On Friday afternoons in 1995, 13-year-old Gwen Brown and her three siblings began gathering for tutoring from their great aunt, Gwendolyn Austin.
The sessions in their family home on Minerva Street, which her father Mike Brown had hoped would help the children thrive, quickly drew attention from other students in the Ocean View.
“My dad made a program for us, and then everyone joined,” Brown said.
Soon, Mike Brown, began to pay other neighborhood children $15 to distribute newspapers or pick up garbage on Saturday mornings in order to give them some spending money.
Two years later, the city-funded nonprofit Inner City Youth was born.
Gwen Brown, now ICY’s executive director, says the collaboration between her father and his aunt, Gwendolyn Austin, was driven by their hope to help struggling students thrive as a drug epidemic struck the neighborhood and black families began to leave.
Mike Brown, a neighborhood leader, Muni driver and real estate investor, was regularly involved at his children’s schools, once starting a lunchtime support group for struggling boys at Aptos Middle School.
In 1995, Brown hired Austin, a GED teacher at some of the city’s roughest schools, to teach his children and some of their friends on the weekends.
The combination was powerful. Austin was a passionate teacher who did whatever was needed to reach her struggling students.
“[Austin] was at the last resort school and she was the last resort teacher,” Gwen Brown said. “The reason she was so phenomenal at her job was that she got them to pass.”
Austin would go to great lengths to get her students to pass, not worried about embarrassing herself or her students.
“If someone didn’t come to class, she went to their house,” Gwen Brown said. “She didn’t care about having this notorious reputation. She would say, ‘What does that have to do with you passing the GED?’”
Gwen’s father, Mike Brown, served in the Navy before moving to San Francisco. As an adult, Brown worked as a Muni driver and began buying houses, eventually buying and flipping around 50 except 96 Broad St., ICY’s offices since 2008.
“My dad never had a problem helping people and using his own money to do it,” Gwen Brown said, that included hiring his aunt to tutor students in the Ocean View.
Brown, 35, returned to ICY in 2002 to help incorporate her creative writing courses into ICY’s growing programs, especially Studio 96, a recording studio where students can write and record songs.
“I was trying to duplicate what I was getting at Mill’s [College] and give them a little glimpse of it,” Brown said of her effort to incorporate her college courses with ICY’s programs.
Today, ICY features a wide range of programs for local teenagers and transitional age youth, between 17 and 24 years old, with much of their funding coming from the Department of Children, Youth and their Families.
On Wednesdays, ICY sells food in the kitchen, attracting locals and alumni of the programs who like the sense of community and the food.
After 20 years as a nonprofit, ICY has a legacy in the neighborhood. From the front steps, visitors can look over the corner of Broad and Plymouth streets, the location of some of the Ocean View’s last black-owned businesses including Lacy’s Barber Shop and Dream Team, a clothing business owned by Donald Andrews, a former ICY employee who struck out on his own.
It’s that sense of community that makes ICY great, according to Felicia Phillips, a program coordinator at Studio 96 who received homework assistance and went on field trips with ICY as a child.
“To see everyone coming together [at ICY], is like a light in a dark room. It fuels my passion,” Phillips said.
Inner City Youth is located at 96 Broad St. and can be reached at (415) 587-4099.