#CLEative Groove: Meet Gelise Thomas, DEI changemaker and musical mind behind Learn to Play CLE

Gelise ThomasGelise Thomas

Our #CLEative Groove series features Q&A profiles on our city’s creative makers and shakers! Read on for our next installment with Gelise Littlejohn Thomas, DEI changemaker at University Hospitals and the musical mind behind Learn to Play CLE.

How long have you lived in Cleveland, and where do you currently live? I’ve lived in Cleveland 32 years. Currently, I live in Westlake.

Name something local that helped to shape your creativity as a kidProfessional development programs like Look Up to Cleveland, the Stephanie Tubbs Jones Summer Legal Academy, and Urban Journalism Workshop. We're unmatched with professional workforce development programs like these. 

In the three years that I participated in the Urban Journalism Workshop during high school, I met diverse journalists from local news outlets like the Cleveland Plain Dealer and broadcasters from news stations that I watched with family at home. It was surreal. We researched and wrote our own news stories for print and broadcast, toured news stations, and had a culminating experience where we had an opportunity to prepare and record a broadcast (my favorite part). I still stay in contact with one of my mentors, Margaret Bernstein, Director of Advocacy and Community Initiatives at WKYC.

The same applies for my experience with the Stephanie Tubbs Jones Summer Legal Academy where I gained another pivotal mentor through Ronald Adrine, a retired Cleveland Municipal Court Judge with whom I also stay in touch. Becoming an attorney and diversifying the legal profession were goals of that program, and I am one of many participants who achieved that goal. 

What do you do for work? Share a bit about your professional path to date. I lead clinical research diversity, equity, and inclusion and community outreach at University Hospitals Clinical Research Center. Before this, I worked in economic development with MidTown Cleveland, building safety and supplier diversity strategy. I'm an attorney by trade, licensed to practice in California and D.C. My childhood professional goal was to become a pediatric neurosurgeon, so working in healthcare brings everything full circle. 

What inspired your idea for Learn to Play CLE? I've played the flute since elementary school. I'd play for any reason—for hours. From jazz standards to Disney classics, the joy I receive from playing is indescribable. I remember playing at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in middle school and how magical it was to be in a venue like that doing exactly what people do to gain induction status.

I've heard many adults say they always wanted to learn how to play an instrument and I wondered, "Why not now?" Learn to Play CLE is the answer. We'll pair interested adult music learners with instructors and instruments to begin the journey. The pilot focus will be healthcare workers and our senior community to address challenges with mental health and other risk factors that music has been proven to help manage or improve. Down the line we'll develop an app to make music lessons accessible globally, with fundamentals and theory available on-demand, as well as a social community. 

Recently, you presented in the Accelerate civic pitch competition. Share a bit more about that experience and where you plan to take Learn to Play CLE from here. The best part of the experience was getting to know the competition cohort. Everyone was super-passionate about their idea, and you really wanted everyone to win the prize money. We were told that we won simply by being selected to pitch…and I couldn't agree more. I met a few people at the event who were interested in supporting my idea, too. I plan to build on those contacts to identify opportunities for collaboration and other resources to make this idea a reality. 

In your opinion, what are Cleveland’s best-kept cultural and creative secrets? Everything. My husband and I took a salsa dance class at LeSalsa and had a blast. There is so much to explore. Our community development corporations consistently provide things to do—especially in the summer—to learn more about our diverse communities and the cultures that make them so rich. I'm a huge fan of MidTown's summer food truck event The Chomp. It's a great way for local residents and the commuter workforce to meet and try local eats. 

And speaking of local eats, Sabor Miami Cafe & Gallery has my heart! I love their Miami Tropi Chop with chicken and chicken empanadas (order extra pink sauce and curry sauce to top it off). The owner, Mariela Paz, is super sweet and the vibe—from artwork to music—is both inviting and exciting. 

What are some of your creative passions, and how do you indulge them locally? Besides music, I love art, dance, nature, and food (e.g., baking, grilling). My family loves the zoo, seeing plays at Playhouse Square, viewing new art installations like Picturing Motherhood Now, and trying new restaurants. I see creativity and receive inspiration from a ton of things and experience it in varied ways. 

If you were a Cleveland landmark, which one would you be and why? West Side Market. The West Side Market is filled with energy, the sweet aroma of fruit, youthful laughter, and economic opportunity—ingredients that are good for the soul. 

Favorite Cleveland mural/piece of art? Dream Big at 6805 Detroit Avenue by Lisa Quine. The vibrant colors, floral whimsy, and message alone make this one to see in person as a reminder to myself and others to always dream and when you dream, "Dream big!"

A typical day in your life might include…running a few miles, philosophizing with a kindergartner, laughing with my partner, negotiating with a toddler, building relationships, creating and executing programming and events, collaborating across industries and institutions, listening to music, reading journal articles, thinking, and reflecting on the great opportunities that we all have to make the world a better place for everyone. 

To learn more about or support Learn To Play CLE, please email Gelise Thomas here. Also, stay tuned for more #CLEative Groove profiles! You can also follow @CLEativeGroove on Instagram here, or send suggestions for people to profile here.

Jen Jones Donatelli
Jen Jones Donatelli

About the Author: Jen Jones Donatelli

As an enthusiastic CLE-vangelist, Jen Jones Donatelli enjoys diving headfirst into her work with FreshWater Cleveland. Upon moving back to Cleveland after 16 years in Los Angeles, Jen served as FreshWater's managing editor for two years (2017-2019) and continues her work with the publication as a contributing editor and host of the FreshFaces podcast.

When not typing the day away at her laptop, she teaches writing and creativity classes through her small business Creative Groove, as well as Literary Cleveland, Cleveland State University, and more. Jen is a proud graduate of Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.