By Samantha West, Chalkbeat Tennessee
When Sarah Carpenter and a group of Shelby County parents founded Memphis Lift in 2015, the goal was to amplify parent voices in a city that is home to most of Tennessee’s lowest performing schools and has historically struggled to engage families in public education.
Nearly seven years later, Memphis Lift is set to expand on its work: Thanks to a $1.5 million grant from philanthropist and author MacKenzie Scott, the organization will build a parent resource center in North Memphis, right across the street from the office where it all started.
The Brenda Rogers Parent Resource Center, named in honor of Carpenter’s late mentor and friend, will be a space where Memphis parents and families can have basic needs met so they have the energy to focus on education, said Ashlyn Sparks, Memphis Lift co-chief of staff.
Planning is still underway, but Carpenter said Saturday that she hopes the center will include a food pantry, a clothing donation closet, computers, and extra space for the parent advocacy training that has been a central component of Memphis Lift since its creation.
Carpenter believes the center is coming at just the right time, as schools in Tennessee’s largest city battle to help students recover from pandemic learning loss and trauma.
“Our children need us more now than ever,” Carpenter said, calling on everyone, not just parents, to “get up and fight.” “I love y’all just as much as I did the day I met y’all. … I got your back.”
Carpenter announced the grant Saturday afternoon at Memphis Lift’s grand reopening celebration, which drew about 150 parents, grandparents, education officials, activists, and community members to the organization’s office at Britton Street and Shannon Avenue.
Not only did the Saturday event mark the first time in two years that Memphis Lift’s offices have been open to the public due to COVID, it also marked Carpenter’s first day back at work after her second brain surgery.
It was Jan. 7, while Carpenter was in the hospital, that she got the news that Memphis Lift had received the grant she’d applied for months earlier.
“I was laying in a hospital bed, three days after I had brain surgery, and the lady said, ‘MacKenzie Scott wants to donate $1.5 million to the Memphis Lift,’ ” Carpenter recalled Saturday, the shock of the phone call still clear in her voice, as the crowd broke into applause. “I cried, but y’all, it was so funny.”
With several months until news of the grant would be made public — Scott announced hundreds of grant recipients in a Wednesday blog post — Carpenter began thinking about what the organization should do with the money. Almost immediately, she thought of Rogers, a North Memphis activist who supported Carpenter as a friend and a mother figure until she was shot and killed a block away from her house.
“My whole life changed,” Carpenter said, lauding Rogers as her inspiration to become a community activist.
Construction of the center is expected to begin sometime next month.
Samantha West is a reporter for Chalkbeat Tennessee, where she covers K-12 education in Memphis. Connect with Samantha at email@example.com. Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.