Anthony Hill, 20, made a sharp U-turn and sped-up hungrily before slowing the van to parallel park in front of a pitched tent that announced ‘FREE CELL PHONE’ in bright green and yellow patterns.
Two teenagers began crawling out of the back seats. Virgil Crawford alighted on the sidewalk. Bringing up the rear, Tevin Smith, 19, maneuvered his linebacker build out of the van and, with a stack of papers, walked deliberately toward the bustle of Lake and Laramie.
Smith calmly approached a group of people waiting in front of the tent; a man sitting in a nondescript white work van parked in a lot reserved for patrons of the currency exchange and beauty supply store; commuters waiting to ride the bus or trafficking through the steep metal cage of the Green Line, where a small phalanx of cops and a drug-sniffing canine greeted them at the turnstiles.
“Did you vote already? OK, we’re trying to get as many…” some cut him off, or drowned him out with their headphones. One man, who appeared intoxicated or high, yelled profanities at Crawford, whose voice was carried over the corner’s cacophony by a bullhorn wired to a sound system inside the van.
“Vote for jobs! Vote for change! Vote November 4th!”
Some were more receptive than others. One man, who was waiting to sign up for a phone, thanked Smith for what he was doing, albeit hurriedly. The man took the paper Smith handed him, which announced an upcoming candidate forum.
“Oh, I know. Yes, I got it. No problem, no problem. This is just great what you are doing. You have a nice day,” the man said, intercepting the 19-year-old’s pitch.
“Some people are kind of angry today,” Smith said, particularly in reference to the old man shouting expletives at Crawford and denouncing the voting process.
“He’s just probably on some drugs or something. Everybody else, once they understood what we were talking about, they liked it,” Smith said during a break from his fieldwork.
Smith and Hill are participants in a program called Youth Working for Success, which is facilitated by the Westside Health Authority (WHA), a nonprofit community organization committed to improving the health and well-being of West Side residents.
The program comprises about 40 to 60 youth, ages 14 to 24, who receive academic assistance, employment and general support. Since this is an election year, the program’s current focus is voter registration.
“There are more 14- to 24-year-olds in Austin than any other community in the entire state,” said Quiwana Bell, an administrator with WHA.
“One of the goals of [WHA] is to build the capacity of citizens so they can go out and make the change they want to see,” she said.
The participants in the program’s voter registration arm are either Young Ambassadors or members of the youth council. All of them are registered voters and many are deputized registrars, according Crawford, a full-time community organizer for WHA.
Last month, the youth council was able to register more than 100 people to vote, according to Bell.
Although the general direction of the program and the organizing strategies are largely determined by the program’s adult administrators, the young people play a major role in determining the specific issues for which they advocate. And often, that advocacy entails walking door-to-door, cold calling, driving through the streets while talking into a bullhorn and canvassing along sidewalks.
One recent Thursday afternoon, they all gathered in a backroom of the WHA’s West Side office, at 5417 W. Division St., and began speaking at the same time in response to a single question fielded to the group: ‘What issues do you regularly confront that you want to change?’
“Unemployment,” said one.
“Incarceration levels,” said another.
“High school dropout rates,” said someone else.
They all said the police, prompting the dialogue to yield to that subject. Bell said that she and her team of administrators hadn’t realized how pervasive the police were in the lives of the youth until they began to listen to their complaints.
“When we first started a youth council, we had a lot of our own thoughts,” Bell said. “But the number one thing we kept hearing about is police brutality. That’s the number one concern on their minds.”
The day before this meeting, Keith Jenkins, 22, said that he was stopped by the police while walking to the WHA offices. He said that he felt he was stopped because he’s black.
“They asked me if I had a gun,” Jenkins said. “They patted me down. Everybody knows I work at the Westside Health Authority. I was on my way here.”
“The problem with the police is that, if you tell them your rights, they think you’re getting smart,” said Latayshia Chreets, 20. “They expect us not to believe that we know our rights, so they expect us to do whatever they tell us to do.”
“Say a group of us is standing on the south side of the street doing nothing and there’s a group of white guys on the other side of the street also doing nothing,” said Tevin Smith. “The police are not going to look at the white guys, they’re going to be looking straight towards us and pull us over. They say two is crowd and three is a group.”
“They never ask you your name,” said Malik Philpot, 18. “It’s always, ‘When was the last time you were locked up?'”
“The police are part of an institution of structural wealth and they have power just as our elected officials have power,” said Crawford, injecting a sense of order into the frustration. “The question is, ‘How do you get your voice and your issues heard against so much power?'”
“We have to come together as one,” said Smith. “If you see 100 black people in suits and ties arguing an issue, you’ll start to think that these young people are really trying to make a move, trying to do something. That will really touch people.”
Anthony Hill said that the group has already formed what it’s called the League of Young African American Voters for Change. The flyer that Smith was handing out advertised the League’s October 28 candidates forum “on issues affecting youth voters.”
“That’s basically what we want,” said Hill. “We want to be heard and we want a voice and power in our community.”
Many of the approximately 15 youth gathered that Thursday said that their message of political and social change may resonate more deeply with their peers since it comes from them.
“We can get the message across,” said Darrius Rule, 19. “We see what’s happening in the streets.”
“If older people want to better communicate with younger people, they should picture themselves in our shoes,” said Kenyatta Wilburn, 19.
Wilburn’s point was echoed by Smith, whose fieldwork later in the day at the corner of Lake and Laramie would motivate one Austin resident, Jimmy Collins, to ask the group to drive him to the polls so he could vote early.
“Take our life for a day,” Smith said.
“If we had more elders coming to us, instead of just judging us, things would be different,” said Julia Wright, 21.
“Instead of them looking at us thinking we’re hoodlums walking down the street, or if we have our headphones on and don’t say hello, then we’re bad people — they should try to help us induce change,” she said.
“We’re the younger versions of them.”