Welcome to Meet Our Partners, a new blog series highlighting the local arts and music organizations we’re fortunate to count as part of the MMI network. The organizations we partner with bring vital music, theatre, and arts programming to young people from Frayser and Orange Mound to Soulsville and across South Memphis, creating spaces for young people to use their talents, their voices, and their aspirations toward a more just future.
Today, meet Erskin Mitchell, Jr. founder of Successful Inc.! Founded in 2018, Successful, Inc.'s mission is to provide musical instruments to deserving band students and other dedicated community musical organization members while also promoting education and the arts. MMI recently sat down with Mr. Mitchell to talk about his work, the legacy of Delta music, and why community is so important.
MMI: I would love to hear just a little bit about you—what you were doing before you started Successful Inc. and what your journey's been like up to this point.
EM: The first thing that comes to mind when somebody says, "Okay, tell me a little bit about yourself" is that I'm a son, I'm a father, a husband, a brother, a friend. I'm a product of my community and my heritage and the people in my neighborhood. Because of that environment, I have gone on and gotten my college degree, I've gone to college on a band scholarship, I became an engineer in the Army and an air traffic controller for 30 years.
It's amazing because, like I tell the kids I work with, "There are a lot of things that you can do when you have a purpose that's bigger than yourself." That’s what drives everything.
In terms of my career, I worked at Memphis Air Route Traffic Control Center (ZME ARTCC), and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) headquarters in Washington D.C. managing, training, and certifying controllers—also auditing FAA facilities. But way before that, while in high school, I joined the United States Army reserve. I became a combat engineer with the 467th Engineering Battalion, Charlie Company in Greenwood, Mississippi. There they taught me how to become a soldier. I was only 17, and my mother didn't want me to join the military because she was afraid that I might have to go to war.
I had to convince her to let me join because we didn't have very much money and I needed to figure out how to change that dynamic, so she finally decided to let me do it. Joining the military was one of the best things that ever happened to me.
MMI: It sounds like that helped you learn a lot about yourself, and probably helped you develop a lot of leadership qualities, too, that I'm sure hold you in good stead as the leader of Successful, Inc.
EM: That is absolutely true. I was taught by Vietnam veterans primarily. The thing about it is, I was actually attending drill while still a senior in high school from November until I graduated in May, prior to going to basic training. I had an advantage at basic training because the soldiers in my unit didn't want to send me to basic training being green. So they taught me how to shine my boots, how to clean my uniform, and how to prepare for inspection. They also taught me drill and ceremony, and how to salute. The military bearings they taught me prior to entering basic training gave me a distinct advantage over my fellow trainees. I was selected to be a platoon guide, and lead my basic training platoon through our graduation ceremony called Essayons. It gave me a lot of confidence.
MMI: Definitely. You mentioned that you received a band scholarship for college. Where did you end up going to college?
EM: I was part of the high school band program in Greenwood, Mississippi, and we had two outstanding band directors who really encouraged us, and wanted us to be able to go to college on band scholarships. Our band was in the 5-A division, which was at that time the top class in the state. We were definitely in the top three or four bands in the state of Mississippi. The reason for that was that we had a solid foundation. So by the time I graduated, I had scholarship offers to Mississippi State, Ole Miss, to Delta State, Mississippi Valley State, Jackson State, and my alma mater, Alcorn State University.
A large number of people who attended my home church were Alcornites—that's what we call ourselves. They were always talking about Alcorn. And because we were such a strong community, I knew Alcorn was a good school. I felt Alcorn was the place for me. So I took that scholarship to Alcorn State University and earned a degree in industrial technology, with a concentration in electronics and industrial management. While I was there, I participated in ROTC and upon completion, was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
MMI: When you think back on your early years, was there a moment when you realized that you wanted to play music, or one particular musical memory that defines those years?
EM: My neighbor, whose mother was a history teacher in my elementary school, played the trumpet. He was much older than me but we looked up to the older boys in my neighborhood and they would spend time mentoring us. I watched him practice his horn, and he would let me hold it every now and then. He was a really good trumpet player. He taught me how to actually make sounds by buzzing the mouthpiece, which is fundamental in building proper embouchure while learning to play the trumpet.
Years later, my cousin who is a few years older than me joined the band and became the trumpet section leader. Joining the band after him, I started to struggle once I reached the high school band. At that time, I was seated very low in the trumpet section—I wasn't really doing well. My cousin used to say, “You're going to have to get better." Now, this next story is pretty tough, but these are my memories and I will share them. One hot Mississippi day my cousin took me up on the roof of their house and said, "You're going to get up on this roof with me and if you don't learn all of your scales today, and play them well, I'm going to push you down."
I went on the roof even though I was a little scared, because I really wanted him to help me improve and had been asking him for help. We went up there and he worked with me until I could play them all—some in two and three octaves. After that day, I went from the bottom of the section to eventually becoming the trumpet soloist.
I owe a lot to him and I tell him thanks all the time, because he inspired me to work hard and become a more dedicated player. But right on the heels of that situation, my mom went down and bought a $1,000 trumpet that we could not afford. The pressure started coming from all angles! [laughs]
MMI: That is an awesome story. Everything that you've said so far highlights the importance of community and how your whole life has been shaped by the people around you—whether your family or your church community. Would you say that dedication to community was one of the reasons you decided to start your nonprofit?
EM: I feel like we should be compelled to help each other. We are all part of a community, and those communities make up our towns, our cities, our states. We have to understand that we're all in this thing together. We are all products of our environment. My mom made many sacrifices for me. She instilled in me the importance of helping others, and to this day it pushes me to give back.
MMI: What year did you start Successful Inc.?
EM: 2018. I was just getting ready to retire from my job, and my coworker, who had heard me express interest in doing something to give back to my community, said, "You know what? You really should do something to help the kids." She sort of talked me into doing it and we started working on a plan before I retired. Then I left D.C. and came back to Memphis. I thought initially I was just going to put in the paperwork for the 501C3 and then just wait for a while, but our request was approved very quickly.
MMI: It seems like a lot has happened in a relatively short amount of time—especially given how unpredictable the past two years have been.
EM: Very much so. When Covid hit, I wanted to see what the community was going to do about arts access for young people—how they were going to move forward in the midst of it. I saw that schools wanted to keep functioning, implementing distance learning, and I realized that kids are still going to need instruments, perhaps now more than ever. I started reaching out to band directors to build relationships with them, and then we started giving kids instruments.
MMI: When everybody's stuck in their homes, there's really no better time for young people to have an instrument of their own and be able to practice without going somewhere else to do it.
EM: Absolutely. Music is therapeutic and it improves cognitive skills. It can be almost spiritual. I'm so glad that I had the opportunity to be in band with some of the most amazing and talented people. It blew my mind when I first walked into my college band hall and everyone there could really play well. It’s something that you expect, but when you see it you’re still amazed.
MMI: Since starting Successful Inc., what would you say have been your biggest wins? What keeps you motivated?
EM: All of the wins are big. It's akin to a crescendo, because every day is another victory. When you present an instrument to a child whose parents are struggling to make ends meet, it does something to you. You know that you're making an impact, and all of those victories are huge.
Along the way, we have been fortunate enough to meet and become connected with MMI. That's been, in essence, our biggest victory, and it has impacted our work in so many ways. Another big victory for us has been becoming partners with The Save the Music Foundation. Now, I'm a spiritual man, and I believe God is the reason for it all—God sends you in directions that catapults you to where you need to be.
MMI: So when you're thinking about the future of Successful Inc., and envisioning your ideal scenario, your ideal vision for what it looks like 10 years into the future, what does that look like for you?
EM: I’m always thinking about how we’re going to evolve. I was speaking to one of my board members the other day about how we're going to alter our mission as we go. We've got to always stay cognizant of what the community actually needs, and we want to make sure that we stay in tune with the community so we can move forward as they move forward and change. That's what I'm always thinking about. I can see Successful, Inc. evolving into something that's even broader than what we're doing now—maybe get to the point where we can have paid staff. I may not always be the executive director, but I will always be close to Successful, Inc.
MMI: How have you seen Memphis change over the years, particularly regarding access to music? What still needs to happen to support the next generation of Memphis music?
EM: One thing I’ve seen in this region is consolidated schools that really needed a more comprehensive plan for how music and the arts were going to transition. It has left things a little bit chaotic. You had flourishing band programs that were supplying this whole country with incredible musicians that have now gone away. It was a huge mistake that affects not only Memphis, but this whole region. I think we're going to feel that impact for a long time. The other issue I’ve seen is that many schools are struggling to get working instruments. Everywhere you go, there's a need for musical instruments, and, of course, these instruments are very expensive.
Memphis, Tennessee and the Mississippi Delta are such impactful places in the history of music. We're the birthplace of blues, we've got WC Handy, BB King. I don't even want to start naming artists, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We have to continue providing young people with the resources and opportunities to carry on this legacy. There’s a lot of work still to be done.
MMI: Absolutely. Is there anything else that you want to mention that I haven't asked you about?
EM: I'll say this: You don't do this work by yourself. Nobody does. The work we’re doing is inspired by all the work that people have done in the past to try to make sure that our youth get what they need. I'm so happy to be a part of this. I feel so grateful for us being in the position we are in right now—to be the instrument that's being used to provide musical instruments to our youth for success in life, is amazing.