A group of Austin teens demonstrated against a fire-damaged building adjacent to an elementary school Monday that they say has become a haven for drug activity.
Members of Austin Peace Brigade, a youth advocacy group of the South Austin Coalition Community Council, hosted a morning protest and march Monday outside the abandoned building at 215 N. Lavergne, located across the street from Spencer Elementary Math and Science Academy. Brigade members say the boarded up two-flat is a community hazard.
The 15 Peace Brigade members marched in front of the building, but Monday’s event was only the latest community advocacy endeavor the youth have undertaken this summer through SACCC.
The teens contend the building is a magnet for crime and a danger to students attending Spencer School, and they demanded the building be demolished or converted into something more useful.
“Like a youth center – somewhere kids can have a place to come, hang out and just play games,” said 16-year-old Shamirah Jones, a Michele Clark High School student.
Jones hoped their actions will get adult community leaders to respond to their concerns.
Monday’s march was another civic lesson in community activism for brigade members, they admitted.
“Young people need to get more involved in their communities,” said Jake Towers, 16, a student at Noble Street Charter School near Wicker Park. “We are the leaders for tomorrow. We want good things for the community.”
The drug house demonstration was not the first for the Peace Brigade. Students in the program are spending the summer learning the ins and outs of community organizing, including the power of civil disobedience.
Teens ranging from age 13 to 18 marched on big-named corporations like ComEd this summer to protest utility shut-offs on delinquent accounts during extreme heat days. The group also tackled community issues such as slum landlords, and also marched against gun violence. SACCC runs the program to promote community activism and leadership skills in youth.
“A lot of these kids have natural organizing abilities,” said Elce Redmond, an organizer with SACCC. “They use it for parties or events, but what we are trying to do with this process is to get them to organize around specific issues that affect their community.”
Launching in July, the Peace Brigade’s goal was to teach youth conflict resolution and mediation skills, but violence is not the only issue impacting youths, Redmond said. They’re also concerned about the abandoned buildings throughout their neighborhoods-like the one they marched against on Monday-Redmond added, because it’s a safety and health issue.
“For years (youth) felt powerless to do anything about them because they didn’t know what community organizing can actually bring.”
The program teaches youth to identify an issue, create strategies around that issue and formulate demands to get that issue addressed. The youth also learn to hold press conferences.
“It is important for them to understand organizing from point A to point Z-how to build an organization, how you mobilize on a campaign, how do you win on an issue, and how do you get the media involved,” Redmond explained.
Since the program began, the students have marched against gun violence at the National Night Out campaign on Aug. 1, and passed out school supplies at a West Side back to school parade.
They even attended a city administrative hearing on the North Lavergne building. Although the owner failed to show in court, Redmond said the teens may step up their protest by marching on the building owner’s Bellwood home.
Peace Brigade’s organizing efforts have already paved off. They marched on a senior housing complex that refused to relocate an elderly handicapped woman from her third-floor apartment to one on the first floor. Within days after the march, and subsequent meeting with the complex’s officials, the woman got a first-floor apartment.
“Protesting really does help,” said 14-year-old Jaquisha Gills, an incoming Michele Clark freshman.
Malcolm X College freshman Kayla Jackson, 18, never saw herself as a community organizer, but added, “Teens can make a difference.”