I don't know Kevin Muhammad. Never met the guy. But every few months I come across his name in a local article since he's a leader within the Nation of Islam here.
He popped up on my radar, and likely yours too, again this week when he and Ash-Lee Henderson of Citizens Concerned for Justice asked if the Chattanooga City Council would allow them to present a rebuttal to the State of the city address given by Mayor Andy Berke on Monday. They apparently feel there's an addendum which needs to be tacked on to the official record.
At Tuesday's meeting, Muhammad and council Chairman Moses Freeman got into — how shall we say this — an "interesting" 30-minute exchange about the request. At first Freeman denied Muhammad, but after council members Ken Smith and Yusuf Hakeem intervened, the presentation was given the thumbs-up. Muhammad now will have 20 minutes of podium time toward the close of next week's council session.
Color me intrigued.
Not because I think I'll be agreeing with too much of what Muhammad has to say — though I've got an open ear. Rather, I've always been captivated by civic storycrafting. Every city has a story, and Chattanooga has been very proactive in cultivating its own narrative.
It wasn't long after moving here that I became familiar with the "Chattanooga Story," also called the "Chattanooga Way." You know the refrain: how the people living in a dirty, down-on-its-luck city decided to make something more of their town. The proper telling usually includes a quote by Walter Cronkite, something about the riverfront and the Tennessee Aquarium, and an Outside Magazine article.
Since the introduction of EPB's gigabit Internet speeds, a new chapter of the Scenic City's renaissance story is being written. Its title: innovation.
The problem Muhammad seems to have is that the composers of this account hail from an exclusive circle. And that's probably right. Because, think about it, the biggest influencers on how a story is crafted are often the people who have the biggest platforms. Here in Chattanooga, that means the inhabitants of City Hall, the Chamber of Commerce, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, and the Innovation District.
Of course, those folks should all play a hand in storytelling. But let's be real here, there's more (much more) to this city. And even if some of the issues Muhammad is concerned about — namely gang violence — are addressed by those individuals, they're going to have vastly different perspectives on those matters.
Which is why I'm intrigued. The mayor gets to issue the State of the City and the Convention and Visitors Bureau gets to air commercials, but residents like Muhammad, Henderson and the those they say they represent rarely get to have their takes officially chronicled.
I'll argue that if we're ever going to compile a comprehensive civic account, we must be willing to hear out these muffled points of view. With that, kudos to Ken Smith for his willingness to hear them out "whether we agree with them or we don't," to Yusuf Hakeem for realizing we're "doing ourselves a disservice to not hear what the citizens have to say," and to Moses Freeman for abandoning his initial pushback.
No, I don't anticipate Muhammad getting a quote in the next Innovation District article written by a breathless reporter after a well-curated tour of Gig City. Nor should he, really.
However, I do look forward to hearing what he has to say on Tuesday. As I wrote earlier, I don't know him and I've never met him, but chances are there are a lot more Chattanoogans like him. So why not hear him out for 20 minutes?
Contact David Allen Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @DMart423.