The 2022-23 school year promises to be a busy one for the Memphis chapter of United Parents & Students, as Regional Organizer Kevin Armstrong prepares to take the Youth Organizing Institute year-round.
“We are gearing up for the fall semester, we are going to do YOI year-round in schools as well as virtual, and preparing for the assembly this year,” said Armstrong, who took over as the regional organizer a little over a year ago. “We also have the Memphis Organizing Institute in the works, which is similar to UPAS Academy, but it’s specifically to prepare Memphis parents and students to organize.”
Armstrong’s job hasn't been an easy one, as he’s had to figure out different and innovative ways to reach both parents and students in the schools operated by Green Dot Public Schools in Memphis. Usually, organizing depends heavily on one-on-one interaction, something that has been hindered by the COVID-19 pandemic since early 2020.
“You just must be creative on how you engage, you just have to meet them at their convenience, whatever medium works, whether it be social media, whether that’s in person, a phone call, text message. You have to engage with people where they are most comfortable, especially with the hesitation from COVID,” explains Armstrong. “Even though things are opening up more, people are a little cautious about engaging person-in-person even with a mask.”
One of the biggest challenges any community-based organization faces is getting through to communities and helping people get involved in the issues that affect them. So far, Armstrong has done that job well, as people have been receptive to the UPAS approach.
“People are always interested in something that engages their self-interest. So,, it’s more of ‘what is the issue,’ how they relate to it. ‘Is this a beneficial organization and will it serve me?’ I believe we’ve had a very good reception from all of the people I have spoken with” said Armstrong.
As UPAS continues its organizing efforts in Memphis, Armstrong pointed out the main issues that affect the communities served by the organization across Memphis. Housing and public safety are the most important going forward.
“The biggest issue right now is housing. The rental market and the housing market is atrocious. A lot of people have issues with housing, shelter; minimum wage hasn’t been raised, and where wages have grown, it’s not equivalent to the cost of living that is now increasing. As I mentioned, public transportation and public safety are always main priorities, as well as education,” adds Armstrong.
So far, the message has been heard from local public officials, says Armstrong. During the past few years, City Councilman J.D Smiley has been a part of UPAS assemblies, promising to tackle public safety issues. Also, County Commissioner Evan Ford is working to help secure funding to invest in the communities we serve.
“I believe public officials are very receptive, we just have to make sure that we engage them, really tell them what our platform is,” said Armstrong.
As the Fall semester continues in Memphis schools, Armstrong said that UPAS will continue to be a vehicle to organize the communities, but ultimately parents and students are the ones that prioritize what are the more important issues to tackle.
“The priority is to make sure that students and their parents are engaged in local issues that affect them and their communities the most, whether that be transportation, streetlights, public safety, food justice. All of those things are things that parents, and students have to collectively identify within the community,” concluded Armstrong.