Right after Labor Day, ioby welcomed aboard the newest member of our staff: Chris Jones, Memphis Action Strategist! Chris will be working with Ellen Roberds to help residents of Memphis make the changes they want to see in their city, block by block.
“In my heart, I’m kind of a small town, community guy,” Chris says. While he’s called Memphis home since he moved there in 1994, Chris grew up in Starkville, Mississippi, which he calls a very close-knit community.
“If you live in a big city, you can be snarky or cutting or dismissive to someone and you may well never see them again,” he says. “But it doesn’t work that way in a small town; you can’t just isolate yourself in your little clique. You’re going to run into everyone and their family members at the grocery store, in a parking lot, and at church—and people remember things for decades!” Chris says this frame of mind also influences how neighbors in close proximity are apt to take care of each other. When you are familiar with everyone in your community, he says, you know when one of them is hurting. “And then you know that you and your neighbors should help that person—not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because you understand that your time of need will come.”
When Chris left Starkville to attend Talladega College—Alabama’s oldest private historically black college, founded in 1865—he saw concern for community expressed in a different way: by administrators and other academic professionals who weren’t just concerned with doing well in their careers, but who also wanted their work to have a positive impact on the people and places around them. “That really stuck with me,” he says. Then, as a law student and then as an attorney in Memphis, he saw how lawyers were using their skills to further social justice causes, like stopping unwarranted police searches, representing indigent individuals, and voiding oppressive contracts. “Those experiences left the impression on me that it’s not enough just to do well in life,” Chris says. “One must also try to do good.”
While forging a career as an employment lawyer with a Fortune 500 company, Chris cast a wide net of community involvements, including board service with local organizations like The UrbanArt Commission and managing a grassroots congressional campaign. Then he got to a point in his legal career where he wanted to expand his perspective and skill set—particularly his leadership and leadership development skills. “I wanted to become a more well-rounded professional,” he says. “ioby gave me the chance to do just that while improving Memphis’s neighborhoods, and remaining involved in the same ways I was before. It was a natural fit.”
In all of his pursuits, Chris says he loves to see individuals, organizations, and communities reach their full potential. “Often, all three of those are living and performing below what they could be doing,” he says. “And often, they just need someone with a new set of eyes to see some different angles and possibilities, and to help them develop skills where they’re needed. Seeing people and groups achieve things they didn’t think they could achieve—that’s what drives me. I lead by developing other leaders. ioby gives me that opportunity.”
Of all the things Chris loves about Memphis—the music scene, the food, and the Memphis Grizzlies are all on the top tier—the biggest ones for him are the city’s many possibilities for growth, and the Memphis attitude that he knows can help realize them. “We have a dogged pride that motivates us to do things our own way. If you’ve seen the Memphis ‘Grit & Grind’ t-shirts—and some other slogans I can’t mention right now!—that’s the attitude I’m talking about. It may not always be perfect or pretty, but we get there.”
For Chris, Memphis’s path forward is clear: to improve the city’s education system, small business opportunities, and nonprofit networks, a bottom-up strategy is key. “Really, we need an insurgency!” he says. “A block-by-block set of community leaders with the right tools in their tool belts. I think that’s what Memphis needs right now, more than a new set of politicians or high-level businesses. I don’t want to make things more complicated than they have to be; I’m pragmatic. I want to help our residents grow individually, and then see a well-equipped collectivism grow in our neighborhoods.”