Passionate Local Leaders Share What Drives Them
These locals have put their entire hearts and souls into what they do.
Here, we asked them to share what drives them in their own words.
Photography by Emily Long
Kenyatta Ashford (Above)
Executive Chef & Owner, Neutral Ground
My name is Kenyatta Ashford, and I am a husband, father, and chef. In my former career, I was a high school teacher and coach, but I have always been a native New Orleanian. We recently opened our restaurant Neutral Ground, which is in residence at Proof Bar & Incubator.
Our business was born at the intersection of deep passion and necessity – like many restaurant workers, I was furloughed due to COVID-19. Neutral Ground marries the tastes and tales of my childhood to the traditions of my hometown with the care for craft that I learned at Culinary Institute of America. The concept is built around staples of New Orleans daily life, and the menu is intentionally created to be accessible to all.
Neutral Ground was conceived with the ethos of including everyone and being a place where people can come together, no matter their race, creed, or class, and share together in the joy of food conceived and cooked with great care. The Neutral Ground name unto itself is a value statement and an invitation for what I feel is most needed in these very charged times.
This commitment to our community is based on my experience in New Orleans. As the city embarked upon its second century, it was a city divided. On one side, in the city’s First Municipality – the present-day French Quarter, for the most part – lived the French Creoles, with traditions dating to the city’s founding. On the other side, in the Second Municipality – today’s Central Business District – was the Anglo-American section. The two didn’t particularly get along, so each stuck mostly to their respective side of Canal Street, the center median of which was declared to be “The Neutral Ground.”
We are opening in a place that is similar for Chattanooga. Martin Luther King Boulevard, 9th Street, or the “Big Nine,” was the epicenter of Chattanooga’s Black culture for many years and has become a place frequented by many people in modern Chattanooga.
I’m passionate about my work at the Northside Neighborhood House (NNH) for several reasons. First and foremost, I simply love people and serving others. When I first started here as a Children’s Program Director, my call was to serve the children and families of the NNH. When I moved to a leadership role, however, my focus became ensuring our team feels supported and is equipped and empowered to execute their roles. I love seeing people grow, learn, and succeed.
In the 20 years I’ve worked within this community, I’ve been blessed to watch “my kids” grow up, chase their dreams, and start careers and families. I’ve witnessed adult students obtain their high school equivalencies and have access to better paying jobs. I’ve seen neighbors in the midst of crisis find hope, encouragement, and stability. The NNH motto of “a hand up, not a hand out” has always driven me, and I feel privileged to have helped empower individuals of all ages. Lastly, this work has become a “family affair,” and I love having a role that provides my husband and our two girls an opportunity to serve alongside me.
Deputy Administrator, Office of Early Learning, City of Chattanooga
Without fail, every time I observe an infant, toddler, or pre-K aged child in communities where children typically are not positioned for lifelong success, I instantly reflect on what life could look like for them in the future. While those communities vary by race, culture, and many other factors, what remains the same in each setting is my almost immediate drive to educate and share resource information with parents in those communities about the power of early learning. I must admit, there has been a time or two when I took the liberty to stop in unfamiliar settings to forge a conversation with parents about the benefits of quality early childhood learning experiences and the significance of strong foundations that influence success in life.
As parents in impoverished communities begin to understand that high-quality early learning education can change the trajectory of life for young learners, a harsh reality sets in. The reality is that oftentimes these parents do not have access to high-quality early learning programs in their community. It is very disheartening to know that access to resources that shape future success is often limited for our youngest underserved children residing in the most vulnerable communities. This is my WHY. Supporting families and childcare providers in a way that positions all of our babies to have a fair shot at a good life gives me great purpose and drive. Being a champion in this arena pushes me every day to wake up and work to create a system that broadens equitable access to high-quality early learning opportunities for all Chattanooga families.
Photo by Rich Smith
Co-Founder & Executive Director, LAUNCH
My father started a business after having a very experimental eye surgery. He was legally blind nearly half his life. The surgery gave him sight, and after years of struggle, he was ready to work and make up for lost time. He was optimistic, a tenacious fighter, worked incredibly hard, never gave up, and would find a solution to any problem.
What started as simple carpentry grew into remodeling and ultimately developing homes and neighborhoods.
My father overcame poverty, blindness, and the struggle to provide for his family by starting a business. His experience taught me that starting something is more than just generating revenue. It allows someone to pursue their dreams and serve others, it has unlimited upside, and it can mean doing what you love every day of your life.
I co-founded LAUNCH about the same time my father died, and it has been a great way for me to stay connected to his life and work. Helping others in our community start businesses is a passion for me. My dad would have greatly benefited from the kind of support our community offers entrepreneurs now.
In my own entrepreneurial journey, I’ve learned from the businesses I’ve started, especially the importance of supporting people who feel they haven’t had a fair shake or the tools, knowledge, relationships, or capital to begin. Those are all things my dad felt when he was starting.
LAUNCH is in the business of helping people find something they truly care about and building a revenue-generating business from it. I’m incredibly grateful to be able to help people pursue their dreams, work with an amazing team, and serve our community.
Executive Director, Creative Discovery Museum
I grew up in New York City across the street from the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). When I volunteered there in high school, I discovered that museums are much more than what is housed in their buildings. Museums are community centers where people have the chance to learn about different cultures; to discover the wonders of science, nature, history, or the arts; to tap into their creativity; and to imagine new ways of doing things. My favorite quote is: “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.”
My whole career has been about lighting that fire by connecting museums to people. My work days have included participating in maple sugaring demonstrations at the Rochester Museum and Science Center, coordinating Fossils of Fifth Avenue tours with a renowned paleontologist at AMNH, launching a speaker series that included Jane Goodall at the Dallas Museum of Natural History, and playing Father Time at Creative Discovery Museum’s (CDM) annual New Year’s at Noon event.
I love museums and especially CDM, where our mission is to inspire all children to explore, innovate, create, and play. We send out thousands of sparks every day knowing that these sparks can ignite passions that last a lifetime. I love seeing the joy as children learn by doing, watching them transform into scientists, artists, makers, and engineers. Above all, I am passionate about our Ignite Discovery: Creating the New CDM capital campaign and our upcoming renovation, which will light fires for future generations.
Photo by Rich Smith
Michalle Morris,MSN, ANP-C
Owner, Scenic City Wellness
It has all been a spectacular challenge when I think about it. It begins with family. I grew up in Chattanooga’s inner city with my father and his mother. I spent time with my mother, grandmother, and extended family on weekends. My mother, father, and grandmothers had true passion for helping others and helped me understand that competition was less important than compassion.
Entering adulthood, I began to see the disparities experienced by inner-city populations as I was afforded opportunities to grow. I discovered that outside my childhood community, the voices I heard all my life fell silent. I knew then that I had to be an advocate for the less fortunate. God led me forward while family, teachers, and church guided me.
Becoming a nurse was my calling; giving time, love, and energy to those who could not care for themselves. After graduating, I went into the ICU, completed my master’s, and worked as an adult nurse practitioner, using my skills to prevent disease, my spirit to pray with those who needed guidance, and my heart to lend an ear to those who needed to be heard.
Navigating the health care system led me to my next adventure and ultimate destination. Scenic City Wellness is the name on the door, but inside is where differences are made. My business model is simple: serve my patients and let God take the lead so that each patient leaves in the best possible way physically, mentally, and spiritually.
My passion is my purpose. I genuinely love what I do and cannot see myself anywhere else. For Scenic City Wellness to be strong, we must have a great team. We listen, learn, and celebrate each day we are given and are honored to serve a community like family. CS