At BRIDGES, the mission is to mold youth into effective leaders by embracing inclusion, diversity, and creativity. That process begins as soon as they set foot near the headquarters on A.W. Willis. The building stands as a pinnacle of unique design set amidst the edges of suburbia. “The architect didn’t want to impose on the neighborhood and overwhelm the houses across the street,” says Cynthia Ham, president and CEO of BRIDGES. “As you go more towards downtown, the building starts scaling up. That’s why it’s scaled to rise as the building goes west, like a bridge!”
The building’s facade is apt. As an institution, BRIDGES works to fill the gaps between different sectors of the community to create a more unified Memphis. To that end, Ham wants its focus to be as broad as possible. “Making sure that we get a diverse group of students who really reflect the demographics of the greater population is always a challenge, but I think overall BRIDGES has a really good reputation that’s been built over 30 years about bringing people together.” And there’s no better person to lead that community outreach than Ham. She knows Memphis, having been an integral part of its community for many years, having worked as the executive director of Memphis in May and a principal at Archer Malmo. As it stands, BRIDGES has connections with 162 schools and a presence in 52 zip codes. While students and employees are doing good work out in the community, all of that can be traced back to the main building.
The entrance to the structure, built with sustainability in mind, stands adjacent to a miniature water feature and grass-filled amphitheater, and most of the interior is bathed in natural light. These design choices aren’t just for show, either. The building’s layout, a product of architect Coleman Coker, is set up in a fashion to benefit all students who walk through its doors. “The whole idea was to stimulate the frontal cortex of the young person’s still-developing brain,” says Ham. “They process in ways during this brain development that adults don’t, so that’s why there’s a little disconnect between how youth feel in this building and how adults feel.” While there is definitely a noticeable difference between how the young and old take in the design, it’s an ideal situation in which to mold students into talented leaders.
Meeting spaces and classrooms are throughout the building, while lightwells are are deliberately placed to make the space feel more alive. Extensive greenery grows in each lightwell, complementing the rooftop garden.
Finally, there is a giant climbing wall and ropes course for dynamic team building activities. The whole experience provides a positive feeling, creating a stable platform for the community efforts of BRIDGES.