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In All Ways Human, Participant–Community Advisor
A 27 year old, Baltimore native and foundational storyteller in Dr. Smith Lee’s research, Leon currently serves as a participant-advisor for the Centering Black Voices x UNC Greensboro Disrupting Dehumanizing Narratives of Black Men in Poverty Grand Challenge Award. His goal: “Help motivate the youth into choosing their destiny for their community.” He wants to take positive images and spread positive messages about Black boys, men, and families in Baltimore. He believes “change starts with an understanding of other people’s problems and feelings even if you have not personally experienced it.”
Leon is devoted to his family and his community. He is a beloved uncle to a host of nieces and godchildren for whom he loves and helps care for on a daily basis. Leon’s father died when he was a young boy. He explains that there is no recovery from such a loss–only management–and he manages his grief daily. Caring for his family and being surrounded by loved ones is part of his healing. Leon believes as the Artist Dee-1 says, “spreading love is the new wealth.”
An aspiring entrepreneur and clothing designer, Leon earned his GED from YO! Baltimore in 2013. He completed 1 semester of community college in pursuit of his dream of doing physical therapy/massage therapy when he learned he had AVM (arteriovenous malformation), which the Mayo Clinic describes as “a tangle of abnormal blood vessels connecting arteries and veins in the brain.” This condition resulted in seizures but also clarified some of his behavior in the past such as staring off in space and quick escalation of emotion, both misread by educators and others as problem behavior reflective of Leon’s character. He had brain surgery to address the AVM in 2014. He’s applied for disability but has been denied. The current explanation: A clerical data entry error of his date of birth when he had the brain surgery. Despite managing this physical health challenge, Leon is a reliable and dependable worker. He often completes physically demanding jobs as a temp worker, hired to gut houses in Baltimore City that are transforming the neighborhoods where he grew up.
When asked about what gets in the way of economic mobility for young Black men in Baltimore he hones in on one factor that taps into others of import to him: Police. He wants people to understand that when you grow up in a housing project, police surveil you and treat you in traumatizing ways from childhood (ages 8/9). This leads to Black boys being in the system before they graduate elementary school, experience puberty or have a permit to drive. For these reasons, he views the police as lowering opportunities for young Black men to escape poverty.He wants people to understand that hard work, even in the formal economy, is not enough for men who are trying to take care of themselves and their family. He pushes back hard on the myth that hard work is enough to escape poverty—he cites needing relationships and connections that many young Black men do not have or do not take the risks to form (for a number of reasons—racism, trauma, mistrust, etc.).
Because of his brain condition, Leon has realized how precious his life is. He focuses his daily energies and efforts on caring for others and realizing his dreams as a clothing designer. His participation in this In All Ways Human project has allowed him to invest in his business. Has a name, hot print press, and printers. All he needs is a sewing machine and trademark.
Leon also loves animals and has a bearded dragon named Razor. During our Rapid Photovoice Summer Intensive, Leon also introduced us to a robin who returns every year to make a nest on the flood light of his housing community – a symbol to Leon of adapting to survive. We also met Rocky, the loving neighborhood pit bull – another symbol Leon explains of being pre-judged and misunderstood. Leon believes in the power of Photovoice. As COVID becomes more manageable, he is passionate about advancing our work to include exhibits showcasing the dynamic lives of Black boys, men, and families in Baltimore.