Since the murder of George Floyd and the uprising that followed, it can sometimes seem like Minneapolis has become synonymous with crime and lawlessness, at least in the mind of the people who tend to comment on local news stories or social media. What that conversation often leaves out is Minneapolis residents who know the reality — and are working to better their communities.
One of these people is 18-year-old Anton Jahn-Vavrus, who was born and raised in South Minneapolis. Towards the end of last year, Anton got an idea for a t-shirt campaign titled “Let us Live,” to honor residents who’ve lost their lives due to gun violence, donating the proceeds to two organizations that support and empower young people in his community. (Now in college at Loyola University in Chicago, Jahn-Vavrus was charged earlier this year with defacement of property for allegedly vandalizing several buildings on the Loyola campus with messages referencing Amir Locke, the Minneapolis man killed by police earlier this year.) MinnPost spoke to Jahn-Vavrus about the origins of the “Let us Live” campaign, his experience growing up in South Minneapolis and his thoughts on the future of his city.
MinnPost: You graduated from South High in 2021. What was your high school experience like and your overall experience growing up in the city?
Anton Jahn-Vavrus: Yeah, South High School. Lot of negative connotations are thrown at that school. “It looks like a prison”; “It has no windows” … Just a lot of negativity but it’s really a beautiful place when you go inside of it. It’s one of the most diverse schools in the country … for sure the state. There are issues of course, and I think a lot of that is due to a lack of funding and support. I don’t think I learned how to write a perfect paper for my college professor there sure … but I learned what the world is really like and how to interact with people from all backgrounds. And I think that’s a lot more valuable.
MP: How did the idea for the campaign come about?
AJV: I think it came to me just from growing up here. At a very young age, I’m just hearing about kids my age getting shot and that confused me, you know? It’s like, why is this happening? All these questions build up and you get older and it becomes a continuous thing. And then when I move away to Chicago for college, I feel this disconnect from the community because I’m looking back seeing this violence. My environmental science course at school had a semester-long project and the professor said to do something eco-friendly based. And I thought, what about eco-friendly t-shirts? After hearing about two different shootings involving kids back to back, I was like I have to do something related to this topic. I hadn’t really seen anyone speak up, and I think a lot of times people are scared because they might not be directly of that community so they’ll just turn a blind eye to it.
I had a couple different organizations in mind as far as who I wanted to work with and I started thinking about the causes of gun violence. I think a lot of it is due to lack of investment in the youth and one of the ways to prevent this sort of violence is to invest in people so they don’t have to go into lanes of their life where they might need to carry a gun. So I had a connection with the program director for the Little Earth Boys and Girls Club of South Minneapolis, a man named TJ Valtierra and I ran the idea by him and he liked it. The biggest thing about this project is that it’s not really me… I think I pulled a lot of strings but at the end of the day it was a lot of people coming together to make it happen. So a friend of mine named Queen drew out the sketch and someone named Ian in New Hampshire drew the actual image and the Little Earth organization helped print the t-shirts.
The drawing is a scene you see a lot in the cities, which is just like a street corner with some type of memorial for somebody that had been killed. I wanted it to represent the two main places in Minneapolis, north and south, and the two main places in Saint Paul, east and west, so you see that on the balloons and “let us live” is put in children’s handwriting. The reason I went with that phrase and that style is because I was thinking of the kids at this club and the ones at the Jerry Gamble Boys & Girls Club in the Northside. Although it started out as a school project for me, it became something way bigger that I could’ve never imagined. And people in Minneapolis showed a lot of love..it went viral on social media and I think everyone related to it in their own way.
MP: This campaign isn’t the first thing you’ve done when it comes to social causes. Can you tell me about some other things that you’ve been a part of or you’ve initiated?
AJV: So yeah, my senior year of high school, I was a part of this class called Voices and we did a lot of different projects and that’s where a lot of what I’ve done stems from. So in that class, we did a collaboration with MPR and we did a podcast interviewing former gang members who are part of this nonprofit organization called Agape Movement. … So for example, if you’re not comfortable calling the police, you can call them and they’ll help de-escalate violent incidents and things like that. They also work with the city and do things like shoveling for people during the winter. I just remember interviewing them and just realizing that this is the path I want to go down, putting my time and energy into uplifting groups like this. We also made a movie South Side Shine with TPT, a documentary about redlining, gentrification and just like some positive things about South Minneapolis that people don’t normally get to see. And then from there, I just wanted to continue to do more things like that.
MP: Since the murder of George Floyd, gun violence … hasn’t really slowed down in Minneapolis or frankly all around the country. Are you hopeful at all that things will get better in South Minneapolis?
AJV: For a long time, I didn’t have hope and I don’t think any of my friends really did either. It was just kind of like a continuous dark cloud over Minneapolis. Like, I remember on Christmas, we were all having a good time and we checked our phones and saw that someone got killed at the Lake Street train station. And that’s like the hub of our childhood, we would take trains and buses from there..and it’s like, even on Christmas we can’t have anything. That’s what Minneapolis felt like..like we can’t have anything good.
So for a long time, that’s the energy I felt and I think one thing that’s been the cause of the violence is COVID and that’s why it’s been nationwide. I think I am somewhat hopeful and it’s going to be a slow and long journey, but South Minneapolis used to be a lot worse during the Murderapolis years. Things have gotten better, even though it’s been gradual and I think through community protection organizations like Touch, Agape, the Freedom Fighters and positive programming like the Boys and Girls Club and hopefully, this teacher strike working out, I think we’re on a good path.
What happened after George Floyd was basically a reset for Minneapolis and the few years after it, everyone was in disarray and didn’t know where to go. But if nothing else, we saw the community beautifully come up from that. And I think continuing that energy, we’ve really hit a reset. Now we’re looking at the schools and we’re like we need to change everything and the same thing with the police.
MP: In terms of what the community of South Minneapolis needs to get to a better place, what things do you think would help?
AJV: I’d say there’s two categories, there’s politicians and then there’s citizens. South Minneapolis is full of middle-class to upper-class white people and I think a lot of us were on action mode after George Floyd and then it just fluttered out. I don’t think it’s enough to read an anti-racist book and then donate $50 and then go to sleep. I think a lot of times it’s easy for us white people to go back to our comfortable mode of 9-5, but nothing is going to change that way because at the end of the day, Black people have been fighting for things to change for a long time the main group that’s been silent is white people. I think if that changed and flipped, inherently things would be a lot different. So I think that it would be good to see the white community of South Minneapolis, which is large, to start stepping up and in their free time find an organization to volunteer for. I know the Boys and Girls club would love volunteers or the Peace House, which is a homeless shelter I’ve worked with before.
I think for politicians… there’s a lot that they can do. Schools, we’re going to stay on schools big time. We need better pay for teachers and support staff and we need better support for all the different groups of color that are in these schools. Like ELL support, you can’t get through high school if you don’t understand the language. If you look at the average ACT score at South, 17, and then you look at the resources and the test scores and graduation rates at Southwest High School or Washburn, which is the same district, it’s a completely different conversation. … if you look at Wayzata it looks like a community college. … And again for politicians, they need to be more uncomfortable and actually sit down with people who they work for and listen to them.
Yasin Mohamud is a Twin Cities-based writer.