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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, August 13, 2017 1:00 am

Youth leading anti-violence movement

MAUREEN C. GILMER | Indianapolis Star

INDIANAPOLIS – Brandon Warren is on a mission to save this city – his city.

The soft-spoken teen, a football player, National Honor Society member and student council representative at Warren Central High School, is leading the charge to turn down the violence that is maiming and killing his peers.

For Warren, it was the death of his friend Dijon Anderson that thrust him into a leadership role in the community.

Anderson, a Warren Central football star, died May 23, two weeks after being injured in a shooting on the west side.

The 18-year-old senior, described as “fearless” and someone who loved people, was headed to Southern Illinois University on a football scholarship before a bullet cut short a life full of promise.

“It seems like every other day there's something in the news about violence, somebody gunned down,” Warren, 17, said. “We want to send a message to teens that this has to stop.”

He's joined in his grief and desire to make a difference by Warren Central classmate Angie Ramirez, who lost one of her closest friends, Angel Mejia-Alfaro, 17, in the same shooting.

Together, the two teens and an army of young people will carried a message of peace and unity Saturday during a peace walk and community program on the east side.

We LIVE Indy began as a social media movement, but with guidance and support from school officials, city leaders and family members, Warren and his committee of change-makers called for all people to come together to stop the killing. Several high schools have joined in the effort, including Pike, Ben Davis and North Central.

The group's name was inspired by a phrase Anderson used to repeat, “We LIVE, baby,” Warren said. Now LIVE (rhymes with five) stands for Linked to Intercept Violence Everywhere.

“We're live as a community, as a city trying to come against violence everywhere,” Warren said. “We want to be larger than Indy – as large as God can make it.”

Since Warren first sat down with the Indy Star in July to talk about the violence, several more shootings involving teens have occurred, most recently injuring a Ben Davis student and a graduate of North Central.

Last year, Indianapolis topped its all-time murder rate, marking 149 homicides.

This year, 10 of the 76 criminal homicides investigated by IMPD detectives have involved teens, according to an Indy Star analysis. Teens have been accused in killings, too. At least five have been arrested in connection with homicides this year, including a 15-year-old boy accused of a July 18 triple-homicide.

It's long past time for the community to come together to change the situation, Warren said. “(We) as a people have to do it. It shouldn't be up to police or city officials.”

So this effort is up to the youth of Indianapolis.

Brandon Randall, community liaison for Don't Sleep, said his activist organization is supporting Be LIVE Indy and had an information table at the event, but the group is giving the teens a chance to run the show.

“When we hear about youth violence, it's usually adults proposing solutions,” Randall said. “The problem is they often don't invite youth to the table to give input. Young people deal with this violence and trauma in ways we couldn't imagine. If we want youth involved in positive outlets, we have to encourage them to use their voice to advocate for themselves and for solutions.”

Mayor Joe Hogsett applauds Warren's decision to take a stand against senseless gun violence and hopes others will follow his lead.

“Too often we talk about young people as future leaders, but the reality is, teens like Brandon are finding ways to shape our city and influence the conversation right now. Together, we can make Indianapolis a safer city for all.”

Serena Fowlkes is Warren's cousin and the person who inspired him to launch We LIVE Indy. She got to know Anderson and his family when he played on a travel football team with her son and cousin last year.

Anderson was not just an athlete, she said. He was a friend. “We became like a family, and we looked out for each other.”

Fowlkes, who worked as a mental health counselor on the west side for 10 years, is still haunted by the pain she saw in the eyes of family members and young mourners at the funerals for Anderson and Mejia-Alfaro.

“You could just see the despair and brokenness,” she said. Later, she told her young cousin, “We need to do something.”

A peace walk is a good start, she thought, but it can't end there. Linking teens with employers and opportunities to serve will help the city change course.

For the kids, she wants to show them there are ways out of their circumstances “other than street hustling.”

“We want the kids to come together and say, 'I don't want to go that way.'”

And she wants adults to stand with youth today, to be the role models they need.

For everyone, she said: “It's time to stand up for what's right. We need to make some changes so our kids don't have to keep burying their friends.”

The Rev. Charles Ellis, statewide director of the Ten Point Coalition, believes young people can be a force in the battle against youth violence.

“We are looking for young lions, young people with a voice that have the same amount of passion not just about unjust shootings, but about urban gun violence.”

It's easy for younger people to dismiss “old fogies” like himself, he said, but they will listen to their peers. “It's time to incorporate them into the fight.”

U.S. Rep. Andre Carson, D-Indianapolis, echoes that sentiment. “I am pleased to see We LIVE Indy getting young people involved in the conversation. It is my hope that these young men and women use this experience to get more involved in our community, develop leadership skills and get more civically engaged.”

Warren, Ramirez and their peers are ready.

“I was on board as soon as I heard about it,” said Ramirez, 16, who served on the planning committee for Saturday's event. Her role has been reaching out to the families of those hurt by violence – families like her friend Mejia-Alfaro's.

She still visits his mom's house, where they talk about the good times. Now, his family and others have an empty space in their homes and hearts, she said. Her message to her peers is: Don't wait until it hits home.