Last Saturday, community members gathered at the Ohio Park Playground, 4712 W. Ohio St., to commemorate Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. The July 20 event, called the African Heritage Community Festival — and held during last week’s heat wave (temperatures hovered in the high 90s to low 100s) — featured free food, music, games and wellness resources.
The day’s event was also held to honor Thelma M. Brookins, 75, who has lived across the street from Ohio Park for 45 years. Brookins received the Leola Spann Community Service award.
The Leola Spann House — a transitional residential and support services facility for individuals experiencing serious mental illness that’s operated by the nonprofit Habilitative Systems, Inc. — is located in the area, at 4732 W. Ohio St., and named for the fiery Austin activist who died in 2005. The House, along with the Habilitative Systems, Northwest Austin Council and the Chicago Police Department were among the entities that hosted the event.
Spann was an active member of the Northwest Austin Council for two decades. She leveraged th community organization in her fight for after-school programs and her battles with slumlords and other bad-faith actors.
On Saturday, Spann’s legacy filled Ohio Park, particularly in the form of Brookins, who has built her own history of activism and outreach in the area.
“I started out here in Austin and worked for Tabitha House, a homeless shelter,” she recalled. “I started out there years ago and worked for a lady who loved homeless people. We’d give away food and clothing — whatever we could get. I’d get 30 and 40 boxes of food to distribute to people in the area, because they were hungry and didn’t have any food.”
Brookins said that the forces that Spann fought against many years ago, particularly the scourge of drugs, crime and poverty, are still prevalent in the area today.
“We need help here,” she said. “Some people are sleeping in cars. We need more programs, because it’s hard. There’s nothing but drugs. I can look out there at all times of the night and see [drug activity].”
Stephen Robinson, the head of the Northwest Austin Council, said that many of the struggles in places like Austin are framed by race. Whites fled Austin many years ago to avoid living with Blacks, who have lived with the consequences of systemic disinvestment ever since, he indicated.
“Even today, Black people have the same needs and concerns that white people have,” he said. “We want good educational institutions, stable and good housing, great public safety and crime-free neighborhoods. We want the same things they wanted.”
Despite the area’s problems, however, local institutions like the Leola Spann House have made this part of Austin an oasis for people like Mindy, a poet who currently resides in the Spann House.
Mindy, a veteran who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2001, was honorably discharged for military sexual trauma. The incidence of sexual violence, she said, resulted in her being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“In March, I had a breakdown and had to go to a psychiatric facility,” she said. “When I came here, though, I felt more at home. They nourish me.”