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Cover Story: The Youth Shall Set You Free: 2006 Person of the Year

Through Elementz, Gavin Leonard builds a unique blend of Hip Hop culture and political awareness, street cred and foundation support, fun and purpose

By Gregory Flannery · January 10th, 2007 · Cover Story
  2006 Person of the Year
Sean Hughes

2006 Person of the Year

Gavin Leonard will be the first to say that a baby-faced white boy, which he is, can't tell you what inner-city black youth need. That's their job. He's just a translator.

Leonard has done interpretive work before. Five years ago he was a "bear viewing guide" in the Redoubt Bay Critical Habitat Area, about an hour's floatplane ride from Anchorage, Alaska, introducing privileged vacationers to the unforgiving realities of the wilderness.

These days he lives and works in Over-the-Rhine, translating the patter of Hip Hop culture and the patois of philanthropy. He's executive director of a nonprofit corporation called Citizens Organizing Neighborhoods to Regain Our Liberation, better known as CONTROL.

Most of the 100 or so youth who go every night to Elementz, the Hip Hop Youth Center managed by CONTROL, likely wouldn't recognize the IRS code "501c3," the financial tool that enables Leonard to translate mostly white money into mostly black art, education and self-empowerment. They only know Elementz is a place where they can go to make music, learn the art of graffiti and enjoy the kind of respect that large groups of black youth assembling at night in Cincinnati almost never attain.

Similarly, most of the faithful church-goers and affluent donors whose money funds the center probably don't stop to think that the word "liberation," abbreviated in "CONTROL," reflects serious political implications.

That's where Leonard comes in, making one group's needs relevant to the other group's good intentions.

"There are some wealthy white old donors who actually want to hear what young people have to say," he says. "We'll have some young people in, and they'll get it. But there are other times when it's a really awkward conversation. I'm a full-time translator. I hope it's a reciprocal process, so somebody in Over-the-Rhine can have an understanding of how somebody in Indian Hill lives, and it works both ways."

It was definitely working in 2006. Last year:

· CONTROL grew from a $65,000 all-volunteer organization to a $200,000 organization with two full-time and eight part-time staff.

· Elementz expanded from 3,300 square feet to 7,700 square feet of studio space, workspace for graphic artists, dance floor and offices. It grew from one recording studio to three and from one set of turntables to three.

· The center added a graffiti art class and expanded from operating two days a week to three.

· CONTROL's Campaign for Youth partnered with the League of Young Voters and sent young people knocking on 30,000 doors in 12 Cincinnati neighborhoods for a voter education project. In the process they generated 1,700 letters and 1,000 calls to the mayor and city council, calling on them to place a higher priority on programs for youth.

Because of his work uniting black and white, money and the street, art and political action, Gavin Leonard is CityBeat's 2006 Person of the Year.

'What do you want?'
Chances are he'll be annoyed when he finds out about the distinction. Leonard was adamant about not wanting a story written about him.

Like any good translator, he keeps the emphasis on those he serves -- in this case, people ages 14 to 24 who live or chill in Over-the-Rhine and the West End.

He repeatedly emphasizes the work of Islord Allah, program director at Elementz. Allah, who owns a barbershop in Over-the-Rhine, is the founder of Elementz, Leonard says.

"The staff, the teachers and Islord, they're the ones who make this place happen," he says. "This is a project of a whole lot of people busting their asses to make it happen."

This isn't mere self-deprecation. Leonard seems to have hit on a formula that's elemental yet needs to be rediscovered in each generation: If you want to know what youth want, ask them. That's all Elementz does -- give them what they want.

Pinning down what youth want is an ongoing task, according to Dureka Bonds, a college-planning consultant and member of the board of CONTROL.

"It's a combination of two things," she says. "One is that it's youth-oriented all the way through, from its foundation and development to its programming and delivery. Second is the outreach we do to find what's needed and wanted and finding a way to get it through. That's always what we're doing, asking, 'What do you need? What do you want?' It's not somebody from the outside."

Before launching Elementz, CONTROL surveyed more than 1,000 youth through speaking engagements at schools and casual conversations in Over-the-Rhine and the West End.

"We know there is a need for a Hip Hop-based youth center because we asked youth what they wanted and then truly listened," says the FAQ section of the Elementz Web site (natiyouthcenter.org).

(Translator's note: Hip Hop practitioners hold that it's more than a type of music, just as Rock & Roll was.)

"Hip Hop culture is a way of life," Leonard says. "It's art, music, style, speech and more."

"Hip Hop is an entire culture," Bonds says. "It's a way of life."

That understanding is what makes Elementz popular, according to Bri Middlebrooks, 17, a Taft High School student who frequents the center.

"It's different because it's something most of the youth would like to join," she says. "They just be saying like, 'It's cool. It's got things other centers don't have. It's just a Hip Hop place for people to chill.' Around here most everybody's interested in Hip Hop, and Elementz has all five elements of Hip Hop."

The vaunted "Five Elements of Hip Hop" (go ahead, Google it) make up the programming at Elementz. The center provides equipment for and training in DJing, emceeing, rapping, break dancing and graffiti art.

Peter Block, bestselling management guru, says Hip Hop is key to Elementz' success.

"Part of it is their philosophy, which is taking the things that drive us crazy about young people -- their dress, music and manners -- and treating them as an asset," Block says. "I just thought this was a genius idea. Almost every program deals with kids as if they were a problem. This treats them as if they were a gift."

Block was so impressed by CONTROL's approach that he agreed to serve on its board. So did Christopher Smitherman, a once-and-future member of Cincinnati City Council.

"Their hook is Hip Hop, but their goal is education," Smitherman says. "They hook people with Hip Hop but then engage them in things like financial planning, the political process, basic issues like being a mother, being a father, working on self-esteem issues."

The collaboration of Block and Smitherman -- the internationally known management consultant and the renegade former council member -- point again to Leonard's knack for interpreting across cultural and generational lines.

"The quality of people he's got interested is phenomenal," Block says.

'Gotta pay attention'
Leonard is a true believer.

"Hip Hop culture to me is about innovating and building off the past for a better future," he says.

He isn't in the entertainment business, though. He sees Elementz as nothing less than a response to Cincinnati's most urgent problem, street violence.

"We really want to see more resources go to organizations that reach the young people who are most affected by the violence," he says.

"There aren't many people who'd disagree that young people and violence are the two most important issues in the city. Where they intersect is where we're taking people."

As a safe place where inner-city kids can do something they enjoy, Elementz is an essential public service, Smitherman says.

"We're down to the basics, like bread and water: Where can a young person go who doesn't want to get in trouble and wants to have a good time?" he says.

But it's more than that, according to Kofi Jones, director of CONTROL's Campaign for Youth.

"The young people are constantly being engaged about what's being offered," he says. "That's what I love about Elementz. It's not just 'Hey, we have free studios. Come hang here.' It's 'Hey, come here and learn how the equipment is used.' "

Learning to rap, to work turntables and to create graphic design isn't about training future professional artists. Like any other kind of art, the tools and methods of Hip Hop teach something beyond themselves.

"It teaches them the discipline of doing something," Block says.

But a still larger purpose, beyond both recreation and self-improvement, is at work here. Leonard, CONTROL and Hip Hop are decidedly political animals.

Before there was Elementz there was Cincinnati CopWatch, the first collaboration among Leonard, Bonds, Life Allah and Islord Allah. Founded in 2001 soon after the uprising in Over-the-Rhine, CopWatch armed residents with cameras to document police behavior in the neighborhood.

"We're working toward empowerment, so people feel they have a voice in what's going on," Leonard told CityBeat at the time (see "You Say You Want a Revolution?," issue of Dec. 6, 2001).

CopWatch was a short-term response, according to Bonds. Elementz and the Campaign for Youth are a long-term continuation of the same mission, she says.

"When we first got together in CopWatch, it was needed," she says. "That's the simplest, most direct answer I can give you. Not only was it a response to what was going on at that time, it was a way to get at the root of the problem. That was an immediate action that we had to start, but we wanted something to work long-term as a source of perpetual positivity."

The Campaign for Youth, CONTROL's political wing, had citizens lobbying city council long before last month's budget showdown. Arming young volunteers with cell phones, the campaign sent them knocking on doors and asking residents to call or write council and the mayor -- right now.

"It was young people knocking on doors, talking to people about issues that concern them, about the need for programs like Elementz, encouraging them to vote and engage their city leaders," Jones says. "We logged just over 1,000 phone calls to city leaders and 1,700 letters. Our young people had citizens engaged about the budget since June. It was reflected in the city manager's budget outline. We tried to engage the council before the process even began."

When council finally debated the city manager's proposed budget last month, volunteers with the Campaign for Youth turned out in force, both to learn the political process and to help shape it.

"If you want a city that grows and flourishes, you invest in young people and make it a city where they want to be," Jones says. "We want more than to keep them from violence. We want them to be good, productive citizens."

Jones laughs at the format of the public hearings on the municipal budget -- speakers were limited to backing one of two council factions' package of funding cuts. Leonard says there has to be another way to approach decisions.

"Politics is the lesser of two evils," he says. "We're saying we can change the game."

This prompts a burst of mock-incendiary oratory from Jones, who raises his fist in the air.

"Unite and overthrow the beast!" he says. "Hip Hop came out of the desire to be heard and have our opinions be heard but also to make a difference. It doesn't have to be this way. Even for the people who love Cincinnati, this should be their dream -- to have a city that really cares about all its people, that deals with the issues of violence and abuse before they become problems.

"We need to start realizing that you can't act after the fact. The only reason you have to build a new jail to house new criminals is because you didn't deal with the issues that made them that way."

If Middlebrooks is any indication, the political work could have a lasting impact. The 17-year-old participated in the neighborhood canvassing and the budget hearings last month. Now she talks about city politics.

"I think they shouldn't be cutting health care or the swimming pools 'cause it's just going to cause more problems," she says.

That sounds like a young woman who will vote, and she's just one of the many youth who participated.

Building on the momentum, the Campaign for Youth is pondering a ballot initiative to amend the city charter so that funding for human services becomes codified.

"We're looking at putting something on the ballot that says, 'Forever this is a priority,' " Jones says. "It frees the politicians up so they can say to the other interests: 'It's already set.' "

As Jones speaks to a reporter, Leonard doodles a picture of little fish united against a much larger fish; he writes, "ORGANIZE." His goal is to give youth a say in the process of defining their own lives.

(Translator's note: In Hip Hop, "dope" often is an adjective that means "very good.")

"Yeah, we're teaching Hip Hop dance and running a dope studio, but the real potential is seen when people start saying what they're thinking and knowing that somebody is listening," Leonard wrote in his blog last year. "Even if we don't always like what we hear, we've gotta pay attention and respond."

That kind of engagement -- personal and political -- has the potential to transform urban politics.

"It's nice seeing young people engaged and wanting to take leadership roles regarding some very systemic problems like violence and access to health care," Smitherman says. "If they ever showed up to the polls, it would be over."

Born to the cause
When Elementz opened in February 2005 in the former Burger Beer building at Liberty Street and Central Parkway, a small sign on the door was barely visible. It was word of mouth that brought people in.

"We did no marketing," Leonard says. "There would be nights when there'd be 30 people inside and kids in the hall waiting to get in. Now we get 80 to 100 youth who come here every night, who are pursuing opportunities and getting off the street. But the reality is we're just barely touching the surface of the problem, and we're the only ones doing it."

Ask him why the center has succeeded, and Leonard will inevitably say it's the youth who made it what it is.

"The youth field has been so professionalized and has become so administrative that most youth programs aren't relevant anymore," he says. "Some arts programs have to pay people to participate in the summer. What we're trying to do is build a staff that are able to communicate with young people. That's why we have a young staff. You walk into Elementz, and it's a youth-friendly space. It's a space that young people created."

That's only half the equation, of course. Somebody has to pay for the center's turntables and computers and for the cell phones used in neighborhood canvassing.

On a recent December evening, Leonard recounted that week's grant awards: $10,000 from the Sutphin Foundation; $10,000 from the Mayerson Foundation; a large grant from the S.C. Ministry Foundation; $10,000 from Christ Church Cathedral Mission Fund; $4,000 from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development; and $7,000 in unsolicited checks in the mail.

"It was a good week," he says. "This nonprofit stuff is a challenge. You have a great year like we had, and then you have to turn around and do it again."

Unlike the first year, Leonard isn't at Elementz every hour of every night that it's open. Islord Allah, the program director, runs the show, freeing Leonard to concentrate on tasks he's specially suited for.

"We talk about race issues internally, like the reality that I can get in certain doors and there are conversations I can get involved in that other people at the center can't," Leonard says. "I have the ability to talk money and have some sort of street credibility."

Leonard says he thinks he learned the language of money while studying at New York University.

"I don't come from any significant wealth," he says.

Even so, his father is James K. Leonard, an estate attorney in Columbus. He surely learned something of the lingo at Dad's knee.

Born in Chicago, Leonard attended elementary school in Lima, Ohio; high school in Bluffton, Ohio; and, after three semesters at NYU, moved to Cincinnati on Jan. 2, 2001.

If his father's professional work partly accounts for his familiarity with the language of money, his mother's work almost certainly accounts for his commitment to social causes. Noreen Warnock is director of the Greater Columbus Foodshed Project. The recipient of the 1997 Metzenbaum Award from Ohio Citizen Action, she helped start Allen County Citizens for the Environment.

Among Gavin Leonard's baby pictures are snapshots showing him in a stroller with Warnock at a protest against nuclear weapons.

"Dinner-table conversation was often about community meetings or 'Public officials said this or that,' " Leonard says. "Sometimes I feel like I'm living out my dinner-table conversations as a kid."

His audience now is much bigger than a dinner table. At 27, Leonard isn't just helping keep dozens of Over-the-Rhine kids off the streets. He's become a frequent writer for AlterNet, Wiretap and other online magazines.

Last year he wrote articles headlined, "From Grassroots Activism to Nonprofit Bureaucracy," "Calling Activists to a Higher Standard" and "The Political Power of the Midwest."

CONTROL and Elementz offer young activists a new way to look at community-based political work, according to Leonard.

"It's pretty typical that groups go from wanting to do organizing and ending up forming an institution," he says. "Ours is the opposite. We're starting with the institution and using it as a place to develop relationships and then do the organizing. There are a lot of people in the country that are interested in it, which is why we get a lot of resources from out of town."

That's no exaggeration, according to Block, whose expertise is management and organizational effectiveness.

"Elementz is a model," he says. "It creates a space where young people feel welcome. There's hope in that. There are so many programs that are underutilized. I would like to see them franchise their way of working with kids instead of becoming a big umbrella organization. I'd like to see Elementz programs in other institutions."

CONTROL is a program and Leonard is an individual to watch in the coming years, Smitherman says.

"Elementz has a non-traditional approach to solving some of the problems in the urban core," he says. "They're doing some effective things, reaching people a lot of other organizations are not targeting. I think it's just the beginning.

"Gavin has done an extraordinary job raising money and being a champion. He does a good job politically working within his organization, interacting with a lot of diverse personalities and very diverse ages. It says a lot about his skill set to be able to work in that environment effectively. Gavin has the kind of potential to have a real impact in urban policy in the United States of America."

'Real as hell'
Leonard is not an angry young man.

"I'm pretty optimistic, I think," he says. "You've got to be able to believe something different can happen."

During an interview with the Rap News Network, he was asked if Elementz has sought help from the Guardian Angels to provide security.

"We haven't talked with the Guardian Angels at all," Leonard replied. "And we feel confident we can handle security issues on our own. We are running our center on respect and have taken input from youth every step along the way. After looking at a whole bunch of other youth-based places around the country, we found that, if you get young people to have ownership of a place and then respect them and ask them to respect you, the result will be amazing. Everybody wants us to have cameras and metal detectors and whatever else, but the studies show more restrictions and less respect equals problems."

No translator's note is needed to point out that Hip Hop has a sometimes-violent history and Over-the-Rhine is an often-dangerous neighborhood in a city with a record homicide rate. This work is no job for the dewy-eyed.

Leonard is above all else a realist. He knows the milieu in which his clientele live. He lives there, too.

A little more than a year ago he blogged about a confrontation at Elementz.

"We're starting to really get to the guts at Elementz, y'all," he wrote. "It's real as hell. See, these guys are on the block. Slangin. Robbin' motherfuckers. Generally just not people you wanna fuck with. And the youth that are tryin' to keep things respectful grew up with these dudes. They've been trying to deal with these guys for a long time. Respect is a very complicated factor when you've got 17 years in the same hood together. 95 percent poverty rate. Guns. Like I said, real as hell."

So far the center seems true to its motto: "Elementz: A Place for Hip Hop and Respect." Leonard says police officers have rarely been needed there.

"This has really been a non-issue," he says. "I think police have come to Elementz maybe five times. We don't have any particular relationship with the police."

The lessons for Cincinnati are clear, according to Jones.

"Something constructive needed to be done with young people, instead of just heavily policing them," he says. "You have tons of young people standing on corners because they don't have anything to do."

Elementz offers them something to do -- something constructive, something creative and something empowering.

Yet the center is far from finished. Islord Allah says the youth who come to Elementz want programs that will help them get jobs. A leadership development program is also in the works.

"We still have lots more to come," Allah says.

Leonard, still reeling from the growth that 2006 brought, wants CONTROL to focus on planning, evaluation, board development and staff training this year.

"We grew so fast we need to take a step back and figure out how we carve out a place for ourselves as a resource that's going to be here for a while," he says. "In 2007 we'll be able to take this work to the next level." ©

Previous Persons of the Year

2005: Community Shares staff

Alternative payroll deduction drive that helps local groups address root problems and find effective, community-based solutions

2004: Jean-Robert de Cavel

Chef, entrepreneur, urban pioneer

2003: Citizens to Restore Fairness

Led grassroots effort to repeal anti-gay Article 12

2002: Todd Portune

Rare politician who stands up for the little guy

2001: Angela Leisure

Mother of Timothy Thomas helped calm tensions after her son's death sparked riots

2000: Victoria Straughn

Active in AIDS education and political reform movements

1999: Sister Alice Gerdeman

Human rights and economic justice activist

1998: Broadway Commons supporters

Had radical idea that taxpayers should have a say in how tax money was spent on stadium projects

Find these Person of the Year stories at citybeat.com