CLEVELAND — For far too many people in far too many neighborhoods in Cleveland, gun violence isn't just a normal occurrence. Instead, it has become a daily reality, resulting in dramatic increases in the number of shootings and homicides so far this year compared to 2020. Determined to provide a detour for teens and young adults, one man's program aims to steer teens and young adults away from gun violence through art, poetry, and music.
Developed by the Central neighborhood's promise ambassador, Walter Patton, the Create Art Not Violence program aims to help kids in some of Cleveland's toughest neighborhoods overcome their traumatic experiences through various forms of art, including poetry, film, or hip-hop. The program's foundation is in the Outhwaite Homes apartment complex, the first federally funded public housing complex in Cleveland and one of the first in the country.
It is also where Patton grew up.
"We hear the gunshots. You hear and see the fights. There's just so much going on," Patton said. "Me living here gives me an advantage because I'm a familiar face and I know the struggle and I'm going through it with them."
One of the first participants in the program is Travon Sellers, 18, and Domanick Leach, 20. Both men are aspiring rappers and poets and both have established their own record labels under Patton's tutelage. Sellers, whose stage name is 4lex the Rapper, and Leach, who goes by pce.dom, credit Patton and their shared love for music and music production for staying on the straight and narrow.
"I had a very good childhood but I had a lot of problems that I was going through. Music was always that person or that thing I needed in my life to keep going," Sellers said. "Music helped me to stay out of trouble. I’m more so looking toward being a leader for my own community than being in trouble or being somebody I don’t want to be. [Create Art Not Violence] really changed my life for the better. It helped me stay out of trouble and helped me become that leader that I wanted to be for my community."
Like many of his peers living in Outhwaite, Leach endured many of the same struggles and was homeless at one time in his childhood.
"By the grace of God, things eventually got better," Leach said. "I just want to leave an impact and create a legacy for generations to come after me. That way they can know anything is possible."
The Create Art Not Violence program takes the teens' raw artistic ability and melds it with the sources of inspiration around them: the trauma of gun violence, the impact of lead poisoning, living in a food desert, disinvestment, and systemic racism. A short poem that Sellers wrote last week delves into the impact of toxic stress.
What is stress?
Stress is a feeling of overwhelmed and unable to cope with the mental and emotional pressure.
Stress is pain throughout your life.
When you’re going through stress, you do not feel alive.
Instead of feeling alive, you feel deprived.
Wondering if tomorrow you’re going to survive.
Let’s all stand together instead of trying to divide.
Let’s clear our heads and take a ride.
Instead of asking for help, people carry their pride.
Someone once told me sometimes it's better to cry.
Thank you for listening to my poem on Channel 5.
Patton has also helped Sellers and Leach navigate the business side of music production, including the formation of limited liability companies and copyright.
"My story is you can overcome anything in life as long as you strive for what you truly love and truly care about," Sellers said. "There's a lot of stories out there that need to be told. You just bloom over time when you’re able to tell a story and you can do something other than getting in trouble."
Through his continued outreach, the program has also given young men like Sellers and Leach a way to escape the negative aspects of their environment, Patton said. That outreach is needed now more than ever.
"In 2020, we had 14 homicides in our community. Three of the victims were under the age of 16," Patton said.
Tragically, 2021 is on pace to shatter 2020's homicide count. According to Cleveland police data, there have been a total of 56 homicides through May 15, which is a 40% increase over the same period in 2020. The number of felonious assaults with a gun has also increased 68% in that time period.
Rapes, motor vehicle theft, and arsons have all increased compared to the same period in 2020.
"We have kids that are unguided in the community that needs somebody to look up to and need a role model," Sellers said.
Both men intend on being those role models.
"You never know what a kid goes through at home or what they can be thinking. You have to make them feel wanted and special and show them that you’re willing to help them," Leach said. "I don’t mind doing it because the same happened for me."