Jennifer Pepper

WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2023

HEROISM
for a woman whose heroic spirit was tested and
shown as a model to all in Shelby County and beyond:

Jennifer Pepper

As the United States Supreme Court prepared its opinion reversing a woman’s right to choose abortion and shuttering abortion clinics, who gets to work opening a new clinic to continue care and assure that pregnant persons have a choice?

Even with all this going against her, Jennifer Pepper does.

Jenn’s undaunted efforts to prepare for the Supreme Court ruling on abortion and her efforts to continue to provide for patients — from reorganizing and cross-training staff to finding, staffing and opening a new clinic in Illinois — drew attention from NBC, NPR and many others who told her story of heroic leadership.

Jenn’s deep commitment to women’s voices and bodily autonomy tracks right back to her “cool mom.” As a young single mother, she taught her daughter and son – and their friends — real names for their body parts, what they were for and how to be protected from HIV and pregnancy.

While Mom worked away from home, Jenn grew up taking care of the household and her younger brother in Alton, Illinois, developing leadership skills and problem solving. Her Catholic grandmothers took grand kids along to community projects like book drives and soup kitchens, instilling in Jenn the importance of helping people. But she also saw the impact family size had on people’s ability to live and thrive.

She says, “Women were who I saw taking care of stuff and I was always flabbergasted seeing my grandmas asking my grandpas for permission to do stuff….I didn’t really care for that.”

Jenn knew she needed straight As to get out of Alton and away to college. When a good-looking postcard from Rhodes College, five hours away in Memphis, Tenn., showed up senior year, she applied and got a community service scholarship.

At Rhodes she soon realized that nonprofits, not international business, would be her future. She interned at Planned Parenthood and honed activism skills producing Rhodes’ Vagina Monologs show and leading other women’s rights and women’s health programs.

One part-time job after graduation was at night at the Memphis Center for Reproductive Health as patient educator and abortion doula, then as full-time outreach coordinator for the agency founded by feminists in 1974. When longtime director Mary Frank retired, Jenn became interim director.

She found out she liked – and was good at – finance, management, the processes of running a nonprofit. When 2017 Woman of Achievement for Heroism Rebecca Terrell was hired as director, she made Jenn her deputy. With an expanding range of services, they rebranded the agency as CHOICES: Memphis Center for Reproductive Health. Jenn leaned into her knack for management and completed her MBA in 2014.

Shelby County government recruited her to run the Memphis Ryan White HIV programs, administering state and federal grant funds. But four years later, when Rebecca took her to lunch in May 2018 talking about the new birthing center CHOICES was building, Jenn eagerly returned as director of finance and operations.

With the birthing clinic, CHOICES became the first nonprofit, non-hospital health care provider in the country to offer both birth services and abortion care under one roof. CHOICES reproductive and sexual health care today covers perinatal and birth services, HIV testing and prevention, contraceptives, STI testing, gender-affirming care, IVF services and well-person exams.

In early 2020 Rebecca prepared to retire and asked Jenn to succeed her as president and CEO. The two worked closely with each other and the board for the transition on Jan. 1, 2021. Roe v. Wade guaranteeing the right to abortion was overturned on June 24, 2022.

“This is my third year,” Jenn says, “and it feels like 10 in lots of ways.”

To continue offering reproductive health care that was banned and made illegal in her own state last August, Jenn led CHOICES in opening a clinic in Carbondale, Illinois, one of the first and few abortion providers to open in a new state. It’s up the Amtrak line from Memphis or a 3 ½ -hour drive, in a state that passed a law in 2019 protecting the right to abortion. CHOICES’ new clinic saw its first patients on Oct. 11, 2022. It is the southernmost abortion clinic for most people across the Southeast.

Abortion is health care. Often life-saving care. Pregnancy complications should not become a possible death sentence. But Tennessee law forbids medical care in most circumstances and even bans terminations for raped, impregnated children.

Jenn Pepper stands firm, speaking out and working heroically to secure crucial health care that we all deserve.

Melanie Smith Taylor

WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2023

INITIATIVE
for a woman who seized the opportunity to use her talents and created her own future:

Melanie Smith Taylor

Olympic Gold medalist, equestrian Grand Prix triple crown winner, Show Jumping Hall of Fame member and sports commentator are just a few of Melanie Smith Taylor’s claims to fame.

While she wasn’t born on a horse, Melanie Smith might as well have been. Raised on the Hugh Frank Smith Horse & Pony Farm in Shelby County, Melanie was given her first pony by her grandfather at age three and got her first horse at 12.

With her mother, Rachael Smith, as her inspiration, Melanie started dreaming big when she was young. Rachael taught riding classes and early on it was Melanie’s job to ride the lead pony for other students to follow. She never used a saddle before age 12 because bareback gave her a closer connection with her horse. 

When Melanie’s family moved to Germantown in the 1950s, she became part of a horse community. Kids rode horses to school on the last day to pick up their report cards. The local candy store had a hitching post outside.

As she got older, Melanie began competing and winning, first at the Pony Club and then at the Germantown Charity Horse Show.

In the early 1970s Melanie took the initiative to move “back East,” the epicenter of equestrian sports. She began managing a horse farm in Connecticut and soon was managing several. The jobs gave her access to good horses and to all-important sponsors.

 Soon Melanie was competing at the highest level of show jumping — the Grand Prix category. In 1978, Melanie was named the American Grand Prix Association’s Lady Rider of the Year as well as the overall Rider of the Year. Melanie Smith had proven that women could perform on even terms with men, so the separate Lady Rider category was abolished.

Next, Melanie became one of only two riders ever to win the “Triple Crown of Show Jumping,” winning the American Invitational, the International Jumping Derby and the American Gold Cup, all on the same horse, Calypso. She was a member of the U. S. Equestrian team that won the gold medal  at the 1979 Pan American Games in Puerto Rico.

Melanie’s mother always urged her daughter to have the highest goals while enjoying the ride. One goal was to compete in the Olympics. She qualified for the American team in the 1980 games, however, the US boycotted that year. At the Alternate Olympics in Rotterdam, Melanie won an individual bronze medal. The U.S. Olympic committee named her Sportswoman of the Year.

In 1982 she won the Federation Equestrian International World Cup Show Jumping Championship in Sweden. Then in 1984 her long-held dream came true. She was a member of the U.S. team which won the gold for show jumping at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. She still remembers the pride of being on the podium and hearing our national anthem. 

In 1987 Melanie retired from show jumping and returned to Tennessee. In 1989 she married Lee Taylor, an avid polo player and fellow horse lover, and moved to his family’s Wildwood Farm, breeding horses and running clinics. Lee brought her beloved horse Calypso to Wildwood where he lived peacefully until his death.

Though retired from competition, Melanie’s knowledge and her skill have kept her in demand. She has been a commentator on equestrian events including the Olympics for NBC, ESPN and other media ever since. She says the adrenaline rush of broadcasting live to a world-wide audience is a lot like making the winning jump. 

She has also served the horse world as a certified show judge, course designer and trainer of young riders.

And Melanie continues to take initiative to enhance the lives of others. Before his death in 2005,  Lee and Melanie gave a lot of thought to what should happen to Wildwood Farm. She worked to  add Wildwood to the National Register of Historic Places in 2017 and recently bequeathed the 350-acre property to the University of Tennessee, Martin, to be used for research, education, and service. Plans include vet-tech and agriculture programs and partnerships with local high schools. The farm will remain an oasis, intact in a part of the county that is rapidly becoming suburban.

How did one woman create such a life? Melanie says through focus and hard work, one step, or in this case, one jump, at a time.

Lori Spicer Robertson

WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2023

VISION
for a woman whose sensitivity to women’s needs led her to tremendous achievements for women:

Lori Spicer Robertson

Lori Spicer Robertson used to call herself a ‘hometown fleer” who chose to return after college and grad school to her hometown, determined to make a difference. Even as her career has climbed through major local and national organizations with an increasingly vibrant focus on workplace diversity and inclusion, Lori’s personal passion for supporting women and girls has resulted in creation of timely, empowering programs and events.

She earned her Bachelor’s in business at UT-Knoxville and a Master’s in communications at University of Florida. After a year in Washington invigorating the communication operation for the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, she came home in 2007 to accept the position as communications specialist for the Greater Memphis Chamber.

And she dove into community leadership: on the board for Dance Works, board communications co-chair for MPACT Memphis, on the Leadership Council for Young Women Philanthropists of the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis. She was chapter and public relations chair for Memphis Urban League Young Professionals, and then its president, where she initiated a women’s summit.

In 2010 she became manager of Community Affairs & Engagement at The Regional Medical Center at Memphis, building relations with key community leaders and groups throughout the Mid-South.

With female alumnae from several high schools, Lori produced Brown Girls Dream, a mentoring program offering service projects and life lessons by women from many walks of life. She also hosted a Memphis Prom Closet with donated dresses and a giveaway party for juniors and seniors in several schools, complete with hair and makeup tips and guidance on how to dress for your size, make good choices and own your own power.

Lori joined First Horizon National Corp. as change leadership manager in 2013 and then became chief communications and engagement officer for United Way of the Mid-South in 2016. She led the way to form the Memphis iteration of Women United, created to “harness the power and dedication of women leaders to transform the Mid-South community through awareness, service and advocacy.”

Anxious for connection with other moms, she and her best friend Erika Matlock Conley organized The Gathering, a supper club where women could escape their isolation and share their experiences as wives and mothers. The supper club led to launching in 2020 of Wundher, a digital media and experiential production company designed to connect women and mothers to their joy. Lori says Wundher is the culmination of all of her pet projects: to connect people, to share storytelling that models resilience for other women and to foster mentorship.

This “fempowerment” platform features a membership community of women from all backgrounds, race and ages; a podcast and vlog; brand partnerships; and curated experiences. A lively website connects women to past and current local activities and voices from women around the country.

After a year of work Wundher’s launch came just as COVID struck so most activities became virtual, including a conference titled “Joymaker 2021: The Future of Women and Work” with a slate of national speakers that drew a couple thousand attendees.

 In-person events resumed last spring when 300 women in full finery gathered for the Mother of Wundher luncheon, giving every woman in the room an award for the often thankless journey of motherhood.

Wundher activities range from annual January vison-boarding partay to #MOMversations on race featuring a range of expert voices to evening cocktail gatherings with special speakers in support of local nonprofits and a march/rally in Overton Park in support of black children after George Floyd’s death.

Lori served Saks Fifth Avenue as vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion from September 2020 to February 2022. Sensitive to the weight and trauma that DEI officers carry, not only for their employees, but themselves, Lori initiated in late 2021 an annual DEI Summit to support self-care and wellness among DEI professionals.

She organized the second summit in December 2022 after moving in October to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital as vice president and chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer.

In her 2023 Linked In profile, Lori lists these titles:

MOM | VP, Chief DEI Officer | Founder, The DEI Collective & Wundher | Experience Curator | Corporate Collaborator | Speaker/Facilitator | Board Director | Career Aligner | Writer | Multihyphenate

The record of her professional and civic life is a litany of energetic, creative, passionate leadership to help women and girls live their fullest, most equitable and joyous life. Lori lives the Vision definition, constantly finding timely, new ways to respond to women’s needs with sensitivity and purpose.

Anne Stone Carriere

Women of Achievement
2023

COURAGE
for a woman who, facing active opposition,
backed an unpopular cause in which she deeply believed:

Anne Stone Carriere

We honor the Rev. Anne Stone Carriere as the first woman to be ordained a priest in the West Tennessee Diocese of the Episcopal Church. During a time of doctrinal upheaval, she pursued her calling in life with quiet courage and broke ground for women in the clergy for generations to come.

Anne was raised Catholic but at 16 she left to seek a new church for herself. A year later she found her home at Grace St. Luke’s.

Anne began her adult life as many women do. First, education. She earned a degree from Vanderbilt University and began teaching. After marriage and the birth of two daughters, she became a full-time mother and active volunteer.  But she realized something was missing.

In 1976, with friends, she attended a workshop on “What do I want to be when I grow up?”  Aptitude tests showed that Anne would make a great bartender or house mother. Clearly not right, but the process got her thinking. What might give her life meaning? She realized the answer had been there all along: her church. 

Her timing seemed ideal. The General Convention of the Episcopal Church had approved the ordination of women to the priesthood in 1976 and began ordaining women in 1977.

When Anne spoke to her rector, no Episcopalian woman had ever been ordained a parish priest in the state of Tennessee. “If you want to be a priest, you’ll have to talk to the bishop,” he said.  Anne did just that and the bishop approved. 

So Anne’s trailblazing road to the priesthood began. Despite the opportunity there were familiar roadblocks ahead and the process took five years.

Anne wanted to attend the School of Theology at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN.  But while the bishop was progressive, he was also paternalistic and told her to remain in Memphis to support her husband’s career and not disrupt her family. Initially her husband wasn’t so sure either. How would he feel in a business suit with a wife in a collar? He got over it. But as Anne points out, had she been a man, it would be assumed that the family would move.

Instead of going to Sewanee, she read for the orders under tutors while earning a Masters of Divinity from Memphis Theological Seminary. In that wonderful diverse environment, the few women students created their own long-lasting support system.

Anne was ordained deacon in 1981 by West Tennessee Bishop Fred Gates. Grace-St. Luke’s was packed with Memphis clergy, friends and people who read about it in the paper.

The Episcopal Church had gone centuries without ordaining women and there were plenty who still didn’t approve. To lessen controversy, Anne was assigned to her home church.

In 1982, Anne was ready for ordination to the priesthood. Three weeks before, with invitations printed, Bishop of Tennessee William Sanders phoned. He had heard a rumor that if ordained, her husband would divorce her. Hold the invitations! Sanders came to Memphis to meet with the couple and again, the ordination was on. Bishop Gates refused to officiate so Bishop Sanders returned for the service.

Anne served at Grace-St. Luke’s for nine years in a variety of supporting roles.

Ready for more responsibility, she asked that her name be put in for consideration as rector. She heard later the approving bishop thought she would never be called, but he was wrong. Anne answered the call of The Church of the Holy Apostles in Hickory Hills, becoming the first female priest to serve as rector in the Diocese of West Tennessee.

The parish was struggling financially and with shrinking membership. Anne brought in young families and expanded membership. She stayed seven years. That last year Anne worked to create an open affirming environment, knowing that small acts are the beginning of big changes. 

In 1996, Anne resigned, her husband retired and they moved to Arkansas where she assisted at St. Andrews Episcopal in Mountain Home. She became their rector in 1998. She retired in 2003 to travel the country in an RV with her husband.

After his death in 2016, she returned to Memphis and to Grace-St. Luke’s, the church that supported her on her journey to the priesthood.    

Anne has mentored many women. While more are enrolled in seminary than when Anne was attending, she notes there is still a very real glass ceiling; that women graduates are much more likely to be in associate roles than leading congregations. More barriers remain to be broken and Anne’s courage lights the way.

Barbara Boucher

Barbara Boucher
WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2023

DETERMINATION
for a woman who solved a glaring problem despite widespread inertia, apathy or ignorance around her:

Barbara Boucher

Many people in our community are hungry every single day.  And that’s not okay with Barbara Boucher.

Some statistics report that 19% of our local population suffers from food insecurity. Some say that 116,000 children and their families fall into that category. A recent study showed Memphis as number three in the nation for food insecure seniors. Whatever the stats, that’s way too many.

A long-time volunteer in food ministries for the Church of the Holy Communion, in 2010 Barb Boucher began helping prepare food for a monthly Sunday for the More than a Meal program at Grace St. Luke’s Episcopal. In 2012, she inherited the position of team leader. Barbara and her team haven’t missed a Sunday since. 

And that was just the beginning.

In 2019, Barb began cooking for women surviving life on the streets and overcoming addiction through the Lisieux Community. She included with each summer meal frozen cloths to cool the neck as there’s no air-conditioning on the street.  

In 2020 Covid struck and food ministries shut down. Constance Abbey, an intentional community working to meet immediate needs of the unhoused population near downtown, phoned. “Our clients are hungry,” they said. So Barb went into action. First, she personally prepared 300 sack lunches. Next, she developed Covid procedures to allow volunteers to safely prepare and deliver 80 – 100 sack lunches daily along with hot meals for dinner. This program continued until other food ministries re-opened in June 2021.   She also continued cooking for Lisieux.

 When community lockdown ended and other food ministries re-opened in June 2021, Barb’s individual work at Lisieux became part of her long-standing work through Church of the Holy Communion’s food ministry now called Recover Food, Feed Hope. Each aspect of the ministry draws different volunteers. Currently more 65 volunteers assist and the number is steadily growing.

Their work is supported by donations of cash and food. Individuals, faith groups, businesses all kick in. And since 2020, through contact with Clean Memphis, gleaning has had a huge impact.

In the present day, this biblical practice means recovering otherwise wasted food and feeding the hungry. Barb and team initially used gleaning for meals for Constance Abbey. It is now an essential part of the ongoing network.

In the summer of 2021 over 7,000 pounds of produce were collected twice a week at the Agricenter Farmer’s Market by a small crew of gleaners from Temple Israel and Beth Sholom synagogues. After Jewish Family Services provides for their community, the remainder comes to Barb’s team.

This produce can’t wait. 

Depending on the product, they decide what to do next. First chop, then cook or freeze. Picture crates and bushels of waiting, wilting, warming produce. By the end of last season, everyone had blisters from peeling and was tired of tomatoes, cantaloupe, and okra!

Now that word is out, grocery stores, restaurants, college cafeterias and sometimes even large private weddings and parties send food to the gleaners. No food is turned down, even on the weekend. Exotic spice donations have led to culinary research and creative recipes. Calls are made and food is delivered.

The standard for each meal is that it must be delicious enough to serve to your own family. A favorite comment from one client is that Barb’s banana pudding tastes as good as her mama’s, a high compliment, indeed.

In addition to prep work and delivery, Barb’s efforts include recruiting and scheduling both individuals and institutions to help.  Sometimes it’s through people she knows and sometimes it’s cold calls but clearly her tactics work She now has a large interfaith network striving to end hunger. And instead of making calls, she gets calls asking how to help.

How did Barb choose this volunteer activity?  She says that love of cooking is her gift from God.  The fifth of six siblings of a working mother, she was in charge of preparing whatever was left out each morning for their evening meal.  When her three sons were young and active in youth groups, she loved cooking for them and their friends .

What else does Barbara do?  She loves to bake and regularly makes birthday cakes for people in hospice. And of course, she spends time with her precious grandchildren.  Her intention is to make sure that everyone has enough to eat.  If it were up to the determined Barbara Boucher, no one would go hungry.

Beverly Robertson

WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2023

STEADFASTNESS
for a woman with a lifetime of achievement:

Beverly Robertson

Beverly Robertson has dedicated her life to using positive, strategic power of communicating to grow historic local enterprises including, most recently, as the first woman and first African-American CEO and president of the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce.

Beverly grew up in Memphis, around Orange Mound, watching the Zippin Pippin roller coaster at Libertyland flash by on the horizon but not allowed to ride it except on Tuesdays.

She graduated from Melrose High and Memphis State. She used her special education major to teach for three years while also working at night for Holiday Inn Worldwide, one of the leading companies in Memphis and the nation at that time.

At Holiday Inn she completed an MBA-caliber executive leadership program offered by the Wharton School of Business and began to move through various areas of the corporation in 19 years, including a stint in New York City.

Beverly says, “I was always adventurous and never thought there was anything I couldn’t do – maybe brain surgery! But I never for a moment thought I couldn’t learn how to do something and do it extremely well.”

She was director of communications when the need to relocate came up after Holiday Inn was sold. She instead joined her husband Howard to transform his solo advertising business into TrusT Marketing in 1992. They were in their late 30s.

At this same time, the National Civil Rights Museum board was looking for its first director ahead of opening. Beverly was asked to lead the museum but said no and concentrated on getting Trust up and running.

Beverly was responsible for landing national accounts, such as the Promus Companies, Holiday Inn Worldwide, Midas International, Merrill Lynch, plus local clients including Memphis and Shelby County governments and Memphis Area Transit Authority.

That’s where she was when the founders of the six-year-old National Civil Rights Museum needed an interim executive director and asked her to step in “just for a while.” She agreed and soon the board asked her to lead the museum permanently.

Her tenure there is storied: she raised $43 million, which included the completion of an expansion of the Museum ($11 million) and a capital and endowment campaign ($32 million). In 2010, NCRM received recognition as one of the top ten national treasures by USA Today. 

Beverly elevated the NCRM profile across the world. The local museum moved strategically to become an internationally important facility. Beverly grew the Freedom Awards into a global event with international stars and Hollywood celebrities on her list of invitees. A near-legendary story is told about her effort to bring South African president Nelson Mandela to Memphis — by flying there to personally invite him!

“Getting to know and walk beside some of the greatest human rights leaders in the world is no small act,” she says, “and that an institution in Memphis attracted the attention and respect of  so many global leaders.”

She continued that leadership – as well as a long list of other community leadership roles – for 16 years before announcing her retirement in 2014.

She returned to TrusT Marketing and various community projects – but leaders of the Greater Memphis Chamber turned to her after the tragic murder of chamber CEO and president Phil Trenary. Again she agreed to step in “for a while” as interim leader of the traumatized staff.

She was the first African American and first woman in the position. She met individually with each Chamber employee and set out to bring neighborhood concerns closer to the government and business cornerstones of the Chamber.

In 2019 she was hired to serve as CEO and president of the Chamber. She was at the helm as COVID struck Memphis’ economy, workplaces and households and she was there when the Eliza Fletcher murder and a violent shooting spree across the city traumatized Memphis in September 2022. She made sure the mayor and police chief knew business leaders would engage toward positive change for all, having already fostered efforts after the George Floyd protests to align activists’ concerns and business goals toward a more diverse and trained workforce, a living wage, equitable contracting for minority- and women-owned businesses and community reinvestment and transportation,

Beverly left the Chamber at the end of last year, returning to TrusT Marketing, still engaged, ready to drive transformational change for her city’s future.

In 2020 Beverly joined Women of Achievement honorees Marilou Awiakta, Lois DeBerry and Maxine Smith on USA Today’s list of Tennessee’s Women of the Century. Today we honor her decades of leadership and devotion to the people of Memphis with the 2023 Women of Achievement award for Steadfastness.

Elizabeth Fisher Johnson and Lillian Wyckoff Johnson

Elizabeth Fisher Johnson
Lillian Wyckoff Johnson
WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2023

HERITAGE
for women whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Elizabeth Fisher Johnson  (1835-1883) and Lillian Wyckoff Johnson (1864-1956)

When Mr. Johnson’s daughter, Miss Lillian Wyckoff Johnson, returned to Memphis from school in 1887, she became a teacher in the Hope Night School.  When her father moved away from the city she was not only principal of the school but, with her father’s enthusiasm for the success of the institution that had become an expensive one to run, this brave young teacher collected from Memphis merchants $1,500 every year for its maintenance till it became one of the public schools in 1892. She taught in Memphis at the Clara Conway Institute for Girls and also the Hope Night School for working students, beginning as a teacher there and becoming principal and business manager,  finally making it part of the Memphis city school system.  The school was a pioneering effort to give working people better lives. 

This mother-daughter duo were leading pioneer activists of their generations in Memphis. 

Elizabeth Fisher Johnson, born to a prominent family and married to a wealthy merchant, believed that women should be public activists as were men in a time when women were supposed to be seen and not heard. 

In the 1870’s she founded the Woman’s Christian Association, the first city-wide group of women reformers, which worked to improve the lives of women and children in Memphis. Elected first president, she served until her death in 1883. The organization pioneered what later would be called “social housekeeping,” the idea that women had to work to clean up society as well as the home. 

They started projects to provide immediate relief but also to educate women with skills for paying jobs. Their most daring project, and the most controversial, was trying to rehabilitate prostitutes by teaching them employable skills such as sewing and domestic work at a time when respectable women and men despised them. 

She was also a key leader in bringing the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) to Tennessee. In the 19th century, WCTU members saw themselves fighting the sin of alcohol, but also as fighters against domestic violence and the break-up of homes, because prohibiting alcohol was seen as key to solving these problems. You could say it was the largest domestic violence organization of the 19th century.

 Elizabeth Johnson saw the WCTU as a way to help women and families and to change society. Johnson became the first state president, but died at the age of 47, only six months after being elected.

Elizabeth Fisher Johnson had eight children, including her daughter, Lillian Johnson, who became an activist in education for women and the poor. 

Lillian pioneered in higher education for women, graduating from the University of Michigan with a B.A., then doing graduate studies in Germany and the Sorbonne in France. She received her Ph.D. at Cornell University in 1902, all at a time when these academic achievements were almost unheard of for women. 

She taught in Memphis at the Clara Conway Institute for Girls and at the Hope Night School for working students, beginning as a teacher there and becoming principal and business manager. She collected $1,500 from Memphis merchants each year for Hope’s maintenance until finally making it part of the Memphis city school system. The school was a pioneering effort to give working people better lives.

Lillian taught at Vassar College for four years and while there laid the foundation for the Southern Association of College Women, started in 1903. In 1904 she became president of Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio, a position she held until 1908. Then she returned to Memphis and taught history at what was later Central High School.

As chair of the Education Committee of the Tennessee Federation of Women’s Clubs and the Nineteenth Century Club, she was one of three women seen as the primary leaders in getting the West Tennessee Normal School (now the University of Memphis) established in 1912. Johnson saw this as an opportunity for women to get a higher education and become teachers, as most Normal School students were women. 

She became interested in rural education and moved to Monteagle, in Grundy County, TN, in 1915, one of the 10 poorest counties in the nation. For the next 17 years she worked to educate and make life better for south Appalachian farming families. After failing to establish a cooperative of her own, she donated her house and property in Summerfield in 1932 to Myles Horton who began the Highlander Folk School there with a policy of being an integrated institution from the time it opened. The school became known for its activism in training leaders in labor organizing and civil rights.

Lillian later retired to Florida, where she cofounded the Bradenton Community Welfare Council, made up of African-American and white women’s organizations; it established an African-American Youth Center and worked on other interracial projects. 

Lillian Wycoff Johnson died there in 1956 at the age of 96, having never married.         

Mercy Mahal-Ko “Mahal” Burr

Women of Achievement
2020

DETERMINATION
for a woman who solved a glaring problem despite widespread inertia, apathy or ignorance around her:

Mercy Mahal-Ko “Mahal” Burr

Do not let her soft voice and gentle smile fool you.

Mahal Burr is a woman whose grit, passion and energy for speaking out and standing up put her on the front lines of some of our community’s thorniest conflicts.

From Black Lives Matter and Confederate monument protest rallies to halls of the legislature, school board sessions and incarcerated teens’ jail cells – Mahal Burr is a community organizer and trainer determined to help young people raise their voices, become leaders and change agents who can make society better, safer and more just.

Survivor of a turbulent childhood and sexual assault, Mahal recognized early that it is essential that people affected by systems engage in setting solutions – from government to jails to law enforcement to school systems.

“We have to listen to the people who are experiencing those problems first-hand and involve them in repairing the systems that failed them.”

She also began very early to grapple with the constraints and destructiveness of labels and categories. She grew up with Muslim, Jewish, Baptist, Presbyterian, Catholic, Quaker, atheist and agnostic family members across two continents.

Her mom helped little Mahal learn right from left by putting her in mismatched socks. Years later, Mahal, whose mother is white and father Filipino, chose to wear different colors of socks for a different reason. She says, “I didn’t want to be known as the white girl or the Chinese girl or the Filipina girl. I wanted to choose my own identity. So, I became known as the mismatched socks girl.”

In her work with teens at Bridges USA, she helps seemingly mismatched youngsters find their own identities and support and respect those of others, across racial, ethnic, income and gender divides.

Mahal first worked with the combination of school, community and prison- based groups toward conflict resolution during her years at Minnesota’s Carleton College. She was program director of Alternatives to Violence Prevention, an association of those groups striving to share affirmation, respect for all, community, cooperation and trust. She also founded a sexual assault task force where survivors could share their stories, was an advisor on a campus hotline and pressed for policies that would enforce punishment of assailants and honor survivors’ traumatic experiences. She became a facilitator/trainer with AVP.

Mahal came home to Memphis summer of her junior year to partner with 12 organizations in creating the Teen Moms Against Child Abuse program. Research said the teen mothers were part of the population most likely to engage in child abuse so they were presumed to be the ones whose behavior change could reduce that violence.

Mahal remembers vividly when she met with one teen mom who listened to her description of the program and then said, “Why don’t you hire us to do this since you are not a teen mom?”

That was a pivotal moment, Mahal says, and it inspired her senior dissertation.

“Everything from then on has been based on listening to the voices of people most knowledgeable about the problem. They are the experts, and that voice has to create strong solutions and be able to work.”

She taught with Teach for America for two years and then joined Bridges, renowned for bringing together Shelby County youth from wide backgrounds to become social change leaders. At Bridges, Mahal helps seemingly mismatched teens find their own identities and learn to support and respect others, across racial, ethnic, income and gender divides.

As Bridges’ Community Action Coordinator, Mahal took the CHANGE
leadership development program in powerful new directions which in 2016 earned the Innovation Award from Inside Memphis Business. For seven years – with few weekends off — she guided a cadre of paid high school youth organizers, called CHANGERS, into the most current and volatile subjects, providing them the tools, advisors, voice and space to create strategic projects around gender and sexuality equality, school to prison pipeline, reviving the arts, community gardens, inter-generational mentorship and sexual harassment and assault in schools.

In 2021 Mahal was named director of Bridges’ new Youth Action Center to fully focus on assuring that policy and system change decisions affecting youth include youth by fostering and supporting youth councils in many settings. She directs community agreements and training that establish youth-adult partnerships in settings such as the Memphis Public Library where a youth council was established to redesign every branch based on recommendations from youth in those communities.

So far, teen voices have fostered a self-care room, a mental health workshop, a ramen tasting and anime club and guidance on addition of new technology among library branches.

Another youth council will help Seeding Success plan uses of $200 million in areas like housing, justice and culture. The Youth Justice Action Council is pressing county officials for change in the juvenile justice system, building off earlier recommendations from the Incarcerated Youth Speaking for Change. The Tennessee Youth Coalition, totally youth-led and sparked by the Youth Justice Action Council, lobbied legislators on bills that would directly affect them, such as one making it a felony to teach anything obscene. That language has been used to ban teaching of Maya Angelou, the Holocaust and Ruby Bridges among much more.

Drawing on her college experience with Alternatives to Violence (AVP), a conflict resolution program founded in prison, Mahal also co-developed and co-delivered Incarcerated Youth Speaking Out for Change in partnership with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. The program worked with young Memphis men in jail to turn their collective thoughts into six models for change they wish to see implemented in schools, local government and the criminal justice system. This work earned Mahal and her training partner the 2016 “Advocate Award” for Leadership in Juvenile Justice Reform.

Today Mahal is reviving the Memphis Activism Calendar to connect local social change activists and is on the board of Play Where You Stay bringing soccer and its scholarship potential to playgrounds and parks in areas where families can’t easily afford the sport.

Mahal’s determination to create a new generation of engaged, creative, caring community leaders and changemakers is growing, succeeding and giving us limitless hope for the future. Mahal says: “The solution isn’t what we bring. It’s what we find.”

Women of Citizens to Preserve Overton Park

WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2020

HERITAGE
for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

The Women of Citizens to Preserve Overton Park

The power and might of the entire federal government seemed to be aimed at the city of Memphis.

The nation’s ballyhooed interstate highway system had mapped a route due west for Interstate 40. It would plow across the state from Bristol, driving to the Mississippi River right through mid-Memphis neighborhoods and homes and levelling about 24 acres of the 170-acre Old Forest of Overton Park.

The path had been drawn in 1955 on a route that today is named Sam Cooper Boulevard and ends at East Parkway. The interstate would separate the Memphis Zoo from the rest of the city’s unique urban green space which also housed Memphis Art Academy, Brooks Art Gallery, a nine-hole golf course and amphitheater in addition to its most unusual ecological feature – the rare old-growth forest.

Local, state and federal leaders, local newspapers, even the City Beautiful Commission arrayed in full-throated support of the plan, convinced that expressways and parking garages would lure shoppers back to an emptying downtown and relieve traffic congestion.

After ignoring advice since the 1940s urging limits on eastward expansion, they had watched downtown businesses close or move, following the growth into East Memphis and suburbs.

But a cadre of determined Memphians organized to stop the destruction I-40 would cause.

They formed the Citizens to Preserve Overton Park (CPOP) and got busy waking the city to what the roadway would mean. While men were certainly engaged and male attorneys certainly were critical to the eventual victory, it was women who fought first and fought the fight every day — working long hours on letter-writing campaigns, filing, phone calling, raising money, consensus building with neighborhood groups and more.

It was women who urged the citizenry to get involved to prevent what local poet Agnes Bowe called “the rape of Overton Park.”

It also was the women who received the most criticism: death threats, political retribution and derisive name calling, including that infamous line about being “little old ladies in tennis shoes” meant to intimidate them and diminish their voices. That phrase really had enduring power. Wikipedia uses it to this day to describe “a group of local citizens, spearheaded by a group of elderly women dubbed the ‘little old ladies in Tennis shoes’ by multiple media outlets, (who) began a campaign to stop this construction.”

These women fought City Hall, state government, federal government, local courts, newspapers, the chamber of commerce and other powerful business interests in their determination to protect our environment and preserve neighborhoods in Midtown.

Learn their names: Rosemary Alderdyce, Betty Buchignini, Mary Evelyn Deupree, Grace Gordon, Marie Handy, Sara Naill (Sally) Hines, Martha Lackner, Lou Packer, Laura Rodenbaugh, Nadine Smith, Sunshine Kidd Snyder, Anona Stoner and Helen Witte. 

Others worked hard but were afraid to be known publicly.

CPOP president Marie Handy wrote, “The proposed route through Overton Park would not just ruin the park: It would annihilate it. That which is removed is annihilated and it is impossible to ‘restore it.’” She also said that “highways were needed for ‘progress’ but parks, created by God, for the people, should not be ignored and destroyed by men.”

Opposition to CPOP was so intense that information about many participants and donors of art and money was kept secret and anonymous for fear of harm to them or their spouses’ workplaces or careers. Some worked behind the scenes, their names never known.

Local businessman William Pollard accused the activists of having hands smeared with blood because of traffic deaths that would increase without the expressway. He quoted Bible scripture comparing expressway opponents to the mob who shouted for the head of Jesus.

Years later, a surviving CPOP leader, Sunshine Snyder, wrote for the West Tennessee Historical Society a paper titled “The Finale and True Story Behind the Scenes of ‘The Citizens to Preserve Overton Park.’” Sunshine describes the work of a loosely-knit but dedicated group, maybe 6 or 12 meeting together at a time during the mid-1960s, making signs, stuffing and stamping envelopes, organizing rallies.

Mary Evelyn Deupree, who recruited Sunshine, and Sally Hines had been fighting the expressway encroachment for years. Lou Packer led the nucleus group called the Committee for the Preservation of Overton Park in 1957 that later became CPOP legally and formally. Anona Stoner, who moved into Memphis with experience successfully organizing opposition to multi- lane highway projects in Ohio, became the defacto CPOP coordinator, willing to work 24/7 at her home answering the phone and serving as contact for donations, records and communications. She wrote letters, researched freeway opposition tactics and spoke at Memphis City Council meetings to defeat resolutions.

Sisters Martha Lackner and Laura Rodenbaugh joined early on. Young and enthusiastic, they began in 1971 to sponsor fundraising events: an art auction, a spaghetti supper, a booth at the Fairgrounds flea market, a Pink Palace event and a sale at Albertson’s.

Local news media continue to support the expressway. While news stories said the route through the park would be a 20-foot wide strip, CPOP’s Bill Deupree paid $1,000 for an ad in The Commercial Appeal explaining it would be two 20-foot strips with a median between and that an interchange on the eastern edge would take several hundred feet.

Sunshine and others put together rallies trying to get the truth out, such as one on the park’s eastern edge when Tennessee Sen. Bill Brock came to support the expressway. “My children and other children were on hand to demonstrate that the truth was that the expressway at the eastern border of the park was much, much larger and wider than had been reported. To demonstrate the true width, the children strung a roll of toilet paper the entire several hundred feet the expressway would take.” A newspaper reporter watching the kids remarked he had no idea the road would take so much of the park.

Over the next few years CPOP’s opposition held up final approval of various plans, including tunnels, walkovers, landscaping.  In the meantime, not believing a women-led grassroots organization would finally win, homes and businesses in Binghamton and just west of the park were bulldozed.

On Dec. 1, 1969, at 5:45 p.m., CPOP held a special meeting of about 10 including spouses. Local attorney Charlie Newman and Jack Vardaman with a Washington D.C. firm agreed to take the case pro bono. Gasps were heard when the lawyers said $2,000 was needed to get started but the vote to go ahead was 10-0. Bill Deupree and Sunshine’s husband James each put up $1,000. Two individuals had to be named plaintiffs beside the organization. Bill and Sunshine agreed to be named. Sunshine wrote: “This was an awesome step for so few of us….
There was not a penny in our coffers.”

CPOP lost at the district court level and again on appeal at the 6th Circuit.

CPOP appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States. Oral arguments were heard on Jan. 11, 1971.

On March 2, 1971, the justices ruled in favor of CPOP 8-0. But the fight still wasn’t over.

CPOP’s case had shown such a mess of legal interpretations and administrative missteps that the justices sent the matter back to the West Tennessee district court who sent it to the Transportation Secretary Volpe for review “under a correct understanding of the law.” Two years later he approved a tunnel under Overton Park!

Further action on the redesign dragged on but failed. Finally, on Jan. 9, 1981, Gov. Lamar Alexander submitted a request to the federal government to cancel the route through Overton Park and release the $300 million in its construction budget to the City of Memphis for other transportation uses.

The request was approved on Jan. 16. After some 25 years, the battle for Overton Park was finally over!

The favorable Supreme Court ruling in Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe is taught as a “Genesis” case about environmental law. It has been cited 28,127 times.

Today, generations of Memphians and visitors enjoy the trees, trails and fields of Overton Park.

Without the courage, determination and savvy of these women imagine: Traffic on six lanes of interstate concrete, roaring through Overton Park, with the zoo and Rhodes on the north side and a polluted forest on the south.

Even if you can imagine it in a trench, the roadway sunken out of sight — the noise and huge lights and fumes and the massive barrier of it leave animals, birds and people terrorized. It becomes the definition of unwelcome and unrelaxing. And the memory of a historic, unique urban park for solace and natural beauty and learning is only – a memory.

Let us celebrate and honor the story of the preservation of Overton Park as a dramatic account of women’s leadership and persistence that is important to know during this National Women’s History Month and always.

Sandra Ferrell

WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2020

HEROISM
for a woman whose heroic spirit was tested and shown as a model to all in Shelby County and beyond:

Sandra Ferrell

What does the face of trauma, addiction, prostitution look like? Look in the mirror. It could be mine.

That’s what Sandra Ferrell realized in 2013 as she sat in St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral listening to Becca Stevens, founder of Thistle Farms, a Nashville community for women survivors of trafficking, prostitution, and addiction. As Becca discussed the well-established link between childhood abuse and prostitution. Sandra realized that if not for her loving family, she could easily be that woman on the streets.

Filled with gratitude for the grace she received in her life, she knew that she must help other women who did not have the support she had experienced. Right then Lisieux Community was born. In operation since 2014, it provides support and education for women who have survived trauma, addiction, and prostitution.

At age two, Sandra, the daughter of a Southern Baptist preacher, was left regularly in the care of a trusted congregant so her mother and older siblings could pick cotton to help support the family. “Be good and do what the man says,” her mother unsuspectingly told Sandra. So she did. She was sexually abused for two years. Believing that what adults said was always true, she never told her parents.

Abuse began again at age 8 and was attempted yet again when she was 12. She never told. She never recovered from this abuse, never reached emotional maturity.

When her children were 12 and 16, she was unable to manage their behavior. She took them to a counselor who, recognizing Sandra’s deep trauma, said, “We can help you, too.” “I don’t need help,” Sandra said but with guidance, she checked into Lakeside Hospital for a week of intensive therapy and then began the long road to recovery.

Sandra’s children grew up and Sandra retired from a successful career then worked another 5 years. But she never forgot her own trauma. Leaving paid work, she became a volunteer at Caritas Village which was established by Woman of Achievement recipient Onie Johns to build community and break down economic and racial barriers that separate people. There, after her sudden flash of insight, Sandra told Onie that she wanted to provide support to women on the streets. Onie mentioned the name of a man Sandra needed to meet. That very day he showed up at Caritas for lunch, listened to Sandra’s dream and said, “You’re doing it now.” So, she started.

Sandra believes that God opens a door and, though you don’t know what’s next, you walk through and figure out what to do. And so it was with the founding of Lisieux Community. She would tell one person what Lisieux need. That person would say yes and then bring another person who would then bring another. Each person was just the right person who did what needed to be done.

The Lisieux Community started as a residential program on North Parkway. But women often did not stay long. According to Sandra, they had no trust. That facility was closed and in February 2019, Sandra with her volunteers took the program directly to the streets.

Not just any streets but dangerous Mitchell Heights.

Just off the Summer Avenue corridor, poverty and crime rates are high. Drugs and women’s bodies are sold and their lives are in peril. Despite the danger, every Thursday night Sandra would go to a liquor store parking lot and open her trunk. Women walking those streets soon came to know that Lisieux would be there with sanitary supplies, soap, toothpaste, clothes, food. The van was there rain or shine. Women were met with respect and love. Trust was established and word spread.

The pandemic made it impossible to gather in the parking lot, so Lisieux went on the road, traveling Mitchell Heights earlier in the day one afternoon per week. Recognizing the van, individually women would come for care bags and conversation, sometimes risking the anger of the men who profit off of them. Lisieux continues that Thursday drive.

Even before the pandemic, Sandra envisioned a drop-in center, a place to take a shower, wash clothes, and get help connecting with community resources such as counseling and rehab. That center opened on Valentine’s Day, 2021, with a cozy living room and beautiful, vibrant art on the wall, as suggested by Onie, to bring beauty into difficult lives.

Every Tuesday, clients are welcomed with love and asked what they would like that day.

Often, it’s a home cooked meal followed by a shower and possibly a nap in the living room. The Center serves as a home address and phone number which is essential for many services, including social security benefits and medical appointments. Once a month clients can choose a pair of shoes, a coat, a warm blanket. These things that we take for granted are regularly stolen. It’s part of street life.

Sandra always allows clients to choose. If you go to counseling and drop out, she doesn’t reprimand. If you go to rehab and drop out multiple times, she doesn’t judge. She helps whenever a woman is ready. Because she always remembers that she could have easily been that woman walking the streets.

The Lisieux website says: Our goal is to love each of the women we serve right where they are today, and then love them again tomorrow and again the next day.

Heroically, Sandra Ferrell never judges, and Sandra Ferrell never gives up. And Sandra Ferrell always loves.

Sandra Ferrell is the 2020 Woman of Achievement for Heroism.