Voices of More for Memphis: Roshun Austin, CEO of The Works, Inc.

Editor's Note: This interview was conducted by Tafui Owusu to help uplift the voices and stories of community members who have been instrumental in developing the More for Memphis plan. 

Roshun Austin, President and CEO of The Works, Inc., has been a community development practitioner for almost 30 years, working in disinvested neighborhoods around the city of Memphis. She currently resides in the Evergreen area, and during our interview, she shared the differences between her neighborhood and the disadvantaged communities she serves. 

Austin and I discussed what her thoughts were concerning the issues or challenges the community of 38106 (South Memphis) and other impoverished zip codes face daily. She listed infrastructure, concentrated poverty, and unfair policies as being problematic for these citizens. Sewers, water, and sidewalks are pretty costly for developers to have a functional subdivision.

In the case of Black communities, these basic needs have been heavily neglected causing a slow deterioration of the areas. “Developers build not because we want them to build in certain places, but the numbers have to make sense, and nothing in community development makes sense,” explained Austin.

The serious lack of affordable housing continues because the costs it takes to build are parallel to for-profit homes. Developers lose millions because affordable dwellings must be subsidized for folks who live at or below the poverty level to keep their payments 30% or less of their total income. 

Austin also weighed in on the issue of “policy” because she believes that our local elected officials lack the understanding of their role as policymakers. Some of these unfair policies and practices include underwater mortgages, zoning regulations, and land use. She stated that “Appraisal bias is real,” therefore Black families have not generated wealth in homeownership over the past few generations.

Roshun Austin.Disinvestment plays a huge role in this and Austin went on to say that data supports the fact that when a neighborhood becomes 15% or more minority, or Black in the case of Memphis, the home value significantly depreciates.

“Policy, if it doesn’t align with the words that are coming out of our mouths in what we say we want to do for Black neighborhoods, it makes no sense,” said Austin. “We must move away from this idea of individualism and build for the collective.”

Data proves that the life expectancy in Black neighborhoods compared to the suburban area of Collierville is 19% lower. That’s nearly twenty years off of their lives because they can only afford to live in communities with high crime rates and limited access to healthy food, green spaces, and other resources that support their well-being.  

Part of the solution is to give the community members a voice to determine what they would like to see in the areas where they reside. Austin spoke of a pocket park greenspace suggested by the residents of 38106 where she works. She notes that the success of the idea manifested because the people who live there were at the table, therefore residents take great pride and ownership of the space.   

In a nutshell, policy overhaul at the federal and state levels needs to occur along with going back to what community looks like. Loving and taking care of our neighbors is the moral code that Austin lives by and credits her success to revitalizing neighborhoods like 38106.

“You have to build real authentic relationships and they don’t need to feel like I’m different from them,” said Austin before she landed with the suggestion of first loving ourselves, and in turn loving our neighbors.  
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Read more articles by Tafui Owusu.

Tafui Owusu (formerly Shelia Williams) is a resident of the Bickford-Bearwater area of North Memphis and a graduate of the second High Ground News Community Correspondents program. She is also a board commissioner for MATA.