Tribe One's Debt Crisis Threatens Its Future

The urban youth program may close its doors after 20 years

"Alive and free"—that's the simple yet compelling slogan with which Knoxville's Tribe One first opened its doors to at-risk inner city youth in 1991. "Not dead and not incarcerated, because that's where so many of them ended up," says co-founder and current At-large City Councilman Chris Woodhull. "So that's what we talked about."

Twenty years later, the organization that has helped more than a few Knoxville youth do just that needs help itself—serious financial help, to survive, and remain free of the crippling debt that has beset it in recent years.

"We've always tried to be a champion for the kids, a hero," says Executive Director Stephanie Davis. "Now we need many people to be strong for us. Set us back straight, and watch us flourish. Because I really believe we're going to be an extremely strong organization."

For now, though, the crisis is redline serious. When Davis took over the directorship in 2010, the organization was $100,000 in the hole. After months of chipping away, in tiny bits, at the debt, she and the board of directors moved to initiate a massive capital fund-raising campaign in July, the goal of which is to raise $50,000 by Oct. 1.

When the board of directors meets in October, it will determine whether enough money has been raised to meet must-needs. If the answer is "no," the organization will have to close its doors after two decades of service.

And even if the $50,000 goal is met, that still leaves the organization with $25,000 to $30,000 of "manageable" debt. "That would take care of the scary debt," Davis says. "We push for that, then the board can take care of the rest.

"Our goal is that this will be our one-time funding push, then we move toward becoming a sustainable organization like Goodwill. We have a very successful screen printing operation. In the future, we'll still apply for grants and have certain core supporters, but we shouldn't be competing with other organizations in the community for funding anymore. We're implementing better management techniques; we should be more self-sufficient."

Among the upcoming Tribe One events will be a Bridesmaids Party at Latitude 35 on Market Square Sept. 24 at 5 p.m. Women with old bridesmaid's outfits and men with old groomsman's outfits are invited to wear them to the event, which will include a silent auction, a date auction, and a best-dressed contest. Tickets are $50, the price of which will be donated to Tribe One.

Tribe One was really birthed in 1988, when Woodhull, a former military brat and UNC-Asheville graduate, met Danny Mayfield, a local student and resident of the old College Homes housing project. The two hit it off famously.

"We wanted to figure out a way to reach out to what I guess you would call gang-affiliated youth who were destroying their community," says Woodhull, Tribe One's former director and now a board member. "The only other people who were going to deal with them were the police.

"When we were first dealing with the most marginalized youth, a lot of people jokingly referred to us with names like ‘hug-a-thug' and ‘homies anonymous,'" he continues. "It's always been very challenging to raise money to work with young people thought to be the primary destroyers of their own communities. It's always been a little controversial."

Beginning with regular, weekly meetings with at-risk kids, Woodhull and Mayfield (who died of bone cancer in 2001) had a method that began with the aforementioned slogan. It included eliminating eight key risk factors from the lives of the program's young participants; resolving, individually, the major sources of anger and fear in their lives; and adopting four new rules for living.

"These were practical, concrete steps," Woodhull says. "And a lot of these guys were so rooted in anger and pain, they were willing to grab hold of it."

And while it's impossible to quantify Tribe One's effect, due to the nature of its programs, Woodhull says he sees the results all the time.

"I know so many young people in their 20s and 30s who've finished college or are employed now who came through Tribe One," he enthuses. "There was a young guy who just came back from an internship in Washington, D.C., who reintroduced himself on Facebook recently, who wanted to thank us for what we'd done.

"There are an awful lot of stories like those, people who redirected their lives from off the streets doing incredibly destructive things to helping others get off the streets. Not all of them ended up Rhodes Scholars. But they ended up living productive lives. And a lot of them ended up being the best mentors you could have."

One of the people Tribe One has won over with its outreach is Knoxville's acting Mayor Daniel Brown, whose City Council district includes the Tribe One facility on Magnolia. "I've been observing them since they first started, and they've done a lot of good work," says Brown, who has participated as a reader in the organization's Freedom School program on a couple of occasions. "They've done a lot of good work, and I think it would be a tragic thing for the community if we were to lose it.

"I know they've made a difference in the lives of many young people who were otherwise headed in the wrong direction," Brown says. "I can think of one young man I know of personally, just as an example, who had been involved in, shall we say, some extracurricular activities. I met him out in the community and he told me about the work he was doing, turning his life around in Tribe One. I really hope we don't lose it."

Another way of looking at Tribe One's impact is through the scope of its programs, which have grown from weekly meetings to include a successful screen printing business; a recording studio; an urban garden; the Children's Defense Freedom Schools Program (a national summer literacy program); an after-school program with tutoring, literacy training and hands-on workshops; and Harambee, a weekly mentoring program for girls, ages 7th grade through high school.

At different times, Tribe One has also sponsored a food pantry, a radio station, and various concert events.

"It's all about using tools to reach out to youth in different ways," Davis says, "and give them real-life skill sets right here at Tribe One."

Woodhull notes that, "We've tried a lot of stuff that didn't work. When you're trying to work with young people, trying to be creative, that's part of the process."

One thing that has worked, for several years now, has been the screen printing operation, which emerged as an early leader among Tribe One's potential entrepreneurial programs and kept forging ahead. Among other things, it recently produced the campaign T-shirts for mayoral candidate Madeline Rogero.

Nonetheless, the recessionary climate of 2008 took a heavy toll on the organization. "When the economy tanked, our giving went way, way down," Woodhull says. "We were always understaffed, and it was a challenge to raise money to start with."

Now, Davis hopes a successful capital funds campaign will kick off a new era for Tribe One. "I want to be a model for other nonprofits who want to start enterprises in their organizations," she says. "It's disheartening to watch people shut their doors. But you can't always rely on other people. Now you have to find ways to make money yourself."