seeks a prosperous memphis
by Justin Flowers and Alden Zuck
Rhonnie Brewer, known as the “socialite”, is originally from South Central Los Angeles. Rhonnie had a dream of being “Miss Corporate America” and she truly believed the saying of “once you go to college, you’ll be able to get out and you can get any job you want”, so she applied herself and received a full ride scholarship to a HBCU school of her choice.
Once graduated, her first real job in the corporate arena was at Bank of America. She continued to work her way up from the branch all the way to the corporate offices. She ended up in a position where she was responsible for hiring in the region, everything from the basic interview, the prescreening, to FBI background checks. She was then offered to work in a manufacturing environment where she began as human resources, but eventually left to be running the western divisions of a fortune 500 company. She oversaw 15 different locations and over 500 employees.
Rhonnie thoroughly enjoyed the excitement of the company and learning incredible things while there. However, two weeks after her second daughter was born she suffered a major stroke.
An Intimate Conversation with Rhonnie Brewer
Where do i start . . .
“What I found out is that I had lupus and that it had basically attacked my blood and given me a blood clot in my brain. When that blood clot burst, that is what caused me to actually suffer the stroke. It was so surprising to me as I was only in my 20’s. My husband was just really shocked because we were exercising, running 3 miles a day or biking 3 miles a day, and it just came out of nowhere. So, one of the things that I like to tell people all the time is that when your body is giving you signs, you need to listen and know that it’s okay to insist on a second opinion, it’s okay to not be happy with the diagnosis that is given to you. You need to feel confident about requesting that your medical treatment is taken seriously.”
Once she recovered from the stroke, her husband mentioned moving to Memphis, back where he was from to have the support of family. Rhonnie lightheartedly agreed “I think I’m a southern woman trapped in a city woman’s body anyway, so why not, let’s move to Memphis!”.
After mistakenly stumbling upon a house they loved in Mississippi, it made Rhonnie realize that Memphis is simply a better place for them to be. “Memphis was a better fit for me and for my family, I love being here in Memphis! I see it as just an oasis of opportunity.”
The beginning of a new path
Up to this point, she has done everything from running a fortune 500 company, project management, communication, public strategy, etc., and she worked with all types of organizations like airports, chamber of commerce, banks, bakery’s, telecommunications, and more. Moving to Memphis, she went into the field of marketing and is very excited about the life and path she has had in her career. However, she states that after all that, she gets more excited about making an impact in the community.
“That’s the thing that makes me come home everyday just wanting to go out and do it again tomorrow. The reason why my company is called Socially Twisted is because I really want to show people how they can be socially responsible and make money at the same time, so it’s like the social twist on doing business.”
Twelve years ago is when Rhonnie’s stroke occurred. Although it was very unexpected and devastating, it turned on a lightbulb for her.
“I started to think about my two daughters, and I have not taught my daughters what it means to give back and do for other people. With that, I just made a silent pact with my higher power at that point and said, ‘if you help me through this and you help me heal from this, I will dedicate my self to showing my daughters what It means to really give back and to really help others achieve.”
After six months, she recovered to full mobility and began volunteering all over. At this moment is when she discovered how much she loved volunteering and this is what led her down the path to where she is today.
Now Rhonnie is the volunteer executive director for an organization called COPPER and the guild president for an organization called the Memphis Urban League, which focuses on a lot of issues that impact the African American community. These organizations are what really drove Rhonnie towards Shelby County School Board and to the grocery stores in the community.
The impact of kroger
“Many of you know that recently we had two Kroger stores close down in our community. One is in South Memphis and one is in Orange Mound. I love both of these communities, but I am particularly drawn to Orange Mound just because of the history of it being the first community here in Memphis where African Americans were allowed to own property. It touched me in a particular way that I wanted to get up and do something.”
Rhonnie began going to community meetings to gather information on what the climate was in the community. She also started doing research online to figure out if this was only happening in Memphis or if this was nationwide.
“Retail is what signifies that a community is thriving. I looked at the areas where these Kroger stores were at and I realized that the one in South Memphis was the anchor to the actual shopping center; and when the anchor to a shopping center leaves, that means that the small business owners that are also in that shopping center will suffer because they do not have that driving force to bring business to them.”
This, as Rhonnie describes, forces small businesses to move out, which in turn creates blight in a neighborhood. This increases the chance of criminal activity, lowers property values around the area, and causes a situation for the community where they struggle to remain viable.
When these basic resources move out, the people who are not mobile have to move toward the resources, which can kill an entire community. She also mentions that there was a Tri-State Bank inside the store in Orange Mound, which was the second location for the only African American owned bank in Memphis. This bank being moved down to one location without notice tremendously impacts their business and creates a massive loss of clients. In addition to this, the closing even impacts the obesity in the city.
“Many times people think of obesity as just people overeating, doing things they are not supposed to do, or abusing their bodies, but sometimes obesity happens because of accessibility. If you’re living in a community and the closest store to you is a convenient store then they’re not going to have fresh produce, they’re not going to have fresh meats and things like that. You are eating a lot of processed foods, potato chips, canned meats, and things that don’t necessarily provide you with the nutritional balance that you need.”
“Having this on an everyday basis can lead to obesity, obesity leads to high blood pressure, and high blood pressure leads to things like strokes and heart attacks. So when I looked at what was happening, I didn’t just look at the grocery store closing, I looked at what the impact was around that.”
Rhonnie was emotionally impacted by this information, especially since having suffered a stroke herself even when she thought she was doing everything that she was supposed to do to be healthy. After her Leadership Memphis group overheard her talking so much about this topic, they jumped on board and are doing what they can to make an impact in the community regarding food security.
“I started to think about the kids who are not going to have access and the seniors who are not going to have access. I really understand the importance of meal balance, and even though I am completely fine now, I still am concerned on a daily basis about the things that I put in my body. Being a mother, especially of a teenager who often wants the quickest and most convenient meal whether it’s healthy or not, it is my job to make sure that I make those things accessible to her. I know that there are moms in both of the communities where grocery stores left who have that same desire and that same need for their own children.”
This research also led her to various organizations and relationships with a few of the leadership in the area such as Reginald Milton, the county commissioner; Jamita Swearengen, a city council representative; and Edmund Ford, also a city councilman. After working with them and other government agencies and non-profits, they discovered that what they needed to attract the right stores are numbers.
“They really want to know what the feasibility is of them coming in here and doing business here in this area and if they are going to be able to make money, as the profit margin for grocery stores are relatively low.”
shelby county school board
“I am very excited to be running for Shelby County School Board, but that’s been a trek that’s happened over a couple of years and a decision that I have not made lightly. Some of you may know that I have been assisting with an apprenticeship here in Memphis, which is an ability for you to earn money while you’re learning a trade. On average we have about 1500 jobs a year that come open in the years of an apprenticeship. These jobs are department of labor approved, they start at 13-16 dollars an hour and you can come right out of high school, get these jobs, and have a lifelong career. In two years you can be making somewhere between 25 and 30 dollars an hour, which is extremely exciting to me because what I really want to see is more Memphians in middle income.”
“As we move more Memphians to middle income, we all move to a space where we are no longer trying to survive, but we’re thriving. And that’s what I want for Memphis, I want Memphis to not just be a surviving city, but I want to see it on the map as a thriving city. I want to see people moving here in droves because they see the opportunity here, they feel safe here, and they know that their child will get a top notch quality education.”
Rhonnie explains that through the apprenticeship, she wants to connect with Shelby County School to promote more vocational training to help prepare the children to go into these jobs. There will be even more opportunities over the next ten years because of the recent hurricanes in two major states. Because of this people will have to go to those areas to do the jobs they are trained for in an apprenticeship. “This is a huge opportunity here for us in Memphis to get more of our high school graduates directly into jobs that pay living wages, and I think that I extremely exciting.”
In addition to that, she also mentions she has a huge interest in technology, specifically in the STEM area. On March 31st they will be having a joint project with the U.S. Navy by putting on a competition for students in Memphis to build underwater robots. This is a STEM based program called SeaPerch that Rhonnie is partnering with.
“I can’t wait to see these 200 children show what they have and I can’t wait to see which one of these children will win and be able to go on to the national competition.”
“As you can see, I am always really excited about anything having to do with children, It’s the area that I really love to work in. Even more so, I understand how building the foundation for our children means a more prosperous and productive Memphis later on.”