Only three of our thirteen Shelby County Commissioners are women. Two of them are St. Mary’s alumnae.
Brandon Morrison's ('83) and Tami Sawyer's ('00) assigned seats at the Commission are side by side. Photo courtesy of Qur'an N. Folsom.
There are 938,000 people in Shelby County.
Thirteen individuals of that 938,000 are elected as Shelby County Commissioners to control funding for the justice system, public health services and schools. Of our current 13 commissioners, only three happen to be women. But get this: two of those female representatives are St. Mary’s graduates, Brandon Morrison (‘83) and Tami Sawyer (‘00).
Brandon Morrison, a Republican who represents the majority of the Poplar Corridor in District 13, ran her campaign on government efficiency, economic growth, education development and public safety. Sawyer, with the same St. Mary’s foundation, also emphasized a need for improvement in the education system. Yet as a progressive Democrat, Sawyer included criminal justice reform, reproductive justice and economic development in her initiatives for District 7, which is most of Midtown and Binghampton.
Despite these differences, the alumnae share a deep love for this city. Memphians elected these women because of their shared enthusiasm as well as their respective leadership positions on numerous projects around the city. I was honored to spend time with them this past month and see their passion for the Commission first-hand.
Before entering the public sector, these women were extremely involved in improving the Memphis community. Notably, Brandon Morrison worked in equity research and engaged in numerous philanthropic and for-profit organizations. With the foundation of a Vanderbilt MBA, Morrison began her career exploring the Big Apple and interviewing at a handful of prestigious New York equity firms. However, her New York career lulled in the interview stage. Morrison recalled her disappointment in the firms’ responses, noting that the 1980s business scene for women was more limited than that of today. Morrison reflected, “Not to say that [women] didn’t have some opportunities, but it was a little bit more difficult to break through.” Even so, she became a financial analyst for a period of time. While also a mother of five, Morrison served on the boards and committees of several philanthropic and for-profit organizations, which include Baptist Memorial Hospital, the Children’s Foundation of Memphis, the St. Mary's Board of Trustees from 2008 to 2010, as well as Dixon Gallery and Gardens and the Memphis Zoo. Morrison assumed a variety of positions in these organizations but most commonly used her business background to oversee the finances.
Like Morrison, Sawyer spent some time away from Memphis and demonstrated an interest in business, namely through her leadership of several entrepreneurial and diversity-centered projects. A graduate of University of Memphis and Howard University of Law, Sawyer served as the Navy’s human capital analyst with a concentration on diversity. After ten years, in 2013, Sawyer returned to Memphis so that she could better maintain close contact with her parents and develop a close, every-day relationship with her young nieces. Once in Memphis, Sawyer became known as an activist, most prominently for her leadership in the local Black Lives Matter movement. She chaired social justice organizations, such as Planned Parenthood and the NAACP, and also led entrepreneurial endeavors like Power Box, a digital directory which showcased, marketed and raised money for black-owned businesses. Sawyer was also the face of the #takeemdown901 campaign, a multi-year effort to remove the city’s Confederate statues. On this platform, she gained national fame writing for NPR and BBC Radio, and under her leadership, the statues of Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis were removed from the Medical District’s Forrest Park in December 2017. Currently, Sawyer is Teach for America’s Managing Director of Diversity and Community Partnerships, and within this past month, Sawyer has been named to Ebony Magazine’s 2018 Power 100 list as well as Memphis Business Journal’s 2018 40 Under 40.
On a practical level, these experiences cultivated a deeper relationship between the future candidates and the community of their future districts. Personally, Morrison and Sawyer additionally learned several important lessons and gained skills that will help them in office. Morrison acknowledged that her past committee work will strengthen her role on the Commission now: “I’ve learned a lot about the process of working together in order to reach common goals.” Sawyer likewise learned about that process of collaboration, saying that her #takeemdown901 campaign enhanced both her speaking and diplomatic skills. Sawyer insisted that “diplomacy. . .doesn’t mean placating. And I think that’s what people don’t understand: to be diplomatic doesn’t mean that I have to accept your point of view, but it means we’re going to be able to sit down and talk at the table.”
Morrison and I during her visit on campus. Photo taken by Sarah Bratton (11), a photographer for Carillon, our yearbook.
These aforementioned skills are transferable to any purposeful leadership position. So, why did these equally capable women turn to the public sector? Interestingly, both Morrison and Sawyer felt a “call” to run. After individual prayer and guidance, the two believed that 2018 was the right time. Morrison, a political novice, explained “my thought had been that I would just crack the door and see where it led. It was clear to me as time evolved that it was something I could do.” While Sawyer’s decision was also deliberative, instances throughout her life had steadily pushed her towards her activism and political involvement. Granted, Sawyer’s decision was a natural step: “. . .the work that I was doing and the voice and leader that I was becoming—the next step for me was politics.” But, even at the beginning, her time here at St. Mary’s seemed to foreshadow her future political career--and not just in her participation in clubs and organizations like Model UN, Young Women Social Entrepreneurs and Contemporary Issues Club. The theme for her senior yearbook was “A Case of Identity.” Upon hearing this, Sawyer remarked, “A Case of Identity? You’re going to be talking about identity for the rest of your life.”
With that in mind, Sawyer’s social justice-oriented policies contrast Morrison’s economic-focused programs, which reflect District 13’s middle class constituents. Nevertheless, Morrison remarked that “really, all the commissioners, we all want the same end goals.” Rather, each candidate chooses different approaches and priorities to promote. Even so, Morrison believes that developing a skilled workforce by focused Vo-tech training in high schools for the purpose of economic growth and expansion of our tax base is a priority. She indicated the current Memphis business model is not sustainable, since Memphis has lost taxpayers to not only the suburbs but also North Mississippi. Morrison explained that “we’ve got to have fiscal responsibility and to have a more business-like approach to make sure that we’re getting the results we want.” Property tax cuts are her standard initial course of action, but Morrison also plans to establish a Workforce Development Committee within the Commission and initiate a collaboration between the private sector and government. While Sawyer also wants to rebuild Memphis’ businesses, Sawyer will additionally emphasize designating roles in that process for people of color. By doing so, Sawyer wants to correct generational inequality so that, in reconciliation, the community can enjoy greater success. In spite of these differences, both believe that the most direct mechanism to rectify their respective concerns, the economy and systemic inequality, lies in the county’s education system.
Shelby County Schools, however, face necessary adjustments of its own. The system’s troubles include teacher shortages and the district’s limited resources. More specifically, the SCS faces an ongoing improper grade changing controversy and Kirby High School’s (among other schools’) rodent incident. In light of these instances, our mayor Lee Harris, a son of a former high school guidance counselor, places education as the county’s top priority. Morrison and Sawyer share his urgency, but approach this situation differently. Morrison defines the public school system as the community’s “backbone,” a foundation that deserves its own strong support system in the revitalization of Pre-Kindergarten headstart programs (Commercial Appeal interview). Morrison’s prior work with Porter-Leath may have influenced her insistent advocacy for Pre-K programs. Sawyer, on the other hand, particularly highlighted the public school system’s low teacher retention rates. Sawyer compared these hard facts to her experience here. When Sawyer came to St. Mary’s for our interview, before she even entered the building, she re-connected with one of her previous teachers: Senora Smalley, her Spanish II teacher, held the door open for her as she entered the building. Other former teachers and alumnae, throughout Sawyer’s time on campus, greeted her with hugs, as if Sawyer hadn’t graduated over eighteen years ago. During our interview, Sawyer revealed that she had maintained a close relationship with Mrs. Leigh Mansberg, the former English teacher and Assistant Head of School, who attended Sawyer’s swearing-in. Sawyer articulated, “That was an emotional moment for me. The woman who used to tear up my English paper, red line [after red line]--“Tami, you can do better!”--is now reading [my] writing for CNN and seeing me get sworn in and sending me emails. And she’s getting to watch my progress.” She continued, “Imagine if all kids could walk back in their building and know that a teacher was gonna teach their kids one day. . .or even that [in] two years, when they become a senior, their freshman English teacher’s still around and they can go back [and say] ‘Remember when we talked about this?’”
While the gap between private and public schools can be perceived in many different ways, Sawyer tapped into the one we St. Mary’s students take for granted: our teachers. Here at St. Mary’s, teachers are here for decades. For most other students in Memphis, the concept is simply an idea. Nevertheless, both Sawyer and Morrison will strive to make the quality of their St. Mary’s experience a reality for other Memphians. Brandon Morrison expressed, “. . .my dream would be that every child in Shelby County could have an education similar to what we enjoyed here at St. Mary's, allowing him or her to reach his or her individual potential. That would be the dream.” Sawyer likewise expressed that she wanted to share opportunities St. Mary’s provided them to all Shelby County Schools’ students. In the interview, Sawyer gestured to the conference room around us and said, “This is beautiful. And I want all kids to be able to experience that.”
Tami Sawyer and I during her visit her on campus. Photo taken by Sarah Bratton (11).
Whether on educational development or job growth, Morrison and Sawyer will work together in the future--especially since their assigned seats at the Commission are side by side. Sawyer remarked on their relationship: “. . .we’re thinkers. We were raised to think; we were raised to take things apart and put it back together; we were raised to evaluate. We were trained that way and educated that way.” Sawyer conceded, “It’s a lesson in what intersectionality looks like, . . . but we have a connection to a place we both deeply love and we both credit to who we are today and I think that will show.” Morrison likewise commented on her gratitude for St. Mary’s and encouraged us students in all of our endeavors. Sawyer, in her own call-to-action, asked St. Mary’s students to “go out into the world and use this gift for greater things.” She recapitulated, “To whom much is given, much is required. That’s biblical: whether you read the Bible for religion, or for good words. You take the gift of your education of being a girl that’s allowed to be brave and strong and speak your mind, [and] the freedom of these halls, of the opportunities that are given to you everyday, and you pay it forward.”
Photos courtesy of Shelby County Commission's website.
It’s extremely impressive that two Shelby County Commissioners are St. Mary’s alumnae. Yet these are the kind of women St. Mary’s produces: intelligent, passionate and capable of diverse trains of thought. As Memphians can clearly observe through strong women like Brandon Morrison and Tami Sawyer, St. Mary’s girls can improve the Memphis community and excel in whichever and through whichever path they choose.
Update: As of Monday, 10/29, the Commission underwent a final effort to keep the Department of Justice monitoring the Juvenile Court. Tami Sawyer and Brandon Morrison openly debated each side of this topic.