A brainstorming session marked the first meeting of the newly formed Black Caucus of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, which will be led by Commissioner Tami Sawyer.

The six Black commissioners who attended the meeting Wednesday afternoon elected Sawyer chairwoman and Commissioner Mickell Lowery vice-chairman without contest. The group decided to meet monthly. Black Commissioner Willie Brooks was not present.

Sawyer first proposed the caucus last month to give the seven Black commissioners, who are a majority on the 13-member body, the legal foundation to meet and collaborate on issues affecting Black communities. The Tennessee Open Meetings Act requires that government policy and business decisions be made in public settings with public notice and published minutes. 

But Sawyer wants the group to be more than a formality and plans to lead the caucus as such.

“I’ve proven in almost three years of being in this seat that I am very deeply invested and focused on outcomes for Black Memphis and Black Shelby County,” Sawyer said before the meeting. “I don’t think there’s anything that I do that does not reference what the impact is going to be on Black people.”

It’s important for the chairperson to be a Black Commissioner who is eligible for another four-year term to ensure the caucus gets off the ground, Commissioner Van Turner said. Commissioners are limited to two consecutive four-year terms.

Turner considers Sawyer the best equipped to chair the caucus.

“She’s been closer to grassroots movements,” Turner said. “I just feel that’s where the energy is, and the momentum is to tackle issues that are important to the Black community.”

Caucus members will wait until next month’s meeting to finalize which topics they’ll focus on for the fiscal year. Some ideas pitched include youth education and intervention, a county civilian law enforcement review board and participatory budgeting, which would allow residents to vote on how a portion of county funding is spent.

“If we’re trying to make sure that dollars come back into our respective neighborhoods … I think it’s very important to study that process,” said Commissioner Edmund Ford Jr., who suggested the budgeting idea.

Shelby County is just over 54% Black and 41.9% white, while 23% of Black county residents live in poverty compared to 6.8% for white residents.

Sawyer hopes the caucus will be a driving source of legislation that would benefit Shelby County’s Black population.

“When people were asking why we’re establishing a Black Caucus, I wasn’t sure what we were going to do with it,” Sawyer told the caucus. “Seeing the intentionality, presence and the thoughts here today, I think we can do some great things this year to have a positive impact on our community, which continues to be systematically disadvantaged and underrepresented.”

Carrington J. Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at carrington.tatum@mlk50.com

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