February 20, 2008
(Editor’s note: This is the last of a ten-part series produced by the All Ages Movement Project, in which the leaders of community-based youth organizations share tips and tricks of their trade. All stories are researched and written by members of organizations using independent music–punk, hip-hop, rock, noise, electronic and more–as a vehicle for social change.)
A Critical Time
In Denver, Colorado, the summer of ’93 was referred to as the “Summer of Fear.” During that time, 74 homicides occurred and nearly half of the victims were teenagers. The random acts of violence– mostly gang-related, drive-by shootings–shook the city when a five-year-old African American boy was shot in the head, a ten-month-old child was hit while visiting the Denver Zoo and another young boy was shot in the arm while playing on his aunt’s porch.
While the city responded by establishing unforgiving life sentences without parole for juveniles, one man took another approach. Dave Deforest-Stalls, an ex-NFL football player, founded The Spot in 1994 to address the urgent need for a safe space in downtown Denver, one located in a neutral gang territory.
The summer of 2001 in Cincinnati, Ohio, is also known for violence; that was the year of its infamous race riots. In April of 2001, 19-year-old Timothy Thomas was shot and killed by a police officer. Thomas’ death led to explosive riots by the African American community during the ensuing days. In a community called Over-the-Rhine–a largely marginalized, poverty-stricken neighborhood–several leaders including Life Allah, Islord Allah, Dureka Bonds, and Gavin Leonard decided to take what had been their regular discussions in a barbershop about housing, drugs and police issues and turn them into a community organizing effort.
That summer, a mix of community folks who cared about police accountability founded CopWatch, a neighborhood organization charged to monitor police-citizen interactions. In 2003, volunteer-driven CopWatch became a nonprofit called Citizens Organizing Neighborhoods to Regain Our Liberation (CONTROL). CONTROL decided to found Elementz, a hip-hop youth center, as a way to ensure the young people in Over-the-Rhine were provided with the necessary resources to gather, build community, and promote change.
If You Build it Together, Leaders Emerge
In Denver, Dave Deforest-Stalls’ leadership approach from the beginning was centered around listening. He recalled one of his most important meetings with a young person, who goes by the street name Fienz. The young man told Dave to buy a large piece of carpet and linoleum, and later returned with his friends and a dual cassette player to create what would become one of the finest breakdancing places in the city. Fienz then asked Dave to buy some cans of Krylon spray paint for graffiti painting. The dual cassette player turned into the need for deejaying turntables, and then before long there was a need to record the rhymes. The activities built on each other, based on youth interests.