Step into Daniel Gray-Kontar's classroom in the Cleveland School of Art's
(CSA) temporary home near East 105th
Street and Superior Avenue, and you will not find orderly rows of desks facing the head of the class. Instead, students lounge on couches and hipster chairs. Some are chatting, others focus on their tablets and laptops. Low music thrums in the background. Gray-Kontar holds court from a desk in the corner, advising, engaging and writing the occasional hall pass.
"It's the coolest classroom here," opines one student. Easy enough to believe considering the kids hang out here during their free periods and lunch.
Nurturing youth agency
In August 2012, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District was on the verge of celebrating passage of Issue 107, a 15-mill tax levy. Courtesy of those funds, retiring teachers and strong enrollment, the district would hire more than 375 teachers over the next two years. At the same time, Governor John Kasich had just signed the sweeping Cleveland Plan for Transforming Schools
Amid this activity, Gray-Kontar joined the CSA staff and eventually became the school's director of the literary arts department as well as instructor of poetry, playwriting and a senior writing lab. Today, CSA has plans to move into a new state-of-the-art building in University Circle that is currently under construction. But the promise of a new building and impressive titles lag far behind his favorite topics of discussion.
"I just watched Alishia blossom into a really calm, patient, inquisitive, challenging young woman," says Gray-Kontar, citing the story of junior Alishia McCoy, who came to CSA as a quiet freshman lacking confidence.
"This is CSA," he adds. "These are some really talented, really fashionable, really creative, really impassioned kids. It's daunting to be a freshman here." Under Gray-Kontar's tutelage, McCoy found her voice. To that end, she became one of 24 students nationwide chosen for a two-week writing residency program in Florida. "When she came back she was even more powerful."
Another CSA student offers up a first hand testimonial. Anthony Bennett worked alongside Gray-Kontar at a summer camp teaching kids drama and playwriting. He was also performing in plays, which made for long days: camp during the day, performances in the evening, then staying up until 2 a.m. rehearsing lines, only to rise at 6 a.m. and do it all again.
"One day," recalls Bennett, "I was just exhausted, just blown-out tired." He remembers Gray-Kontar telling him, "Anthony, just go home and get some rest for a day or two."
So he did. When he came back, the two sat down and Gray-Kontar advised him on scheduling and planning.
"That was something I needed to get my life together, especially for my senior year," says Bennett, who is now spending that year writing plays, working at McDonalds and modeling on the side. "If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be able to do that."
Bennett calls Gray-Kontar a calming influence.
"Just by working with him and having conversations with him—he inspires you as the man that he is. I really appreciate that."
Gray-Kontar sees students such as Bennett and McCoy as school leaders and he wholly expects them—along with a host of his other students— to eventually become leaders in the community. For Gray-Kontar, fostering that quality is as important as the daily curriculum.
"The thing that we must do better is nurture youth agency, do a better job at empowering youth to use their voice and then invite them to use it," he says. "Everything that I'm going to think about when I think about Cleveland is going to revolve around our youth."
The Lure of the Golden State
So that's today's story. Flashback to 2008 and a previous chapter reveals that Cleveland almost lost this youth and community advocate for good.
"I went to California for a couple of reasons," says Gray-Kontar, citing a fellowship opportunity at the University of California, Berkeley, and the cultural draw of the West Coast, particularly that of the robust activist community in Oakland. "That was, in many respects, more important than studying at Berkley," he says. "This is where the Black Panther Party for Self Defense was formed." While in Berkeley, he connected with civil rights legends such as Quincy Troupe, Angela Davis and Bill Ayres.
"The list goes on and on," says Gray-Kontar. "I mean they were all right there
. Meeting them, learning from them—it was an education that really changed my life."
Other notable experiences during his California tenure included the launch of his first album, The Unclosed Mind
(Futuristica, 2008), which garnered international acclaim; working with the Urban Word
project, including a 2009 presentation in New York; holding several positions at Oakland Leaf's Youth Roots Program
, and a teaching stint at Aspire California College Preparatory Academy.
He also married in California and welcomed daughter Paloma Manning Gray in 2010. It seemed that roots were taking hold for Gray-Kontar in the Golden State.
But by October 2011, the fellowship had come to an end. He was in the throes of a fraught divorce. The full time work at Oakland Leaf had dried up. He consulted friends and family.
"We all decided it would be a great opportunity for me to come back home," says Gray-Kontar, "and I did that."
"I know these streets."
Gray-Kontar's Cleveland history is a lush patchwork quilt of experiences stitched together with words: be they rap, poetry or journalism.
"I grew up all over the East Side," says Gray-Kontar, tagging East Cleveland, Shaker Heights, Cleveland, Cleveland Heights and Maple Heights. "I was writing raps that I didn't know were poetry when I was 12 years old. People thought I was a little weird," he adds. "Rapping was nothing. It wasn't popular at all, but I wanted to rap because I was good at writing. Hip hop was more about DJ-ing, graffiti and break dancing." The third of which he admits to dabbling in. "I tried to get on the Big Chuck and Little John Show."
Downrocks, toprocks and freezes aside, the next natural extension was slam poetry, and Gray-Kontar was in the right place at the right time. In 1994, he teamed up with Ray McNiece, Tia Hodges and Kwanza Brewer to win the National Poetry Slam in Asheville, North Carolina. It was only the beginning.
"We were like rock stars in the late 1990s poetry scene here in Cleveland," says the 43-year-old, adding that readings would garner upwards of 300 attendees.
Cleveland poet of note Ray McNiece remembers his long-time colleague. "He was really centered," says McNiece of Gray-Kontar's work during the 90's poetry heyday. "He had a deeper purpose for his work than just getting ahead in the world of performance poetry, which at the time was a big thing. He was in the right place with his poetry. He really saw it more as a spiritual mission than just pure entertainment. He had a lot of integrity with his work. He was very humble too."
Gray-Kontar continued with poetry and hip-hop, but his professional endeavors turned to journalism. He wrote for Cleveland Life
, an African American weekly and Catalyst Cleveland
before joining the Cleveland Free Times
"Cindy Barbar was editor. She gave me a shot."
He went on to become associate editor until the paper went dark for a time in 2002. Using his severance check, Gray-Kontar launched Urban Dialect
, a glossy alt-monthly featuring music, art, culture and politics.
"It was something. It was a moment," says Gray-Kontar. "It was maybe the last flash in the pan for real alt feature length writing. We tried to keep that alive for about two and a half years." He also wrote for national publications such as In Pittsburgh
, Philadelphia Weekly, Wax Poetics
, The Source
, but toward the mid-aughts, he became disenchanted with print.
"I realized that as many times as I had written what I thought were really informative hard-hitting feature articles, I didn't hear back from readers very often." The revelation gave him pause. "You watch folks. You watch them read the paper every day, read magazines every day. And it could be an article that really unpacks how ugly this world can be. And you know what folks do, most adults? They say, 'Aw, that's too bad,' and they keep it pushin'. They don't really do anything about it; they just keep on with their everyday lives. They keep it pushin'.”
"I realized that youth, they're not just going to keep it pushin'. Young people are going to try to make change. That's why I got into education."
With the new Cleveland School of the Arts under construction at the corner of Stearns Road and Carnegie Avenue and scheduled to open for the 2015-2016 school year, Gray-Kontar couldn't have chosen a better time to bring his talents back home. But he's the first to note that flashy new digs only get you so far. Gray-Kontar is all about the students.
"I know their parents. I grew up with their parents. I know these streets. These are my kids. I love these kids like I love my own daughter. I think they all know that."