A mayor's office innovator and recent Leadership Memphis alum personifies the power of creative thinking.
photo by Jonathan Postal
Kerri Campbell can’t ride a bike. Let’s get this short-coming (if you can call it such) out of the way. Because Campbell has taken on most challenges we face — and then some — with a blend of fervor and curiosity that, if bottled and sold, might fund a city’s budget for years. Whether it’s calculus, the violin, or law school (she has a J.D. from Michigan State), Campbell has expanded the way she thinks by exploring the limits of one of her skill sets after another.
“I remember reading in high school that the benefit of calculus is a way of thinking that opens you up beyond math,” says Campbell. “And the same goes for playing the violin. It’s a new way of thinking, and the hand-eye coordination is so enriching.”
Born and raised in Whitehaven, Campbell went to Central High School (where she followed her violin instructor) and then majored in English at Rhodes College (where she fell in love with Shakespeare). Upon graduating from Rhodes, she felt like she needed to explore a region beyond the Mid-South, thus the move to East Lansing, Michigan, for law school. “I had all the perks of a big school,” she says, “but the law school is really small. It was perfect.”
Campbell’s legal training was put to work — largely pro bono — upon her return to Memphis in 2008. She found a job with Memphis Challenge (a program that coaches high-achieving, underprivileged students) that allowed her to pursue her passion for community outreach while helping needy clients with valuable legal advice. Furthermore, her law degree confirmed — and accentuated — strengths Campbell felt she’s had since childhood.
“I like a good, healthy, spirited argument,” says Campbell. “I like to reason through things. I may even overthink at times, playing devil’s advocate with myself. I’m not argumentative, but I’m fascinated by our criminal justice system. To have two people approach two sides of an issue. It’s not just the best side that wins. But if you have two dedicated people, it’s the right side that wins.”
Since December 2011, Campbell has been a member of Mayor A C Wharton’s Innovation Delivery Team (IDT), an organization funded by a grant of nearly $5 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies. (Memphis is one of five cities in the Mayors Project, which awarded a total grant of $24 million to Memphis, Louisville, Atlanta, Chicago, and New Orleans.) The team’s mission is to generate neighborhood vitality and reduce handgun violence. As Campbell describes, the chief task is encouraging collaboration between sectors of the city that share the same interest for making Memphis a healthier, safer place.
“These are large challenges, but how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time,” says Campbell. “It’s the first step. How can we more effectively deliver the services we already have?”
The IDT recently organized a police/clergy conference, where law-enforcement officers and faith leaders met to learn from each other how the fight against gun violence might be better waged. “It invigorated both groups,” says Campbell. “It’s in everyone’s best interests for these groups to align themselves.”
Campbell completed Leadership Memphis’ fast-track program in the fall of 2010, a three-month program during which her class of 30 met for three or four hours once a week. Her “learning journey” included sitting in on a Memphis City Council meeting and a visit with Wharton.
“I learned a lot of historical information about Memphis,” says Campbell, “factual information you need to inform any service. What are our numbers, in terms of population, poverty, and taxes? Government consolidation and the school merger were hot topics.
“It was the most supportive environment,” she continues. “You could express whatever you wanted to. ‘If you were a part of a car, which would it be?’ You get more comfortable extending yourself to other leaders through this new network.”
Campbell found herself especially drawn to four classmates — three women and a man — for reasons that can be considered ironic, as they have come to call themselves the “Fun Bunch.”
“I’m the youngest member of the Fun Bunch,” Campbell explains. “The next-youngest member is about a decade older. We have a blast: birthdays, any milestone. We share quirky senses of humor and have diverse occupational backgrounds. We’re actually loners as individuals, but somehow it works as a group.”
When it comes to measuring her own leadership skills, Campbell steers back to the group dynamic. “I think of myself as a supportive leader,” she says. “I enjoy being a team player and supporting the success of a team. I feel great at the end of the day when the team gets recognition. On a good team, everyone’s ideas are encouraged. It’s possible to be firm and goal-driven while still being thoughtful and supportive.”
Ask Campbell about areas where Memphis could improve and she rattles off a quick, yet thorough, assessment of her hometown’s strengths. “Arts, higher education, living, and service — those are the four things I measure a city by,” she says. “I feel like we excel at all of those. We have great, diverse neighborhoods. And if you have willing hands and a willing heart, you can make a difference.”
And is Memphis, in fact, improving? “We’ve got bike lanes,” she emphasizes, with a smile. “The things you find attractive in a city may not even be things you engage yourself in.
“We have to spread the word,” she continues. “We have all the components of a great city, but too many people don’t know it.”