Creating inclusive public spaces in Memphis, TN.

With a background in divinity and community work, Shamichael Hallman is leveraging the library system to create radically inclusive spaces and community traditions.

CSIS Executive Program in Social Impact Strategy Alumni (’20), Shamichael Hallman, is the Branch Manager at the Cossitt Library in Memphis, Tennessee. Steadfast in reimagining the civic commons, Shamichael creates inclusive spaces that connect people from all walks of life. Gain insight on Shamichael as a social impact leader and learn how the Executive Program is increasing his capacity to generate transformative social change.

This interview took place when Shamichael Hallman was a current student in the CSIS Executive Program in Social Impact Strategy.

CSIS: Where are you based currently? What is important to you? Where do you come from? What has shaped you? What motivates you to do the work that you are doing?

Shamichael: I am currently in Memphis, Tennessee. I’ve been here for the last 10 years. I moved here with my wife and young son at the time to take a job in full time ministry. That work was really around the ways in which we use technology to engage people in their faith and to advance faith-related matters, but also about pastoring in neighborhoods and underserved communities. I did that for several years, and I’m still doing that in a volunteer capacity. Three years ago, I transitioned to work with the public library system and a national initiative called Reimagine the Civic Commons, which is a demonstration project happening in Philadelphia, Memphis, Detroit, Chicago, and Akron, Ohio. It’s really centered on public spaces and so a lot of my work right now is focused on public spaces. 

The thing that really drives me and motivates me is my childhood. I grew up in a little small town in Alabama called Margaret, and my father had a really kind of life-altering accident when I was five years old. He fell asleep behind the wheel of his car on his way home from work. This accident left him paralyzed from the neck down. So he is a quadriplegic. And that happened in 1985 before there was any sort of Americans with Disabilities Act. None of those things had passed. It was the 90s before those things passed. You know, being with my father and helping him as he recovered and helping him as he tried to create a new life was interesting, but also just kind of seeing the day-to-day. When he eventually recovered, he was able to drive. He would go to the different stores and stuff, seeing there not be ramps or seeing there not being handicap accessible parking spaces. And seeing the work that he did around that, advocating for that, I think this really stamped an early impression on my life to help others, to be a servant to the community.

What was your formal job title and the organization that you served with before your current venture today?

Shamichael: Before the current venture and the library, I was at New Direction Christian Church. I had a kind of cup for both. I was the online campus pastor, and that was a lot of building online communities using faith, as well as using tech to advance faith. And then I was a campus pastor. So we’re a fairly large church, and we had multiple locations. I pastored one of those locations. So it was online campus pastor, campus pastor, and then I had this kind of strategy role as chief strategy officer. The role was taking all the things that we were trying to do in Memphis, all the things that our vision and goal was, and then finding ways to actually execute those in a way that made sense.

What is your current venture? What is your vision for the people, community, or issues that you care most about?

Shamichael: The current venture is, again, centered on public space. It’s all about thinking about the way in which we create, we maintain, and we manage public spaces. So for me, specifically, I’m in the heart of downtown Memphis. There is a historic library actually – the city’s first library built in the 1890s. A wonderful space. It’s a truly remarkable space but has suffered from some disinvestment, a couple years of low investment and no real direction for this branch. Four years ago, people in that community began to think, “Hey, what would it look like for us to kind of reimagine this branch?” They brought me on to help with this process. And so my title with this new branch and venture is the Senior Library Manager and then the Community Engagement Coordinator. So I have two roles. The first role is the reimagining of this branch. The second role is an advocacy and engagement role around libraries as public spaces. I’m excited to be a part of this project. We have worked with the community city officials and a lot of other individuals to create and have a tradition around what a truly transformational library would look like. So what we have developed and should be opening sometime later this year, depending on what happens with COVID-19,  is a truly welcoming space. We have revamped the outside courtyard space where there’s a lot of comfortable seating and shade and access to WiFi. There’s some white boards that are outside – you can actually scribble on them if you want to have a meeting out there.  It’s this wonderful and welcoming environment on the inside. We’re adding a community cafe space, which will have a variety of great foods.  And in that first floor space, we really are trying to push what does it mean to be a library. When you think about walking into a typical academic library or any library, it’s, shhhhh, you have to talk like this, right? Because it is quiet. We really want this space to be more of a living room. So there’s a place where you come in, where you can reconnect with a friend or you come in with a coworker, you grab something to eat, you sit down, and you just have a great conversation. 

People don’t generally think about a library in that way. What about the books? What about the study spaces? We are still having those. We’ve got a couple of spaces where you can pull away private access and have a meeting or study. Then the second floor is an experiential learning space. In that space, we have three distinct areas. The first area is a performing art space. This space can function in eight different ways. We have envisioned it being used in many ways, but one of the ways is to bring the arts into the library. By having a theatrical space where we can do plays, recitals, rehearsals, and things of that nature, we can make the arts more accessible to the public. To go see a show at major theaters within walking distance to your downtown is a cost that could range anywhere from $30-$50 per ticket. For us to be able to bring in some of those same shows demonstrates that we can rival that experience in public libraries for free. We think this really makes a difference. The second space is a co-working space. And again, co-working is something that’s kind of catching on in the city of Memphis, and those rates are anywhere from $30-$40 per month for a single desk to a couple hundred dollars for an office space. We wanted to design a space where again you have some of those same amenities, you’ve got access to great WiFi, printing, a desk or even an office if you need it, and we make those things completely free and accessible to the public. 

Additionally, we’re adding lockable storage and are experimenting with some mail services to see how that might work to put all of those resources into the hands of the public. And then the third space is  some recording space. So there’s two sides to this: one side that is an audio side containing anything you need to do a podcast, voiceover, or an indie album. And then on the second side is really anything you need to do a video and/or audio project. For instance, doing a YouTube video documentary or taking up a photography project that you’re working on, and all the things that you would need to be able to  execute that, whether it’s a camera, microphone, and/or mixer. All resources are available with your library card. I know there’s some libraries across the country already doing these types of initiatives, but this is going to be a new concept for us here in Memphis, and I think it’s going to really set the standard for the way in which the relationship between the public and the library exists.

What stage are you currently working on with your venture? How did you begin, and how has it progressed? 

Shamichael: It started with the vision, and it was a pretty collaborative vision. There were city officials, downtown stakeholders, community members, and other organizations that had a desire to see this space happen. So there was a vision over the last couple of years, and we’ve just worked on that vision. There have been several stages of that. Some of that has been engagement and input from the community research, and this kind of project has allowed me to visit libraries all across the country – across North America, actually, in Toronto, Philly, Seattle, and San Francisco.  People have created some really great initiatives, but there are instances where people build things and expect people to come when they have had no dialogue or engagement with the community.  We want to be very intentional about going and talking to the people who we thought might use the space and those who have people who are already showing some affirmation or affinity for the library system.  I think we’ve gotten a lot of engagement from people who are coming. As we go through the renovation or addition, which is set to end at the end of this year (we should be opening the doors late November, early December) the work right now is going after a new audience. We have looked very intently at knowing who are the people that had not been coming in the door and who are the people that we hoped would come through the doors. We are thinking about who those new customer segments might be. We are going through the process of identifying them and reaching out to them to see what it would take to get those individuals to come in.  As we share the vision of what this space is, an inclusive space open to everyone, we talked about some of the spaces that are there, the equipment that’s there, and the opportunities that are available there. People seem to be really, really interested.

What new segments did you identify that didn’t have access to this space beforehand?

Shamichael: I think there’s a couple of things. There was a group of people who maybe weren’t necessarily in the library. The library wasn’t on their radar because they had access to the same amenities in a private space, right, so maybe they were at a co-working space or, you know, had those things at their home. So there was no need, in their mind, to engage in a public library space.  However,  we want a space that everybody is in – this is one of our outcomes. One of our goals from a National Civic Commons perspective is social mixing. On any given day and at any given time, we want to have a wide range of people from different education levels and different income levels using the library, enjoying the space, and interacting in the space in some way. This is an audience that we’ve had to go after, to show the value of interacting and being in public spaces. I think groups that didn’t have access to the space – I don’t think it was ever like they didn’t have access, it was more about did they feel welcome in this space, did they feel like this was a space where they belonged? Our work has really been very intentionally saying no, you do belong in this space. 

And one of the things that we’ve tried to do is to encourage a stewardship program. In most libraries, the library system hires staff to do programs, right? So that’s everything from a healthy cooking class to GED prep, resume writing, sewing, knitting, etc… or they form partnerships with established organizations. One of the things that we’re experimenting with right now is asking what it looks like for the community to do that work. We have a simple community assets survey. We’re going around asking a small radius of people and see if they might be willing to share their gifts, skills, and knowledge in a public space. What this allows us to do is to create a database of people who are willing to say, “I would have no problem at all coming to a public space that’s safe, open, lit, to share my craft, knowledge, and skills.” I think what’s going to happen is we’re going to have this space where maybe half of the programs that happen – and that’s a big number – are being done by the community for the community. I think that’s a beautiful thing because at that point people are not associating the library with a single person; it is a magical place that we go, and we learn, study, read, and share together. That’s I think the ultimate vision of where we hope to go.

Can you articulate some of your processes for making decisions and any significant changes to your mission or work plan?

Shamichael: I think that it really starts at the heart of it, which is an ultimate vision that the library hopes to see that is set by leadership. We have a wonderful director and Mayor. We are a city agency, and so they set the standard of what we hope will happen in the space. We want to see fresh and fun programs and to see a variety of people using the space. We want it to be used to advance the community in some way. And then from there, they really appreciate this. Eighteen branches across the city are from that general mandate. Each branch is given a huge amount of autonomy, figuring out how does this look in your community and how you envision that happening in your community? For us that’s always been a variety of things. Number one, we hire really bright people, people who are smart, who really know their stuff, and luckily, we don’t have to confine ourselves to only people who have a master’s in library science degree. That is a rigorous degree, and the people who are here who have that degree are awesome. However, it’s also a beautiful thing to be able to bring in people from different backgrounds, political science majors and engineering majors who said, hey, I may want to give this a shot. And so it’s a really robust mix of people who have a variety of experiences and skills. That kind of helps us to be able to determine, you know, what direction we move.  

The second thing is a lot of benchmarks. We’re always checking out what other libraries are doing, particularly the ones who seem to be kind of pushing the curve or who are ahead of the curve. And for us, that’s been libraries all across the world. Toronto Public Library students are doing really amazing things, as well as libraries in Philadelphia. I’ve made multiple trips to Philadelphia to take a look at some of the interesting things. Some of the initiatives are really simple, but things I think would have a great impact on the community. 

The third thing is doing it in collaboration with the community because if you try a new program or new gathering you can determine if that’s what they were hoping for, and if not, it forces you to pivot. Being able to have that room to experiment really helps. We’re having to do that right now, doing things online to give people a taste of what will come when we do reopen this branch. And so one of the programs that I’m really excited about that seems to be getting a lot of attention is a program that I designed with a few friends across the country that I’m calling Engage. It’s a series of programs that seek to advance civic engagement and civic discourse. In the city of Memphis, there’s a rich history of  Civil Rights Movements, grassroots movements. A lot of times people immediately go to Dr. King’s writings, work, speeches, and his ultimate assassination here. But there are a lot of other people who have been on a neighborhood level in the community working very hard to advance issues of education and health care and those sorts of things. Therefore, we want to highlight those individuals and also encourage other innovative, everyday people to shift their thinking from, “I could never do it,” to actually, you could do that.  

And so some of the programs that we’re doing partner with an organization in Seattle called Citizen University with Eric Liu, who has done just phenomenal work over the years around civic engagement. There is program called Civic Saturday, which is an analog to a faith gathering where, over songs and  sacred texts in our nation’s history (constitution or speeches that people have given), you bring people from all walks of life, all ideological spectrums together to talk about what it means to be a citizen, and how do we show up in our communities, advocate for and make changes, to create the things that we want to see in our community. How do we collectively come up with a vision of what we want to see in our community? Whether that’s around transit or around children or around overall relationships between different people. It has been really great. We have done this over the last few months, about six of those gatherings now, and some of them have been online. It’s been really interesting to see the ways in which people stand up around civic issues. We’ve got a number of other programs that are kind of under that suite of programs to advance civic education and discourse in the city. So I’m really excited about that.

How do you and your initiative understand and handle disappointment, failure, and resilience during this time?

Shamichael: That’s a really interesting question. I harken back to maybe my previous role, and it’s a little bit of current. I told you I came here for church, and while I was working in that role, I met a very, very good friend who was organizing a series of faith-based hackathons and a kind of weekend tech event where you build apps, websites, all those kinds of things. I saw one of these hackathons and was wondering what it was because I’m, you know, I’m kind of the Christian nerd. So I’m looking at these hackathons, and at the very first one he had in San Francisco in 2013, I competed in that event and won one of the events for best new code. And he had a second event a few months later at the University of Texas, and I went there and competed again. What I saw was a shared collaboration. Most of the hackathons I’d gone through, people were focused on trying to get money and getting their app acquired. But with this event, there was this kind of helping spirit in the group of people participating, dropping their projects to help other people create their ideas. Afterwards, I went to the organizer and expressed that I’m really busy, but I would love to help you with this and do whatever I can. And he allowed me to organize these events with him. And so for the last seven years, we’ve hosted these events all over the world. I had the opportunity to go to Uganda a few months back right before COVID hit, and it was amazing. That movement went from a few cities to a global initiative, and you don’t get there without partnerships and working with other organizations.  

And sometimes those partnerships don’t go the way you hoped they would go, you know, there were a couple of times we partnered with people who, you know, we thought were kind of aligned with us but went into the event and discovered that we weren’t really aligned. And sometimes those things can really knock the wind out of it you know. And really, you say, ‘Hey, man, should we continue to do this?” You know, these really gut-wrenching, heart-checking moments. And in that, the thing that I think keeps you going are two things. One is the original vision. Why did you do this? What was the initial reason?  Why did you start this thing in the first place? And then the second being the testimonies and the stories from the people who you saw there and what you did to create impact. I remember an event that we did the second time I went back to the University of Texas at Austin. At many of these tech events, there are  individuals who come that have a tech background. They are engineers, computer engineers, or graphic designers. However, sometimes people would come up who were just Christians and had no tech experience at all. And just want to be a part of the event like, you know, “I have nothing really to bring, I just want to be a part of it”. And we’ve said, “Oh, no, you actually do have something to bring, whether you believe it or not.” One of these individuals was an older lady who had no tech experience, but she had an idea. She got up and told her idea for this app that would help people better understand a particular thing of the Bible. And there were around seven people who said, “Hey, you know what, that’s a really good idea,” and they worked with her over the course of the weekend.  By the end of the week she actually had a product that was ready to publish on iTunes, you know, and in the Android market. And to see her present, the tears that she had – she didn’t think she could do it. She didn’t think that was possible for her.  However, for her to be a part of a community that welcomed her and affirmed her helped her to move her vision forward and forever changed her life. These are the moments that keep me going, give me hope, and help me bounce back from those moments of failure and disappointment.  

Why did you sign up for the Executive Program in Social Impact Strategy? What initially attracted you to the program?

Shamichael: I didn’t even know about the executive program. A good friend recommended the program, explaining that it may be good with the current work I am doing, so I took a look at it online. Immediately, I thought that the program is exactly what I need. I needed the network of people who were doing similar work, as well as the skills and education that came from the executive program. I’m thankful to that friend who led me this way. It has been life-altering.  

What are your biggest pride points or accomplishments so far as a student in the executive program?

Shamichael: The executive program encourages you to run a social venture through it. Students can start a venture or you can take the skills that you’re learning and apply it to something that you’re doing currently. I opted to do both. First, I am taking the skills I learn and applying them to the library. We are currently ending a series in the program that is on Marketing.  There have been some really awesome things in this section, for instance, learning about customer segments and how to identify customers and creating a positioning statement. This section is perfectly timed for the work that I’m doing at the library currently. We want to go after a new audience and diversify the people interacting with the library space. The information that I’m learning right now has allowed me to convene an up-and-coming group of black PR professionals to say, hey, this is what I’m learning in this program. Could we sit down and talk about how we might use this to move this library forward in a way that’s excellent? We had our first gathering a few weeks ago, and it just felt really good. We’re gonna have a follow-up gathering, actually this Saturday. I’m going to take what I’ve learned and share that with them again, and we’re going to figure out how we keep building. This has been a really proud moment that absolutely would not have happened without the executive program. 

Second, I’m also running a venture through the program. Harking back to my pastoral work, I’ve done a lot of work in the school system. One of the things we have a lot of issues with is the school system – that’s not a knock on any particular system or leadership official but there are issues, right – and one of those issues is what’s called opportunity youth. These are young adults who are between 16 and 24 who are not in school and are not working. Some reports show that there are 45,000 of those individuals here in Memphis; other reports say that there are more, and I know that covid is going to drive those numbers even higher. Therefore, my venture is really to work on this issue from a human development standpoint, right, because there are programs that are happening right now across the country. Many of those are focused on the workforce. We can give these individual good-paying jobs and provide them with wraparound services, and we can then solve the problem. Those programs work, and we see good numbers and results. However, I want to start with wraparound services and say, you know, let’s start there, right, let’s talk about resiliency. Let’s talk about financial management. Let’s talk about those things and build a whole person and let a job come out of that.  

In the executive program, I am so grateful we do these things called jamouts because I’ve been trying to figure out how I could get this off the ground and make this venture happen. I don’t have the experience with this and somebody in one of the jamouts said, hey, have you talked to those students and young adults yet? And I said, I had planned to show up at the football games, basketball games, churches, talk to the individual, however, with COVID, this was no longer possible. Then someone in the jamout said, “Why don’t you do an online block party?”  I hadn’t thought about that and began to contemplate, how I would pull off an online block party? So I call this guy in Memphis, who makes mad beats and is a phenomenal producer and friend. And I said, “Hey, man, I think I want to do an online block party. I think you’re the guy that could help me do this. Let’s see if we can do some targeted ads in the community where we want to do this.” And so we’ve been talking over the last few weeks about how to pull this off. I think this week, we’re going to actually put a date down. For me to have an idea that I really wasn’t sure how it was going to happen, and then to be able to use the material that I’m learning now and then to also be able to use the information from jamouts and the network of people is really helping me have this idea come to life. I’m really excited. 

I’m also being very cautious. I want to go through the entire program before I officially launch the venture. I want to keep this momentum going. All these things I’m learning are going to help me create something really special and do it in a unique way that’s going to help a lot of people. What I’m hoping is that, while the block party is happening, we can then begin to assess where the individuals are, figuring out what’s happening in their life, how they are feeling, and then figure out the ways in which we might be able to meet immediate needs. I have fought for many years and have preached this, you know, that the role of a social venture is analogous to the church: We have three things we have to do. Number one, focus on the area of relief. We meet people’s immediate needs like food and shelter. Number two is resources. We want to help individuals to acquire the skills and opportunities to help themselves get out of challenging situations. Number three is to reform and to tackle structural inequity. This venture we’re starting is relief- and resource-oriented. The block party allows us to have conversation and talk with these individuals. This event will help us figure out what are one or two things that we need to do right now to help these individuals most succeed and survive in a post-pandemic world.

What are the three things you enjoy most about participating in the executive program as a student?

Shamichael: Number one is definitely the jamouts – those are key! The jamouts have teaching fellows, professors, and students there. It’s great to be able to not only learn but create an environment rooted in intentionality and connection. For instance, I remember for our convening, when they told us that the event was going to all be online, I was really hoping to come to campus, but because of COVID-19, this was no longer possible. However, to see the intentionality of the CSIS team really opened my eyes to the importance of being very intentional about creating experiences. Number two is the reading material. As I explained before, I am right now walking our library system through learning about what I would say is the network as a whole. I’ve been able to talk to individuals doing similar work in Chicago and in Philadelphia and other people doing incredible initiatives. The network of people is large.  

Besides the marketing piece that you’re currently learning right now, what are 1-3 things you’ve learned that are useful in your work?

Shamichael: Yeah, I think this is still out of the readings, but the course before was on Community and Collaboration. Specifically, the required reading called the Ladder of Citizen Participation, by  Sherry Arnstein. In the end of that paper, she talks about creating this model in which those who are on the margins, who generally don’t have a say in the things that happen, need to be invited to come into the process. As I mentioned previously, I have been doing this event called Civic Saturday, and I was so moved by the piece that I incorporated it into my Civic Sermon. The meetings begin with a welcome then proceed to a civic scripture, some talking time, and then the Civic Sermon is where we get into the meat of it. For this particular session, I highlighted that reading. People were so moved by that and kept asking me where I got that, and I would say it was a piece I read that impacted me. That kind of session is what the whole Community and Collaboration course is talking about – viewing communities from an asset space and not from a deficit. I thought that was so important for the work that I do in public spaces. Often, philanthropic organizations say we need to go in and save a community, take our approach and our money, and let’s work this thing out. However, as the reading suggested, we must ensure we understand there are people in these communities who are already doing the work. There’s grandmas on the porches who’ve been looking out for that community, and a church on the block feeding families and doing financial literacy in the neighborhood, well before you ever came. We must remember to use additional tools to think about how we form partnerships and collaborations with these key leaders in the community. 

I would also say the last thing is probably the first thing from our very first session on social impact strategy. This really helped me think about the venture that I’m doing around opportunity youth. It  helped me think about building out the value and vision that I’m thinking about. It helped me begin thinking about how to scale this venture and measure performance. Those questions are crucial to help me build what I am currently working on. 

Can you  describe one of the aspects of the executive program that has helped you develop your community or network personally and professionally? 

Shamichael: Yeah, there have been multiple particularly after the convening. There was so much content and people there, and one of the things I love about the convening was  It was the first time that I had been exposed to the breakout rooms on zoom. I didn’t know about the breakout room feature. One of the things that I really appreciated about CSIS use of the feature was the intentionality behind the second day of the three day experience. The entire time we had breakouts with the same people. Which was helpful because it helped me begin to see how my project could take shape, as well as, how the people were working on their ventures. I probably had five conversations with different cohort members. Some of it is directly related because we’re doing the same thing, but sometimes it is just kind of like, “hey, I liked what you were talking about, canI talk to you more about it”. Additionally, the PAKS (Peer Accountability, Knowledge, and Support Groups), which have been specific to a particular area have also been really great, and to see people who are also in that kind of education/workforce development public spaces space is helpful as well. So I would say, you know, between the jamout and then the PAKS specific jamouts, it has been impactful. 

How do you see the scale of the impact for both the venture you are working on and the library?  

Shamichael: So I am extremely excited about the marketing stuff that I saw last week. So, not only to tell those PR people I brought together, but last week I presented to the entire library system as a whole to the individuals who are thinking about the ways in which we build and expand our reach in the library system. We know that a lot of people use the library. A lot of people depend on the library for everyday access, to get on the computer, to print off a copy, and to come to the program they enjoy. However, a lot of other people don’t use the library, mainly because they just don’t know about what we provide. Therefore, the things that I’m learning in this program right now are not only helping this particular branch that I’m kind of working to “reimagine” but also having a direct impact on this entire library system, all 18 branches. I think at some point, through the things that I learned to help build, new audiences and new people will be exposed to the library system. 

The venture that I’m working on has tremendous potential for impact. I think it has perhaps the greatest opportunity to be impactful when you think about 45,000 individuals not working, not in school. When I first heard that stat, it was much larger than 45,000. And when I heard it, my heart sunk. To think about all those individuals who in many cases, through no fault of their own, just have been left behind. In many cases the problems are documented in numerous reports and research. Some of it has come out of Penn. Some of it comes out of other think tanks. But you think about the reasons why those problems exist. It’s inequality in education, it’s concentrated poverty, it’s transit systems that don’t work. It’s healthcare systems that don’t work, education that doesn’t work for students, generational poverty, you know, these sorts of things. And when I first heard this, I thought, these people are just being left behind. It’s gonna be a stat that someone will misquote, you know, like it’s just their fault. They don’t want to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. No. This thing is so much more robust than that. And so, you know, I think, what if I only got a percent of a percent? What if my venture only impacts a very small number? Well, we got that small number, right, we got that small number. Maybe out of that small number, there’s a mayor or city council member that seeks to change the system. Or there’s someone who’s broken the chain. They were the first people in their family to get to college, to start a business, or to buy their own home. To me you can’t put a number on that. It’s the more daunting task, but it’s also a lot of reward behind that work.