Women of Achievement
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.”