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In a community where it is almost as easy to acquire a gun as a pen, two Dominican University students are working to arm their youthful peers with something else: knowledge.
Combining close contact with high art, Sebastian Longstreet and Ambrell Gambrell are among a growing chorus of young people looking to disrupt what the media has portrayed as the Austin community's status quo of guns and violence. Although they approach the problem from opposite experiences, they are making a difference in a community wracked by violence.
For Longstreet, the effort is an individual one, hands on and largely face-to-face, impacting one person at a time through his work as a youth supervisor and outreach program director at the Peace Corner Youth Center, 5022 W. Madison St.
Gambrell, meanwhile, uses the words she loves to voice a message of love and acceptance, hoping to convince those who hear her that "you are loved, you are accepted and you don't have to look to gangs" to be respected as a human being, as a person.
Neither came to this work without pain.
Serving two years in Stateville Correctional Center for drug-related offenses was enough for Longstreet. Determined to leave his past behind — he had sold drugs since age 12 — he earned a diploma from York Alternative High School while incarcerated. He left prison determined not to go back.
Once out, however, Longstreet found himself ill-prepared to find work.
"I would look for jobs on my own," the slender, soft-spoken 22-year-old said, but when he'd get to interviews, he'd find he "wasn't dressed right" and "didn't know what to say. It was like walking in a room with a blindfold on."
Raised by her grandmother, Gambrell grew up a quiet kid — and the youngest of a blended family of five siblings — who had a lot of thoughts running through her mind. Raised to "keep your family's business in the family," those thoughts found expression in poetry.
Slight of build, with long trailing braids and a 100-megawatt smile, Gambrell's best friend is a cousin, Latasia, who had a younger sister named Ashley "Muffin" Hardom, who was murdered — shot in the back of the head while enjoying fireworks on her block last July 2. She died on her street, the same street on which Gambrell lives, several houses down from her home. Hardom became the 201st victim of gun violence in Chicago and the second teen on her block to die from bullets.
A friend convinced Longstreet to check out the Peace Corner, insisting that he had to meet the founder, Father Maurizio. He did, and thus began his journey — not just turning his life around, but working to help others do so as well. However, it took a while to shake his street view.
One day he saw some of his old friends working demolition on a building and thought they were stealing. "What are you guys doing?" Longstreet asked. "Get out of that abandoned building — you want to go to jail?"
"Father Maurizio said, 'No, no, they're working for me.'"
"You got them stealing out of an abandoned building?"
"No, it's demolition," Father Maurizio replied. "Are you interested?"
"Yes, I am," Longstreet replied. The next day, he was on the demolition crew.
"It's always hard reading stories about kids being killed," Gambrell said. "For a lot of people, they're just stories. It was a big wake-up call for me."
The residual effect of Muffin's death lingers and is a constant companion. "Only recently have I been scared," she admits, "scared to be the next victim, scared to be the next story."
Her cousin's murder, literally doors from her home, crystallized something else for the senior communications major at Dominican University. "This could be you," she said, her voice tight. "You don't have to be in the wrong place. It's time to stop glossing over the situation. It's time to do something about it."
Father Maurizio agreed to help Longstreet if he enrolled in a job-training program. The commitment felt strange to Longstreet, "like I was in a new world. I had never met anyone who just wanted to help me."
For the next four months, Longstreet threw himself into the program, which met four hours every Saturday, without pay, from September to December. He fully expected to be cut loose at the program's end. So he was surprised when Father Maurizio asked if he wanted to work at the Peace Corner. Thus began his job at "the place where kids can be kids in a safe environment."
Six months ago Gambrell began writing songs. Her cousin's murder has propelled her to activism, an urgent awareness of the situation infuses her songs. She performs the pieces at open mics, joining voices with other youth who are doing the same thing.
"We've come to the conclusion that we have to push each other forward," she said. "That's exactly what we're trying to do with music and art.
"I want for the youth who aren't speaking to understand that the pen is much mightier than the sword," she says. "For me, the pen was my voice. I really think the youth who are promoting violence don't have a voice."
Big brother, mentor, confidante, advocate, referee — these are a few of the roles Longstreet, a Dominican University computer science major, fills as he works with the more than 100 kids who daily frequent the Peace Corner. He is a firm taskmaster, checking homework (and assigning it if necessary) and making sure his charges understand the work. His goal is to "teach at least one kid something new every day."
He also helps develop long-term solutions to problems that impact the kids. In one example, he counseled a Peace Corner regular who'd been suspended for fighting classmates who made fun of his clothes. He discovered that the child's family didn't have a washing machine at home and couldn't afford to wash. His first instinct was to wash the clothes, until he realized that solution would have him washing clothes on a regular basis. So Longstreet "bought a lot of detergent, went to the boy's house and taught him how to wash his own clothes." The teasing stopped.
On the main wall of the Peace Corner, behind the Ping Pong and pool tables, are posted guidelines about conflict resolution. Missing from the list is one Longstreet regularly employs: hugs.
"I get them to tell me what the problem is and how we can solve it," he explained, "to think about why they want to fight." After each dispute he mediates, he asks the would-be combatants to hug. Most times, he adds, the process of thinking about the "why" is enough to defuse angry feelings.
An old soul, avid reader and eloquent observer of history who considers Harriet Tubman a hero, Gambrell believes if today's youth knew their past, they would recognize the "powerful things we've accomplished without violence; the changes we've made without violence." When you know, she contends, "you never need to pick up a gun, especially not against someone who looks like you."
She likens the system in America to hunters in trees watching their prey kill each other so they don't have to work. "My peers in this movement to end the violence just want to yell out 'look up in the trees!'" she said.
Through his work at the Peace Corner, augmented by a stellar performance in the UIC Non-Profit Mentoring Program, Longstreet earned a partial scholarship to Dominican University. A sophomore this year, he maintains a 3.9 GPA with a full-time class load. After graduation, he plans to open a non-profit organization to teach people from backgrounds similar to his how to build and repair computers.
Education, Longstreet believes, is key to solving many of the community's problems. "If you knew better," he says, "you would do better." Uneducated adults model behavior that the kids mimic, he noted.
"You have to improve the education, one generation at a time. A lot of kids don't realize that there are other options. They think the options they have are which corner they're going to be on."