MICAH: ‘Organization of Organizations’ Tackling Core Issues in Memphis

story by Tricia Dewey | photos by Marcos Villa

(photo above: A view from the balcony of Mt. Vernon Church at Micah’s 2nd Public Meeting in September. Local government candidates were the guests.)

MICAH (Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope) is a big, relatively new idea in Shelby County that Ayanna Watkins says is spiritually connected to what was once the Shelby County Interfaith Group–a way “to try to respond to the calls for justice equity in the community.” MICAH got its start after the 2016 election when a group of Memphis clergy members who were worried about marginalization of minority and vulnerable groups got together. “People were looking for a way to be engaged and the faith community in particular was finding its way through this season. There was energy around doing something,” according to Watkins, a clergy member who was part of this first meeting. The group prayed and invited others to join them with help from a peer group from Nashville, NOAH (Nashville Organized for Action and Hope). Taking the template from NOAH and the model national group (Gamiliel Foundation), “we became an organization of organizations…. We have a little saying we wanted to ‘organize the organized,’” Watkins said. Watkins began work as MICAH’s first lead organizer in January 2019, after working to establish the group’s infrastructure. These core clergy members worked for the next 18 months to bring other groups together to commit to a long-term partnership to help advance the causes of social justice.

Other churches joined the discussions as did non-religious groups such as JUICE Orange Mound, the National Civil Rights Museum, and Urban Child Institute. Forty community groups committed to MICAH by February 2018 (currently at 59). They met once a month for discussions about core problems and issues in Memphis. What were those causes of justice? How could they agree to come together? What was the need in Memphis? To answer these questions the group divided into task forces. Watkins said the task forces used an assortment of communications including one-on-one conversations and table talks “to hear people’s voices to figure out what people care about.” Ten main issues arose from all of those conversations.

MICAH meetings start with a roll call of member groups. Charles Belenky stands and cheers as Temple Israel’s name is called during MICAH’s 2nd public meeting in September at Mt. Vernon Baptist Church in the Westwood neighborhood of Memphis.

Each task force then prepared a presentation for the issues meeting held in June 2018 at Lindenwood Christian Church attended by 750 people where votes taken in real time narrowed the 10 issues down to three: education, economic equity, and immigration and intercultural equity. LGTBQ+ issues were part of the discussion on issue night. MICAH will continue to advocate for any minority groups. Marcos Villa, co-chair of MICAH’s communications team maintained that “Anything that goes against this MICAH might take a stand. Because immigration is a big issue right now, that plays a major role. In a police shooting MICAH took a stand. If something happens with LGTBQ+ community then MICAH will take a stand, becoming a more major actor in the city.” Watkins agrees, “LGBTQ issues are in intercultural equity. It didn’t win a separate issue in the issue convention, but the focus is on fair human rights and human dignity. Within our coalition people have varied opinions and we all can agree on human dignity and human rights, leaning into that as our shared base for action.”

Next, at MICAH’s first public meeting held in October 2018 attended by approximately 1,400 people, state and local government actors and candidates like U.S. Senate candidate Phil Bredesen and Shelby County Mayor candidate Lee Harris, listened while issues were defined and discussed, and were then asked to commit to recommended actions and results. “This is a simple way to have a government actor commit to an action in public to keep them accountable,” Villa said. Officials were informed of potential actions before the meeting so that they could respond or deliberate. One issue where Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris and MICAH have found common ground is in increasing the MATA budget to improve public transportation in Shelby County.

In their public meetings and task force work, MICAH has moved past the startup organizational phase and is now focused on achieving outcomes in each of their issue areas. Watkins says, “We want to really see transition and change, so economic equity is sort of landing the first plane…by creating a working relationship and accountability commitment with First Tennessee Bank. They were part of historic redlining we know about in our area and they made a public commitment to do community reinvestment in 2018. We were coming to follow up on that commitment and see what that looked like in Memphis.” First Tennessee has committed to reinvest $3.95 billion across all of their markets, and approximately $1.5 billion in Memphis. The money will be used differently in each community depending on need, but the bank will be a conduit for getting capital into communities that have been disenfranchised. In Orange Mound, for example, this may mean making smaller home loans available for people but in Frayser reinvestment may mean working in different funding in the community. Watkins says MICAH can bring First Tennessee, the community, and the stakeholders together to help determine the need. Watkins is hoping that actions on education issues may be the next plane to land. (MICAH’s issues and actions are explained in detail on their website.)

Some of MICAH’s leadership team members: (Front row l. to r.) Will Christians, (unidentified) Meggan Kiel, Rev. Sandra Summers, Rev. Ayanna Watkins, Marcos Villa. (Middle row l. to r.) Sara First, Janiece J. Lee, Ruth Abigail Smith, Alexis Gwin Miller, Adam Nelson, Rev. Vahisha Hasan. (Back row l. to r.) Rev. Lucy Waechter-Webb, Britney Thornton, Ryan Lee, Rev. Lloyd Stovall.

One of the most exciting outcomes of the group has been the formation of MICAH’s youth council, which came together at the beginning of 2019. At an Equity Task Force meeting in June 2019 attended by about 350 people the youth discussed their commitment to three issues: community/police relationships, environmental justice, and access to opportunities. They are exploring how to give more people in Memphis access to reusable bags, creatively connecting all three of their working issues by having police hand out reusable bags at community gatherings. Proving that youth are ready to lead on real change, another of their larger goals is to “have fewer issues to deal with when we are adults.”

Both Villa and Watkins feel that MICAH has had real impact in a relatively short time, and can do more. To Villa, “MICAH is more than churches. The positives from this include small conversations with trying to learn from different people. There are maybe more liberal people who come but I would like to think there might be more conservative people who would come, not just people who are usually involved in something like this.” Watkins hopes that more groups can come together: “there are so many churches…often faith communities are doing great work on their own but what would happen if we all put our heads and resources together?” There is definitely room here for more active LGBTQ advocacy. The next large public meeting is planned for October 2020. Smaller task force meetings are held once a month. Check MICAH’S website for dates. Meetings are open to the public and members of member organizations have voting privileges.