• The Woodland Discovery Playground at Shelby Farms Park photo courtesy of James Corner Field Operations

The Memphis Tipping Point

Malcolm Gladwell famously wrote about the tipping point, that moment when change happens quickly. It's the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.

Memphis appears to be at the tipping point when it comes to early childhood development. The science of brain development, the risks of toxic stress, the importance of school readiness, and the returns on investments for interventions are ubiquitous topics these days for government task forces, education committees, special community initiatives, and nonprofit organizations.

Gladwell wrote that the tipping point is characterized by three kinds of people – the connectors who link us, the movers who are specialists in knowledge and information, and salespeople who act as persuaders – and the work of all three propels the work on early childhood development in Memphis and Shelby County. The best news of all is that there are people who perform all three roles, and because of it, silos are being broken down and new partnerships are being formed.

In this way, we capitalize on one of our community's secret weapons – our connectivity and our accessibility. Gladwell's work was based on earlier studies generally called the Six Degrees of Separation, which suggested that any person in the world can be connected to any other person through six friend-to-friend introductions

In Memphis, we never need both hands to count our degrees of separation. It's more like two or three degrees to connect with anybody in Memphis, a reality that flattens our local world and gives us the opportunity to mobilize collective action and dramatic results that come from a community joined by a shared vision and mutual goals.

That's what is happening now with early childhood development, and while it is easy to say it should have happened sooner, it's worth remembering that it wasn't too many years ago that many people thought that Memphis was close to a tipping point but it was in the wrong direction.

Much has changed since then, and the biggest tipping point of all is that we have restored our belief that we can make a difference and control our own destiny. There is no argument today that our destiny as a community will be determined by the 67,000 children under the age of five in Shelby County. More to the point, their destinies are being shaped by our ability as a community to give each of them positive options for the future.

The science and research are incontrovertible. There is no return on investment that makes more sense than investing in the first years of a child's life. It produces adults that are healthier and better educated, earn more in their jobs, and are better citizens. It also reduces the costs of special education, criminal justice, teen pregnancy, poverty, and job training.

Intractable poverty remains our community's most serious obstacle to success. The Commercial Appeal reported a few days ago in its "25 Years Ago" column that in 1987, one in five Memphians lived in poverty. Today, it's one in four. Even more disturbing to us is that 44% of Memphis' children live in households receiving federal assistance.

Although the poverty rate has not improved in the past 25 years, our knowledge about brain development has. Now we know what works. We know the brain science behind it. We know the changes in our city that can take place if we mobilize our community behind early childhood development in the same way that we have joined together to reduce the crime rate and increase jobs growth.

We know that we can change things. Demographics are not destiny. We know which investments and interventions in our children give them their best options in life and that they are sound public policy and smart government budgeting.

We can pay now or we can pay later, and the investment now is much, much less to improve the lives of our children and the trajectory of our city.

The widespread agreement on this principle shows that Memphis and Shelby County are tipping in the right direction.