by Meridith Miller-Rucker
As Memphis continues to usher in a wave of urban development, one thing is certain: Orange Mound’s star shooter Britney Thornton, Founder of Juice Orange Mound, did not come to play around and embodies the city’s We Don’t Bluff spirit.
Juice is a local non-profit that works to advance the Mound community’s self-reliance by uniting, empowering, and supporting the innovative ideas of its residents. Thornton aims to keep the historic, African American neighborhood she grew up in, affectionately known as “two-round, three down”, Black, not Black-ish. But it’s not an easy task when outside developers look in and see blighted areas, and thus, dollar signs.
“When people see an overgrown lot, they associate that with disinvestment,” Thornton explains. “They want to get their hands on that property. Our goal with beautification is to let outside forces know that there is an organizing presence here, and if you’re gonna roll up on Orange Mound, you better do your research and know what you’re getting into. The aesthetics is a bonus.”
Mow the Mound is one of Juice’s more recent projects that improve the appearance of lawns and green spaces while cleverly preventing developers from easily identifying property that they think is available to gentrify.
“Juice connects with local service providers to remediate spaces identified by residents,” says Thornton. “By the time the project nears completion, Juice will have helped remediate over 140 spaces.”
Nestled in southeast Memphis, Orange Mound was built in the 1890s and is the nation’s first neighborhood built for African Americans by African Americans. The history and beauty of the area inspired Thornton to serve when she returned to Memphis from Pennsylvania in 2013 after completing her graduate degree in social work at the University of Pennsylvania. While working with Teach For America, Thornton volunteered her time at meetings and made sure neighborhood residents remembered her face and her passion for people.
When the idea for Juice came to her, she first shared it with her pastor and mentor whose approval, she says, gave her the confirmation that she was on to something. Her first step in forming Juice started on the streets.
“Me and a friend completed 100 door-to-door knocks,” says Thornton. “We got 100 responses, and the community let us know that they were [supportive] of the guiding idea: giving spare change to a non-profit to better their community. They believed that Orange Mound could do for itself.”
Funding for Juice began with Thornton canvassing the neighborhood to support projects that residents wanted to see come to fruition. It’s a unique approach that reinforces pride and ownership because residents play a significant role in funding their own work.
“When people see you invest in yourself, they come along,” Thornton says. Additional donors have indeed signed on to support, and while Juice is largely respected in the Memphis community, local funding isn’t necessarily matching Juice’s hip appeal. “Let it be known that local isn’t doing anything for us,” says Thornton. “Right now, our investment is coming from national support. There’s something to be said for that.”
While local funding outside of Mound residents is trickling in rather than pouring, Juice’s concept of using spare change to spark change came from a few of Thornton’s compelling life experiences, including research she conducted at a sex worker’s union in Calcutta, India.
“Sons and daughters of sex workers would go into brothels to collect money,” Thornton explains. “Monies collected would go into accounts created for the sex workers. This passive savings turned into the opportunity for aged sex workers to transition into entrepreneurship.”
According to Thornton, this inspired her to replicate a similar approach in Orange Mound. To further her mission of increasing residents’ self-sufficiency, she is working to expand Juice’s capacity by implementing a zone model where zone captains will maximize connectivity and impact.
“It’s a model that we can ultimately pass off to other neighborhoods,” says Thornton. “All Juice leaders were found in service. We’re working on building and training people in the community so that when we return to collecting change, we can do so at an optimal level.”
Thornton’s goal is that every house in the Mound would give $5, which would allow them to raise $11,000 with every quarterly pick up. In the meantime, Thornton says Juice is in good shape financially and she’s proud of the work done in 2020, especially considering the constraints of Covid-19.
“At the end of 2019 we advocated for resources to acquire a new building through First Horizon,” says Thornton. “We got the building in February, and in March we started quarantining. For one month I unplugged and went into deep prayer. When I came out, we planned a caravan of resources. We got over 600 contacts to get information on residents’ needs and delivered more than 427 care packages.”
Even with its challenges, Thornton describes 2020 as one of Juice’s best years. Successes include an entryway beautification project that involves clearing walkways and designing signage. To ensure Juice is a viable contender in the real estate ring, Thornton made an appeal to her board to become a non-profit developer with the goal of creating transitional housing. Juice also continues to manage a partnership with Rhodes College to create a neighborhood plan, so that when they are at the table with developers, they have the community’s interests outlined, documented, and ready to present as a part of the conversation.
2021 marks Juices’ fifth-year making a splash in Memphis, and the cup continues to run over with the upcoming launch of a pilot program funded by Verizon and geared toward helping single mothers become entrepreneurs. Set to start in February, the program will operate through the Juice Business Incubator.
Though Thornton has facilitated a great deal of growth in Orange Mound, the weight and influence that Juice carries are not laurels she rests on. Her drive comes from a core sense of purpose to prepare and position the community because she believes the true champions are the people.
“This work can have you thinking it’s you and forgetting that you were scared to get out of the car to get surveys done,” she laughs. “Managing ego is important. [You might] feel like you’re somebody, but you’re just a vessel.”
Thornton acknowledges Mound residents Warren Swift and Salahuddin Muhammad as her heroes. The latter served as her after-school director at Hanley Elementary School and continues active service with Juice. Swift, who Thornton says is one of the most selfless people she’s ever met, is a constant reminder that “God doesn’t just love me,” she explains, “God loves Orange Mound, and God loves poor, Black people.” She hopes to help and encourage Swift to work towards owning property ahead of aggressive development.
“I just want to see people win,” says Thornton. “Orange Mound is such a thoughtful place. We really are family. There are a lot of people on the ground who are so diligent, and I want to see them prosper. Ten years from now, I hope we are all happy neighbors living in a community with a wide range of goods and services, and I should be confidently consulting and replicating our model across the city, nation and making brave moves as an international player.”