Don’t say the words “I can’t” around Renisha Mayes.
As the program services coordinator for The Consortium MMT - Memphis Music Town, Renisha Mayes works with up-and-coming musical artists, alongside legends such as songwriter and producer David Porter. Their aim is to develop commercially successful music professionals and entrepreneurs. The 35-year-old college graduate has a good job, a nice home, and a teenage daughter any mom would be proud of. But that wasn’t always her life.
Fear Ruled My Life
Eleven years ago, this articulate young woman was sick, depressed, and unemployed. The loss of her home meant moving her family in with her mother. “The old me couldn’t handle rejection,” says Mayes. “It sent me into a deep, dark place.”
Mayes’ life began to change the day a friend suggested she contact Families First for childcare assistance for her daughter, Jordaan. Families First is part of the state of Tennessee’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. TANF is a workforce and development program that requires participants to take part in a work-training program while receiving help.
TANF directed Mayes to Choice Inc., an organization that provides professional workshops and tools for women to gain employment. Mayes was taught how to write a resume, and how to interview for a job. Before meeting a potential employer, the Memphis chapter of Dress For Success provided Mayes with the appropriate business attire.
“When I got the job, I immediately called them and they told me, ‘You get a week’s worth of clothes,” Mayes says. “When I came back, it was a celebration.”
Mayes was so impressed by the kindness and help she received from Dress For Success that she began volunteering for the group. In six months, she was offered a full-time position, eventually becoming vice president of The Professional Women’s Group, a professional development program that works with the organization.
I Wanted to Accomplish More
“When I was growing up, I enjoyed singing in my high school choir and in the community,” says Mayes. “Yet, I’ve always been intrigued by what happens behind the scenes in the world of music. For instance, how are songs published? How are artists promoted?”
Mayes’ creative side led her to apply to Visible Music College in downtown Memphis. In her 30s, she worked third shift at FedEx while attending school full time and raising her daughter. In May 2015, Mayes earned a BA in music business and theology and became the college’s first African-American female graduate.
Mayes credits the assistance she received from local nonprofits, many of which receive funding from the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis (WFGM), for helping her achieve her goals.
“Because I was older, I didn’t feel like I had the knowledge to attend college. I came from poverty. I grew up in South Memphis. I honestly thought I wasn’t smart enough, and now I’m the first in my family to graduate college. These organizations taught me to sit down, be patient, read,” she says. “Knowledge is power.”
Mayes’ 13-year-old daughter Jordaan has adopted that thinking as well. An honor student at Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, she plays soccer, has a 4.23 GPA, and plans to study marine biology.
Like her mom, she’s learned not to let obstacles stand in her way. Mayes says Jordaan was struggling to find the right headgear for her thick hair. No store-bought hair barrette worked. “So last Christmas she asked for a sewing machine,” she says. “And now she makes her own beautiful headbands!”
Lending a Hand to Help Others
Mayes is honest about her journey and often speaks in front of the same nonprofits that once helped her.
“I let them know that at one point I lost everything and was on public assistance. I am happy to mention WFGM, Dress for Success Memphis, Choice Inc., Bridges, Seedco, Families First, and AmeriCorps. All provided me with tools that have helped me along the way. I use my life as a testimonial to the work of these organizations.”
When she meets other women who are struggling, she reminds them that success is possible for them, too.
“I tell them, ‘You have me. I’m the one person who is telling you that you can do it. This is your beginning.’”
Today, she is working hard to meet The Consortium MMT’s goal: to foster the city’s music industry by grooming the next generation of artists.
“If I can help one Memphis artist or musician be successful, I’ll feel like I’ve accomplished something,” she says. “I’ve gotten to a place where my accomplishments now are helping someone else to be successful.”