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, the Executive Director of Literacy Mid-South.
Tami Sawyer is only 33 but is already a leader in the realms of social justice and entrepreneurship. A native Memphian and alumna of St. Mary’s Episcopal School, Tami spent ten years in Washington DC, studying at Howard University School of Law, exploring various entrepreneurial endeavors and working as a human capital analyst with a focus on diversity for the United States Navy.
Upon her return to Memphis in 2013, Tami began to organize get out the vote initiatives and became recognized as a leader in the local Black Lives Matter movement. Tami’s leadership has been acknowledged as a featured speaker at Minister Louis Farrakhan’s Justice or Else Memphis Rally and a recipient of the Team USA Women’s Boxing Elite 11 award.
Tami is currently the Director, Diversity & Leadership Development with Teach For America Memphis. She is also the founder of Power Box, a digital black business directory designed to route the 1.7 trillion dollar African American buying power into black communities. Tami serves on the board of Planned Parenthood, Greater Memphis Region and the Hattiloo Young Professionals Experience Committee. She is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated and The Links, Incorporated.
We chose Tami because of her dedication to social justice and her work to ensure minority businesses receive the promotion they deserve.
If you could describe your feelings about Memphis in three words, what would they be?
Talented, home, worthy
Name three people in Memphis that you view as mentors.
Beverly Robertson: Ms. Bev has been a role model since I was a kid. She’s friends with my parents, and I grew up with her children. I watched her work hard and dedicate herself to not just the Civil Rights Museum but to Memphis. Whenever I need an ear or a plan of action, Ms. Beverly makes time for me. On top of that, she’s always cheered me on in whatever I’m doing. I appreciate that with all she has going on and all she has achieved she still has time for a kid who couldn’t figure out the fax machine.
Christopher Coleman: Chris has been my manager for only about six months, but I think God put him in my life to sharpen and focus my skills. Our weekly check-ins cover the gamut and he really helps me make strong decisions. He empowers me to be a leader while correcting my weaknesses and I have really grown with him as a thought partner, manager and friend.
Lesley Brown: Lesley is one of my best friends. I list her as a mentor because even though she’s a peer, Lesley is less emotional than I am haha. I will be ready to raise the roof about something and Lez will help me take a step back and evaluate situations practically. 2015 was especially emotional as I faced a lot of scrutiny in my community work and grappled with an emerging public profile and she was there every step of the way with practical guidance.
Where did you get the idea for Power Box?
I was driving home to Memphis from Hampton, VA after Thanksgiving in 2014, five days after Darren Wilson was acquitted for the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson. People were calling for economic boycotts, but I wanted to hone in on what I saw as a tool for the black community and that was economic empowerment. I thought – there are so many great black businesses providing dynamic and quality products and services. How can I get them all in one place? At first, I thought about doing a subscription box, like Birchbox. After doing research, I found a business, Ujamaabox, which was already doing that and doing it well. Then I started researching directories and I refined the idea and the final concept for Power Box was born.
How do you find businesses and what are the qualifiers for participating on your site?
The majority of the businesses on Power Box I located on Instagram or through referrals. When I first started listing businesses, I would search hashtags on social media, such as #buyblack or #blackowned. This guided my search. Then, as Power Box gained more of a following, people would refer businesses to us or request to be listed. To be included in Power Box, businesses must have a website that lists contact info. If the store exists online only, the check-out options must be safe. We also look at the products and check the quality and see if there are items in stock. Basically, be viable and provide quality products/services and you’re in.
How can allies help build black wealth in Memphis?
Allies can support black businesses and service providers. Allies can push state and local government to be inclusive with their contracts. Allies can call out the MWBE scam, which ends up with 90-100% of MWBE contract awards going to white women. Allies can recognize their own privilege and call out that of others to force folks to get real about inequalities. There’s an article out right now in a major magazine about best places to eat and drink in Memphis. There’s not one black owned restaurant or bar listed. Not one. How’s that happen? Why is that okay? Choose901 published an article this week about the best Podcasts in the city and left off major black run podcasts that are not only popular but run on local radio. Choose901 is an ally. They’re good folks, but even they have to check their privilege sometimes. It’s like doing your homework. You write your essay and then you read it over to make sure you didn’t miss anything. If you’re writing a “to do” list about anything in Memphis and it’s 75% or more white, you’re contributing to the problem.
I implore anyone who has questions about movements such as Black Lives Matter to ask questions and read more about the systematic injustices people of color face on a daily basis. I am always open to respectful dialogue. Please do not dismiss this movement as racist and anti-police before really getting to know what we are out here doing and why we’re doing it. That’s belittling to our concerns, our voices, and our lives. If anything, these movements are inclusive of others while fighting for equality for people of color. Some of the greatest folks I know in Memphis are white allies who stand next to me in the same fight because they know equality is not a reality. Don’t be afraid of the words. Embrace the possibility that black lives matter too. Peace.
What makes Memphis different from other cities?
Memphis is still very colored by its history. We are a larger city but there’s still this small town 1950s feel. Memphis used to feel very closed, as if it were for Memphians only. We are definitely shedding that insularity and opening up to outsiders but slowly. My generation went away to be educated in large numbers and is coming back with outside ideas and experiences. That’s helping with progress in a lot of areas and I hope to see us open up to progress more.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
In ten years, I plan to still be drumming up change for justice, peace and righteousness. (Hat tip to MLK.) I have considered the possibility of doing that in a political setting and maybe in ten years that’s where I will be. If not, wherever I am, I’ll be fighting against unjust policies and systems. I definitely want to be focused on intersectionality and working alongside other people of color, LGBTQ groups, immigrant groups, women’s rights groups, etc. for collective impact.
If you had to choose your three favorite restaurants in Memphis, what would they be?
Café Ole, Payne’s & Evelyn & Olive. Café Ole is my neighborhood restaurant/bar. I eat there at least once a week and am a fan of their karaoke, trivia and queso dip. I love the bartenders and am super excited for the patio to open this summer.
Payne’s is a black owned/family run BBQ spot and if you ask me they make the best BBQ in Memphis period. I have definitely turned my day around with one of their pulled pork sandwiches and a cold Dr. Pepper and to top it off The Paynes are really awesome people. It’s a pillar of the community and when we talk about building wealth through generations, they are doing just that by keeping the business in the family and providing the same quality service for over forty years.
I developed a taste for Jamaican food during my time in DC. Evelyn & Olive helps me feed that craving. I’m a huge fan of their jerk wings and it’s one of my go-to spots for lunch meetings.
What’s the one misconception people have about Memphis that is simply untrue?
Whew. The biggest misconception is that Memphis is a crime ridden wild frontier. The media collectively pushes the crime agenda as do a lot of elected officials. Yes, there is crime in Memphis. Yes there are issues that must be addressed. But this isn’t Gotham. My good friend was in town and he was watching the news in a restaurant. He turns to me and says “is that the entire broadcast? Every short was about crime.” Even in places where the crime rates are higher than in Memphis, the news isn’t 100% doom and gloom. It’s out of control and we have to push back on our public officials and the media. Don’t try to rule and get ratings with fear. Let’s get some real solutions to systematic injustices, level the playing field and watch crime dissipate. When you break down how crime looks in Memphis a lot of the crime is place based and domestic. A lot of these situations arise from the fact that we have one of the most disconnected populations in the country. Now THAT is not a misconception. More than a quarter of Memphians are neither in school or working. Folks are struggling and our kids are paying the price for a diminished industry, a disenfranchised population and lack of resources! Let’s solve for that equation before we go looking for Batman.
What area of town is your favorite and why?
My favorite area of town is Cooper Young. My parents live there. My friends live there. A lot of my favorite spots are clustered together right there. I just love the area. It’s where I head when I’ve had a long day and just need to kickback.
What can Memphians do to make a difference in our community?
Be involved. I don’t even have to elaborate. Just be involved. There’s so much opportunity to do great things in Memphis, but it’s cool right now to sit on Facebook and complain about how horrible it is. If you want to make a difference, get involved. Mentor. Volunteer. Help clean up a neighborhood. Read to kids. Volunteer at a community library to improve their programing and attract more kids. Take some kids to see the Mississippi River. You’d be surprised at how many children in Memphis have never seen the Mighty Mississippi. Take action. Join an organization. Donate your time. Donate resources. Lead a Boy Scouts troop. Attend City Council meetings. Have you been to one? Sometimes there are less than 40 folks in there while the city’s fate is being decided. We can’t afford to not participate in the political process anymore. We must all use our collective elbow grease and get to work.
What is one thing you’re most excited about for Memphis?
Change. It’s coming. You can feel it in the air. People want more for and from their city. I keep up with the Memphis Bus Riders Union on Facebook. They rely on busses for transportation and are really blowing the whistle on how awful our transportation system is in Memphis. People can’t get out their neighborhoods without hassle or owning a car. So here is MBRU speaking up daily about the injustice of our broken down transportation system and people in power are finally listening. 5/10 years ago, no one cared. That’s an example of the change that is coming. People are speaking up and out and bringing change to the city. I’m excited to see it happen. My favorite quote this past year has been by President Obama. “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change we seek.” Those lines move me daily. The time to wait for someone else to make change happen is long past. Let’s take Memphis to the next level for all Memphians together.