With an early focus on chemistry, Roshun Austin initially expected to go into a career in healthcare or natural sciences. When she discovered her passion for anthropology, however, she realized she could combine data-driven methods with a sociological perspective to have an even broader impact on the wellbeing of her community. Roshun’s passion for service makes her one of the most in-demand board members in Memphis’s philanthropic community, in addition to her full-time leadership as the President and CEO of The Works CDC. Meet this week’s FACE of Memphis, Roshun Austin!
Where were you born and what was your upbringing like?
I was born in a neighborhood called Hyde Park in North Memphis. I grew up the middle of five girls in a household. I was bused out of my neighborhood as part of the early integration of the Memphis City Schools.
Most kids don’t know whether they’re poor or not; they don’t think about that because they don’t have to pay any bills. My father fell ill when I was 9, so my mother had five little girls spread out over 15 years. He had been our provider, so it forced her to go back into the workforce. She went back to Shelby State College and got a part-time job in the hub as a switchboard operator. So we all grew up working. We girls would go out to the higher income areas in Memphis and Germantown areas to cut yards.
What are your earliest memories of your own community?
I grew up in the ’80s in a neighborhood that was impacted by the crack epidemic. We were known in our neighborhood as “those good girls,” “those sanctified girls,” so people looked out for us. But I had to get through drug dealers on either end of my street to get to the middle where we lived. I saw the SWAT team come out and raid our neighbors. But these were the people I grew up with, who we played with.
How did you know that urban anthropology was the direction that you wanted to take your career?
I started out at Middlebury College in natural science. I tried to love it, but I struggled. Then I discovered these courses in anthropology, and I fell in love. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with it, and it wasn’t real to anybody at home because who does that? How do you make money doing that? Then I saw Memphis had this anthropology program, but it’s a different kind of program. It’s not me going to a tribe studying and writing ethnographies, it’s urban anthropology — one of the best programs in the country, and it was at home and I was like, perfect. It was home, it was family, it was the people who influenced my life. They were all here.
What is a community development corporation’s role in a neighborhood?
We are nonprofits that serve a charitable purpose, but we’re small corporations. Our CEOs probably know more than the typical corporation CEO because we have our hands in so many different things. We may have to behave like the chief financial officer and the CEO and the chief information officer and the CAO.
We are sometimes the biggest property owners in an area. We do very social service-oriented stuff, a lot of placemaking and work with public space. We work with elected officials in city and county and state governments because funding comes from there. We are bankers sometimes, too, because we do lend. We have a residential mortgage program. We loaned over $1 million to an independent grocery store.
So we’re revenue-generating, but we just put it back into the work we do. The public is our shareholder. We pay out dividends to them through our work.
What message do you want Memphians to believe about themselves?
I want them to believe that they are great, they are beautiful, and that this is a wonderful place. A lot of them have not been outside of the city, so they don’t know that other cities have flaws.
Memphis is a big city. It feels like a small town and a family. I want people to believe that, that we should love each other and love this place.
What role do you feel that design or aesthetics play in creating a community?
We lived in a neighborhood surrounded by blight, but my mother was sweeping the street. As humans, we’re attracted physically, we look at each other and we see what we look like. In terms of physical space, what a space looks like is important. It really changes us psychologically.
How do you improve a community while preserving its history and the stability of its residents?
You can put things in place to keep the displacement from happening. You can put restrictive deeds in place. The Alpha Renaissance apartments we own are 19 years old. The families who live here, 60% are below the income median. When I refinanced three years ago, our tax credits were gone, and I could have chosen to go market rate, but I chose to legislate myself. I called the state and said, “Hey, we’d like to extend the land use restrictive agreement for 20 years.”
If we sell, whoever buys this is restricted by that deed. The people who live here have to be low income. But it doesn’t have to look like old public housing. It can look nice, and low-income people can buy houses across the street that we built. We live collectively; none of us live on an island. You’re just part of this one cog in this wheel that helps to operate this city and county.
What is the first place that you take visitors to Memphis?
I try to be really authentic. People always want to see Beale Street. I take them now to Clayborn Temple, and the I Am A Man plaza. I have some people who want to see Graceland because that’s Memphis too. Then I like to drive neighborhoods. That’s the historical side of me.
If you were eating out all day in Memphis, what’s your order?
Oh, I get a full breakfast. Bacon, biscuits, grits or hash browns. I’ll eat it all. For lunch, probably barbecue. It could be one of the bigger restaurants, but it might be a hole in the wall. It may be fried fish if it’s Friday because I need to keep it Memphis. For dinner I may go fancy, eat in a fine restaurant, or it could be fried chicken.
What is your best advice?
Love thy neighbor as thyself. That solves everything. But first, sometimes we have to teach people to love themselves. You are Memphis. You are internationally known, you are the movement of this river, the blues in this song.
What are three everyday things you can’t live without?
Music, books and bacon
Thank you, Roshun, for the work you do on behalf of all Memphians. And thank you to the talented Elizabeth Looney for the beautiful photos.
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