Welcome to The Dean’s List! The Dean’s List will profile up-and-comers in Memphis who are certain to be the next group of leaders in the nonprofit, corporate, government, and faith communities. The Dean’s List is curated by Kevin Dean, the Executive Director of Literacy Mid-South.
Imagine being able to parlay a hobby as a blogger into a full-time position as a communications specialist for one of the most well-known nonprofits in the Mid-South. Germantown native Emily Pate Austin, 34, did just that. A graduate of Christian Brothers University with a BA in English, followed by a Masters in English from Loyola University, Emily knew that writing was in her future. After a stint teaching English at a private academy outside of Seoul, South Korea with her husband, Ben, Emily moved back to the United States and promptly found out that she was having a baby.
“I promptly started blogging about my pregnancy because no one’s ever done that before,” Emily jokes. Emily launched her blog, notthehardestpart.com, which quickly caught on with readers. Her honest portrayal of life as a new mother coupled with her acerbic wit was a crowd pleaser, and she soon found herself with almost 18,000 online followers. Emily’s blunt candor about the struggles and reality of parenting made her especially popular, even if her comments section was occasionally hit by a naysayer. “I wrote a blog post late in my pregnancy about how much I love glasses. It went viral four days after Cece was born, and someone left a comment on the post saying that I was an awful human/ parent because I think babies who wear glasses are adorable. The Internet is really a heartwarming, fun place sometimes.”
Because of her success as a blogger, Emily made her way to the Church Health Center, where she is now a Communications Specialist. She gets paid to tweet, Facebook, blog, and more for a very worthy cause. We chose Emily because of her big future as a social media queen in Memphis!
If you could describe your feelings about Memphis in three words, what would they be? First, informed. When I left Memphis in 2004, I swore I’d never return. I think that’s a sentiment that a lot of people feel after they’ve spent the better part of their lives in one place and they want to get out and see the world. Well, I saw the world, and for the most part, I enjoyed every place I experienced. But now, even with all those experiences under my belt, I’m so glad to be back in Memphis with my family. This is a world-class place. Sure, we have world-class problems, but we are poised to solve them in a way that perhaps we weren’t 10 or 20 years ago.
Second, sentimental. When I drive down Peabody to get to work every day, I pass a house with a rusty two-story transmitter tower in its front yard. When I was a little girl, my dad drove me to that same house and told me about how his father helped build that tower back in the 60’s. I never met my grandfather – he died way before I was born – and my own dad died back in 2001, but Memphis is riddled with traces of the people who built my history and who gave me a sense of home before I even realized how special that feeling was. I get nostalgic even listening to Prairie Home Companion on WKNO on Saturday afternoons. It has run in the same time slot since I was a kid, and hearing that show always reminds me of the pressure cooker that Memphis can be in the summer and the joy of eating BBQ on Saturday afternoon.
Finally, optimistic. It’s hard not to be optimistic about Memphis these days. We’re choosing 901 and we’re loving Memphis because we know we’re still writing its history. I always tell my friends who have never been to Memphis that it’s more than Elvis, BBQ, and FedEx, and usually by the end of my spiel I’ve got them on Priceline booking their trip.
What led you to the Church Health Center? After living in Fayetteville, North Carolina for three years, it was clear to Ben and me that the town wasn’t home and that we didn’t really have a future there. We craved the familiarity of Memphis and the network of support that we had here. My mother-in-law was very active at The Way, a service of recovery sponsored by St. John’s Methodist and the Church Health Center. She told me about an opening in communications that included managing social media and blogs. I Skyped with Jeff Hulett and Marvin Stockwell, felt an instant rapport with them, and the rest is history. I’ve been helping to tell the story of the Center ever since. I’m tremendously privileged to support our mission of providing affordable healthcare to the working uninsured in my role as a communications specialist.
Why do you think social media is an important part of Church Health Center? When I googled how much time people spend online each day, I learned that it’s about 4.5 hours, and honestly that seems a little conservative to me! We’ve gotten to a place where social media is no longer simply a wishlist item for any business, but especially for a nonprofit. If we’re really committed to serving people exactly where they are, we have to be in the digital space because that’s where people are. We have to answer Facebook messages and tweets as quickly as we would answer the phone, and we have to connect the people we serve with the services that they could benefit from. Twitter is basically the virtual equivalent of the coffeehouse cork board, and if we don’t utilize it to get the word out about all the things we have going on, we’re not doing our due diligence to the people we claim to serve. If you see a flyer for our upcoming Mental Health First Aid training, you’re also going to hear about it on social media.
The Church Health Center would not exist if it weren’t for the volunteer and financial support we receive from people and organizations all over Memphis, and that’s not just nonprofit lip service. We have hundreds of volunteer doctors who serve our patients, and even the smallest financial gifts we receive are put hard to work. Only $7 can provide one medication voucher. Social media is an ideal space for us to stay connected with everyone who supports us with their time, talent, or treasure and tell the stories of those lives they have changed for the better.
What’s the most important part of the Church Health Center’s services? That’s a tricky one. We do a lot more than most people are aware of. Sure, we have our clinics, but we also have a Wellness facility and gym that’s open to everyone regardless of their income or employment status. We have a seasonal farmers market that thrives in one of Memphis’ worst food deserts. We operate Perea Preschool in the Klondike neighborhood because we know that access to quality early childhood education is inextricably linked to better health later in life. We have an entire staff of people who work to promote health in faith communities all over Memphis. None of these services exist in a vacuum. They all work in concert to make Memphis healthier and address the social factors that have a negative impact on people’s health. That’s why our move to Crosstown Concourse is such a flippin’ big deal; we can’t do everything, but with our neighbors at Crosstown we’ll be able to seamlessly provide our patients and those we serve with the resources they need to improve their lives.
What are your favorite blogs at the moment? I’m a blog junkie so this is hard to narrow down, but here goes. I am a longtime reader of Peg-O-Leg’s Ramblings by Peg Schulte. Peg is bar none one of the funniest, most personable bloggers I’ve run across, and she does an incredible job of finding humor in tragedy and sadness. She’s also an insurance agent so I always think of her as the blogosphere’s own version of Wallace Stevens, although I can assure you that you don’t have to have a PhD to understand what the heck she’s talking about. I also love Must Be This Tall to Ride by Matt Fray. Matt’s blog grew out of the ashes of his divorce, and while he writes primarily about the lessons he’s learned by dissecting the circumstances that lead to the end of his marriage, his words are beautiful for anyone who cares about being the best version of themselves for those around them.
Name three people in Memphis that you think will help change this city for the better. I have known Nick Wiggins since he was just my best friend Cameron’s little brother with a perpetual purple popsicle stain on his white t-shirt. Now he’s a devoted father and spouse, a student, and someone who is committed to making Memphis a better place. His is one of the impassioned voices advocating for the preservation of Overton Park’s Greensward, and he backs up his words with action. He loves this city and wants to make it better for his own family, which is one of the best reasons to improve and preserve anything as far as I’m concerned. I’m proud of him and can’t wait to see all that’s ahead of him.
Speaking of Overton Park, I think it’s important to remember the people who have been making it a park worth fighting for since the Greensward started making headlines. Melissa McMasters is one of those people. Melissa has been one of my best friends since we met in Medieval Lit at CBU and bonded over archaic poems that no one else seemed to love. (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, anyone? Bueller?). After starting her career at the parks department in Pittsburgh, she returned to Memphis and has been with the Overton Park Conservancy for years. She does a lot of the same communication-y things that I do at the Church Health Center, but she is also the mastermind behind the OPC’s recently-launched Field Guide to the Plants of the Old Forest. She’s worked to chronicle the 350+ flowering plants that are found in the Old Forest and categorize them so that anyone – whether they live here in Memphis and want to know more about the nature of the park or live across the country and want to know more about the flora of Shelby County – can easily learn about our park. Melissa’s basically Memphis’ own Leslie Knope. So maybe that makes me Tom Haverford? IDK.
I finally have to add Kimberly Baker to my list. She’s actually been changing Memphis for the better for many years through her leadership of Church Health Center Child Life Education and Movement, her involvement in the theater community, her work as a doula, and countless other projects. All those things are testaments to her compassion and selflessness. Kimberly is the kind of mom friend every parent needs and deserves. Parenthood can and will be overwhelming and scary for everyone who experiences it, and she’s been a strong force of compassion and support for me during those times, and I know I’m not the only mother who’s benefitted from her kindness and expertise.
What’s the one Memphis restaurant you couldn’t live without? Molly’s La Casita. Ben and I went on our first date there back in 2003 and we almost always go back there for special and not-so-special occasions. It’s consistently yummy and fun. Oh, and the preschooler likes it, so there’s that. No offense to the artisanal small plate movement but Cece Austin is not on board.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen in Memphis? One time I was driving down Lamar and I looked over and there was an iguana with its little claws wrapped around the partially-opened passenger side window of a white 1982 Buick. Bruh was just gazing out the window and enjoying the ride. We should all be like that iguana.
What’s the biggest issue facing Memphis, and how do we solve it? Once I drove past one of our city’s many churches. Outside the church was a man holding a cardboard sign that said he was hungry. That image has stayed with me because the man was facing traffic and petitioning cars driving by for help. He wasn’t facing the church or knocking on its doors.
Memphis is a place where there is a vast gulf separating wealth and profound poverty, and it’s also a place where faith plays a big role in the lives of a lot people. I’m one of them, and even I see the blatant hypocrisy in my caring more about signing my kid up for soccer at church than signing up to volunteer at my church’s soup kitchen. We can’t just assume that someone else is going to solve the problems of poverty and inequality in Memphis; we are morally obligated to put ourselves on that frontline. It doesn’t matter whether we do that in the name of faith or in the name of just being decent people who care about other human beings. What matters is that we show up to succor the pain of others because it’s just the right thing to do.
What can Memphians do to make a difference in our community? I’m a big believer in the power of seemingly small gestures because I see their power in my work at the Church Health Center. I once interviewed one of our dental patients and he said that he was so grateful for our presence in his life that he started making small monthly gifts of $15 to the Center. Incidentally, that’s the exact same cost that it takes for us to buy groceries for one of our childhood healthy cooking classes. He’s paying it forward and making Memphis better.
We don’t have to give money, either. My friend Kristen Berning volunteers to help refugees get their drivers’ licences. My boss Jeff Hulett carries a box of snack crackers in his car at all times so he can give them to people who are hungry. We can all give up an hour a week to tutor a student at Literacy Mid-South and equip them with the skills to get a better-paying job. Or we can take a tour of the Fairgrounds with John or Marvin and learn why the fairgrounds are worth saving or just connect with people who care as much about Memphis as we do. I may be preaching to the choir here, but Memphis is pretty amazing and all we have to do is open our eyes to the great things surrounding us and think creatively about what we as individuals are uniquely poised to do to make those things available to all of our neighbors, not just the ones who live in our zip code.
What is one thing you’re most excited about for Memphis? As a parent of a small child, I’m excited about this incredible generation of Memkids that we’re raising right now. Parents in Memphis are my favorite because they’re hilarious, socially conscious, and great at explaining to their kids that while the city isn’t perfect, it is worth fighting for. With those kinds of models, I’m positive Memphis is going to be in good hands when our children are running the show.