs of the whole child, family, and community. Other cities have had great success with this model, and Memphis is an excellent location for a school like this to be built.
What’s the one misconception people have about Memphis that is simply untrue?
I have met so many visitors to Memphis surprised to feel so safe and welcomed here. The city has an unfortunate reputation for violence that can cast a shadow over all Memphis has to offer, including its citizens.
What area of town is your favorite and why?
Binghampton has my heart. I have learned so much from the families who have come to call that neighborhood home. They have enriched the community in countless ways, and their cross-cultural experiences and traditions have changed the lives of their friends and neighbors.
What can Memphians do to make a difference in our community?
Memphians should view the city as a collective whole rather than a collection of neighborhoods. Our neighbors are not just the people across the street but also the people across town. We are stronger united than divided.
What is one thing you’re most excited about for Memphis?
For the first time in long time, I see our city leadership committed to working in partnership with the non-profit community to make collective, broad ranging changes, especially in education. The vision of youth empowerment is based on collecting and using good data in smarter ways so that we can generate more positive outcome for our city’s young residents.
Anything else you’d like to add?
At REP, we view our role as supporting refugees in realizing their visions of empowerment, success, and community. They know the future they want, and only require our support to help them get there. Our role is to walk alongside them as they navigate their new lives and community. The children are the future, and the future will be brightest if we embrace the diversity at our fingertips. We believe that the needs of the whole child and the whole family are best met through consistent, creative, educational outreach.