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Right where she is supposed to be, Aviance Brown-Austin was meant for this work

Aviance Brown-Austin was born to a 15-year-old mother, and partially raised by a youngish grandmother.

“Technically, I raised myself,” she said. “Along with the streets.”

Aviance made her way from childhood to adulthood – with stops in juvenile detention and prison – as best she could.

Today, at age 49, she is a regional supervisor for Memphis Allies. She started as an outreach specialist and then became a life coach.

To be sure, she has life lessons she can share.

“I had some people that influenced my life for the good,” she said of growing up in North Memphis. “And, I had some people that influenced my life for the bad. I’d have probably been a participant in Memphis Allies.”

The shooting this spring at an Orange Mound block party stirred memories from when Aviance was a teenager and there was a shooting at a school event. “I could have been dead and gone,” she said, recalling the mad dash to find safety. But in the next breath, she returned to speaking about her supervisor’s role for Memphis Allies, wondering about those shooters in North Memphis, and the ones from the recent incident in Orange Mound. “What was it that made them angry?” said asked. “What were they going through? These are the things we have to target when we’re talking to people and trying to get them into Memphis Allies.”

My thing is to try and keep them safe, free and alive.

– Aviance Brown-Austin

‘Participants come first’

Overseeing case managers and life coaches working in Orange Mound and Hickory Hill, Aviance is in contact with the dozens of participants who regularly come to Memphis Allies’ offices.

The services they receive include everything from clinical therapy to assistance with obtaining a GED or driver’s license.

Aviance gets to know these young men and women, and she hurts when they hurt. She also celebrates their small successes along a path that, ideally, leads to living better, more hopeful, lives.

“You give me goals, and I’m going to push you to meet those goals,” she said of the participants, who are in the SWITCH and SWITCH Youth programs. “My thing is to try and keep them safe, free and alive.”

Which means telling it like it is. Early on, program participants gave Aviance a nickname: Oprah.

“Because I was always preaching,” she said, adding that the nickname morphed into “Miss A.”

Her boss, Memphis Allies Operations Director Carl Davis, said she has a “heart of gold,” but that does not mean she is an easy touch.

Rather, she strikes that perfect balance between relationship building and holding participants – some of whom have been referred by the criminal justice system – accountable.

Davis says her passion for the work is unwavering.

“That’s why people respect her the way they do,” he said. “She embodies our value that the participants come first.”

Relentless and relational

“You don’t give up,” Aviance said of the effort to get people into Memphis Allies programs and keep them engaged. “You keep calling. ‘You’re going to get sick of me. And guess what: if you’re not answering (the phone) I’m pulling up on you.’”

Davis trusts her to not only do her work, but to make sure others are getting their work done according to Memphis Allies’ best practices.

“I don’t have time for handholding,” he said. “If she comes to me with a problem, she’s also coming with a solution and just letting me know about it.”

Yet if participants need that moment when she is mom, grandmother, auntie or friend, she can be that, too.

Even as she keeps the larger vision in mind.

“I love it,” she said of walking alongside participants in this journey. “I love getting up every morning and coming to work.

“They come in one way, all feisty and don’t want to open it up, and a couple of months go by, and they ask if you’re going to be here for them to change. They want you to get to know their kids… it’s beautiful.”

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