Britney Thornton, 28, is a change agent and truth seeker. A first-generation Memphian, she grew up in Orange Mound, one of the first U.S. neighborhoods built by and for African-Americans. Disheartened by the poverty and crime now associated with the area, Britney seeks to restore it to a thriving community. In December 2016, she founded JUICE Orange Mound, a nonprofit with the mission “to unite, empower and support each resident … by finding and funding innovative ideas within the community.” This Ivy League-educated former teacher-turned-law student is turning ideas into action for the betterment of Memphis. We are delighted to introduce Britney Thornton, today’s FACE of Memphis.
You have a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in social work. Now, you’re a law student at the University of Memphis. Why the switch?
I took my LSAT back in grad school at the University of Pennsylvania, and going to law school had been on my radar ever since I changed my concentration at Baylor. I went to Baylor as a pre-med major, and then my organic chemistry class cancelled that out. So, I checked out the school of social work, and I really just fell in love with it. I started out doing juvenile justice work, and that’s how I got into prison work in grad school. I worked in the Philadelphia prison system, going in and out of the house of correction.
After going out of state for school, what brought you back to Memphis?
Teach For America, which I did for three years after getting my master’s. They make you rank your preferences, all in high-needs areas. I listed Memphis, but I really didn’t think they’d send me back. Once I got here, I was like, “I love being home.” It was a new landscape, because these were my first years in Memphis as an adult.
When and how did you start JUICE Orange Mound?
I started doing community development work when I first got back to Memphis. Athena Palmer, the executive director of Teach for America in Memphis, is a legit friend, and I told her, “Hey, I’m from Orange Mound and would love to get connected to what’s happening there.” She introduced me to a guy from Whitehaven who knew a community leader in Orange Mound, and that person connected me to the community leader circle. I think I started out with the Orange Mound Civic Club, which is inactive right now. Then, I learned about the Orange Mound Community Council, and it just spiraled from there.
What is the JUICE model?
Change for Change is the program. We collect spare change from residents and pool the money to fund neighborhood projects on a quarterly basis. Our goal is to raise $3,000 each quarter. We’re doing the slow, continuous work of chipping away at this big monster of a social issue that has become Orange Mound. We got the drugs, the blight, the crime, the failing education systems — where do you start? We want to remove that financial burden, so we say, “If you can come up with an idea, without finances being a barrier, what would you come up with?” We want to increase innovation within the community, and the beautiful part is with each funded project, the community has ownership.
The other component is OMSA, the Orange Mound Street Assembly. We want to get one resident per street (there are 117 in Orange Mound) to form a street assembly. I don’t know of any community that is mobilized in this way. Conceptually, it’s very powerful. We get the street ambassadors to commit to come to monthly JUICE meetings. Right now, JUICE meetings are full of community leaders in Orange Mound and those outside of the community, but that’s not the core group I’m trying to work with. We want to reach the folks actually living in the community. How do we get the prostitutes, the drug dealers, the single mother who doesn’t come and support her kids at school at the table? All we’re doing is speculating about their values systems, but nobody knows them. They have a reason for why they do the things that they do. You can’t influence them or help them if you don’t have a relationship with them.
What is the biggest misconception of Orange Mound?
The misconception is that millennials aren’t moving back to the neighborhood because we don’t want to or because we hate Memphis. No, it’s because, even if we wanted to, there’s no viable housing option for us to come back to. There’s no place for us, and we are what the community needs. The houses that are being built and the community around it are catered toward poor people. Where would I go for retail? Where would I go for the health trends? Where is my coffee shop? Where can I access WiFi?
My second year of teaching, one of the other teachers and I decided to room together. I wanted to live in Orange Mound and do the community leader thing. We did our due diligence, and the most viable option was a four-bedroom, two-bath place. It was just two of us, so it wasn’t worth it. I’m starting to view the Orange Mound housing issue as the crux of all these other issues. If you don’t get ambitious folks like myself to live next to folks that you have issue with, how can we start to build relationships with those people and get to know them?
Tell us about a Memphian who inspires you.
Ms. Mary Mitchell, the historian of Orange Mound. I am enamored with the seniors in Orange Mound. The women I am meeting have aged so gracefully, and this woman is so competent. I love the way that our seniors capture so much of our lost history. Being around her, I feel so connected. For everything I want to voice, she comes in with a contextual piece. I can’t sing her praises enough.
We hear you have political aspirations. Tell us your plans.
Ever since I was a sophomore at Baylor, I told myself that I wanted to become the mayor of Memphis, and politics has always been something I’ve been into. For first-generation college students, the thresholds are so low for the measures of success. I pleased my mom a long time ago, and so now I’m in this space of, “How do you live your own life? How are you ambitious for yourself?” I feel like I’m just trailblazing.
In 2019, I’m running for Memphis City Council District 4. I think people need to have candidates they believe in. My campaign slogan is “Let’s Straighten It Out.” I need to meet Latimore so I can ask him for permission to use his song title. I think that I am a natural-born politician. This isn’t just me being like, “Oh, I want to get into politics.” When it comes to being in a position of power and influence, I can do this with integrity.
What motivates you?
These dynamics that I’m aware of and the knowledge of injustices keep me going — it’s the principle of people not being able to advocate. I will stay up to fight for people who aren’t even aware that they should be fighting these issues.
What is your best piece of advice?
In my bedroom, before I started JUICE, I put up two quotes. The first one was, “Dream until your dreams come true.” Then, there’s the Bible verse Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord. “Plans to prosper you and give you hope.”
Aside from faith, family and friends, what are three things that you can’t live without?
Facebook; comfort food — oh, I need that; and the miles on my reward card so I can travel whenever I feel like it. I love just accruing those miles.
Thanks, Britney! For more information about JUICE Orange Mound, visit juiceorangemound.weebly.com.
Thank you to Mary Kate Steele for today’s beautiful photos of Britney in Orange Mound.
Meet more amazing Memphis women in our FACES archives. Click here, and prepare to be inspired!