Lost Tribe: Tribe One, Longstanding Inner-City Youth Center, Closes Its Doors

After a quarter-century of providing innovative educational, entrepreneurial, and recreational programs for the city's under-served inner-city youth, Knoxville's Tribe One has closed its doors on Magnolia Avenue.

The board of directors and the non-profit profit status remain, however, and the board will continue under the Tribe One moniker for the chief aim of hosting the Freedom School, a reading-intensive summer scholastic program administered by the Children's Defense Fund. Board members believe the annual five-week program, first undertaken in Knoxville by Tribe One in 2010, is not only worthy of continuing, but one of the few Tribe One outreaches that's still feasible at this stage.

"It became evident we needed to concentrate on a few things at this point, and that the Freedom School is number one," says board member Steve Seifried, speaking on behalf of the rest of the board. "After that we don't have the flexibility to do much else. And Freedom School is something our donors are very excited about. That's our priority right now."

Seifried says the Tribe One building on Magnolia will probably go on sale in the coming weeks. "The building would be great if we had hundreds of kids. But right now, that isn't the case."

Tribe One began in 1988 when white UNC-Asheville graduate Chris Woodhull met black Lonsdale resident and Knoxville College student Danny Mayfield. They bonded over a love of social activism, hip-hop, and extended conversation, and they began holding informal get-togethers for local East Knoxville kids, with the expressed goal of "reaching out to the at-risk youth … the gang-affiliated, the ones perceived as destroying their community."

Those were Woodhull's words; he and Mayfield, who won a seemingly improbable victory to serve on Knoxville City Council, shepherded Tribe One together through the first half of its existence. When Mayfield died of cancer in 2001, Woodhull acted as director—through a couple of City Council terms of his own—until he began scaling back his involvement in 2010.

In the early days, those unstructured neighborhood meetings and activities grew into something much larger. Tribe One opened a physical facility in 1991. Over the years, the organization evolved a host of ways to serve its community, including a long-running screen-printing operation, to teach kids both a skill and the rudiments of business; an urban garden; after-school programs for latch-key kids; a recording studio as an outlet for aspiring rappers and musicians; cooking and nutrition programs.

But things were never easy at Tribe One. "We were a non-profit, and the organization always struggled," says local musician Cozmo Holloway, who worked, then volunteered at Tribe One from 2006 until 2011. "There were always tough times."

And by 2010, Tribe One found itself some $100,000 in debt, much of it tax-related. New Executive Director Stephanie Davis came on board, and mounted a massive capital fund-raising campaign. "She really pulled us back on track," Seifried says.

Davis' efforts received glowing reviews. The campaign, which included special events, donor drives, and newsletters, raised tens of thousands of dollars in a few months' time, and staved off what looked to be impending doom for Tribe One. But other opportunities called, and Davis moved to New York City in early 2012.

Her successor, Mickeeya Harrison, was less successful and chose to resign in December of 2012. Some people close to the program indicate she clashed with employees and volunteers. In any case, says Seifried, "Things didn't play out the way we'd hoped. … Losing your executive director twice in a year is difficult, especially if you don't have a lot of cash in the bank."

Says Holloway, "It was a hard situation to come into; there was still debt remaining to pay off. There were still tough times. Everyone involved fought as hard as they could to keep it going."

Now the board turns its attention to finding a new venue for the Freedom School; with the Tribe One building dormant and ready for sale, the last of its screen printing and after-school programs having ceased in the last three to four months. "We have some leads about where we can hold it; there's lots of interest in the community," Seifried says. "There's not anything like it in Knoxville. It's just a matter of, how do you pull it off under really different circumstances?"

Woodhull lives in Chattanooga now, though he still spends time in Knoxville every week to see family and record his Friday segment of the WUOT jazz program, Improvisations, airing weekdays at 6:30 p.m. He says he hasn't been involved with Tribe One since stepping down as executive director three years ago, but he still mourns the passing of an organization he saw through so many years of both trouble and triumph.

"It's sad," he says. "I know when I left, it was struggling, and there were challenges. It was just really, really hard to fund the work we were doing.

"I know East Knoxville needs someone working there, especially with the young men. I've had calls with some of my old contacts there saying ‘It's as bad as it ever was on the streets.' I don't know if that's true, but I know someone needs to reach out to these young men."

There are a handful of other organizations that can help fill the void left by the departure of Tribe One's full-time presence on Magnolia. Holloway points to groups like the Emerald Youth Foundation (Mechanicsville: faith, education, and sports programs for at-risk youth), the Boys and Girls Club, SOAR Youth Ministry (Lonsdale: education and mentoring for at-risk youth), and SEEED (green jobs training for urban youth).

But for Holloway, the community will never be quite the same. "It was a very fun, safe space where kids could be loved unconditionally," he says. "There was love for each kid who came in there, and there was that kind of atmosphere all the time.

"You saw the difference in kids' grades, in their conduct reports, in their overall attitudes. You could see it in most of the kids who came there. It was a great atmosphere for life skills. It energized the kids. It's a sad thing to drive by the building now."