Snapshots: Bridge Builders

John Kelly
December 1, 2001

Memphis, Tenn.

Objective: To develop youth leaders who will put aside individual, social, economic and cultural differences to work for the benefit of all.

In a Nutshell: Bridge Builders brings together high school youth representing diverse backgrounds, and provides training in leadership, human relations and civic responsibility. Adventure-based activities are used to help youth see beyond the traditional barriers of race, religion, culture and class, and see themselves as part of a wider community. Youths attend two residential leadership conferences, participate in adventure-based activities such as rock-climbing and trust exercises, take part in monthly seminars and commit to working together on community projects.

Where It Happens: Summer conferences are held on area college campuses such as the University of Memphis, University of Mississippi and Rhodes College. Monthly meetings are held at area community centers, churches and universities.

When It Began: 1988, when the program included 40 students from two Memphis schools: one primarily white private school and one primarily black city school.

Who Started It: Rebecca Webb Wilson, a community leader in Memphis, bothered by the segregated nature of her city. She saw the problem as a missed opportunity for her four children and created a program model, contacted elected officials and began fundraising to begin the program that became Bridge Builders. Wilson’s small, personal donations provided all financial support of the program until 1997.

Who Runs It: Bridge Builders is a division of BRIDGES, a nonprofit which began 80 years ago as part of a local church program, then from 1947-96 was known as Youth Service. BRIDGES runs various programs to address literacy, diversity, philanthropy, drop-out prevention and workforce development.

Early Obstacles: People’s initial misgivings. School administrators and parents were concerned that the students would not get along and that the program would not produce real change in the students’ lives. Early leaders worked diligently to convince the schools, the students and their families that the program would be useful and fun.

How They Overcame It: The program snowballed once students participated in the initial summer conferences and went back to their schools and spoke with other youths and administrators about it. Outcome evaluations helped to demonstrate the group’s contribution to the greater Memphis community. Findings from one study showed that more than 85 percent of graduates said their involvement in the program made them more likely to speak out against racism and intolerance. About 86 percent had taken on more leadership roles in their schools and communities.

Cost: There is no cost for participation. The annual budget is $500,000.

Who Pays: Bridge Builders is funded by the United Way of the Mid-South and by local individuals and businesses.

Who Else Has Kicked In: Area foundations such as the LHS Foundation and the Plough Foundation have been supportive, funding the ongoing research evaluations and expansion of the program.

Youth Served: About 750 junior and senior high school students are selected by school personnel from 50 Memphis area public, private and parochial high schools. (Home-schooled youths also participate.) All youths are eligible. Since 1988 more than 1,800 Memphis area youths have graduated from Bridge Builders. With the program expanding to East Tennessee, more than 1,150 youths are expected to participate annually in Memphis and Knoxville by 2004.

Youth Turn-On: The challenging activities such as the “trust fall” and rock climbing. For many, says coordinator Lisa Moore Willis, “It’s the first time they feel comfortable to reveal to others long-hidden aspects of their lives.” The “BB Tonight” staff-run nightly variety show is also popular.

Youth Turn-Off: The students initially dislike the prohibition against bringing any personal electronics – cell phones, CD players, games – to the Sunday-to-Friday summer conferences.

What Still Gets in the Way: There is a misperception that the Bridge Builders program is only for the wealthy kids of the community and that “we are preaching to the choir,” says Willis. That makes fund-raising difficult.

Contact: Lisa Moore Willis, vice president for programs, BRIDGES, 314 S. Goodlett St., Memphis, TN 38117. (901) 452-5600,

Kelly, John. "Bridge Builders." Snapshots. Youth Today, December 2001/January 2002, p. 12.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.