A little help goes a long way for artists weaving our communities back together

Miss Honey Bell-Bey is traveling again. The Cuyahoga County Poet Laureate says she is “taking Cleveland with me to Paris, Seattle and Ghana” in the form of its spoken word and poetry. Bell-Bey speaks to audiences in other countries and in settings across Cuyahoga County with a message of hope.

Miss Honey Bell-Bey“I wanted to start poetry groups for young men to do after school: it seemed like a natural fit,” Bell-Bey says sardonically. “It’s really about positive youth development, whether it’s chess, poetry, or basketball, it’s about having a positive relationship with an adult. The poetry is the byproduct, just the medicine I sneak in.”

An East Cleveland native, Bell-Bey’s poetry mission is one among 22 projects in 2021 that won grants from Cuyahoga Arts & Culture (CAC) and Neighborhood Connections in a joint partnership that awarded $59,587 in grants to support artists and entrepreneurs working in Cleveland and East Cleveland. These resident-led arts and culture projects related to the pandemic received grants ranging from $700 to $5,000.

“People working in the arts and culture sector are some of the hardest hit as a result of the current pandemic,” says Jill M. Paulsen, executive director of CAC. “By investing in these grants, we are making it a little bit easier for neighbors to safely learn, connect, get creative, and feel inspired. We think that is so important, especially during these challenging times.”

In total, $323,930 in grants from the Neighborhood Connections’ Neighbor Up program will be used to support neighborhood-specific art activities.  Since 2013, CAC and Neighborhood Connections have co-funded 396 resident-led arts and culture projects.

“People are resilient and working to create extraordinary communities right where they live despite many obstacles, including the pandemic,” says Tom O’Brien, Neighborhood Connections program director. “The funded projects show what can happen when we invest in residents working together to make the change they want to see.”

Distinguished Gentlemen of Spoken WordBell-Bey will use her $3,600 grant to continue training young men to write and perform spoken works through her 20-year-old initiative, Distinguished Gentlemen of Spoken Word. Bell-Bey says she likes the challenge of introducing poetry and breaking down the facade of toughness, an act that begins with an understanding. 

“I tell them, ‘I’m going to take you guys to Paris, and I kept my word,” she says, referring to a 2019 trip to where she presented poetry from one of her groups to an audience in Paris. “In return, I ask them to take a code of ethics: to not steal or fight and to be an advocate in your community. The goal is to have a stage to talk about social justice.”

Her voice will be heard at the January 8 inauguration of Cleveland Mayor-elect Justin Bibb, where she will share a poem as part of the swearing-in ceremony. The historic moment lead Bell-Bey to reflect on a career that is centered on providing youth a voice.

“I’m hard on [youth] about lyrics, but at the end of the day, my love is harder,” she says, adding that some of her early students are now her advisors in an organization she calls the Honey Hive. “The kids in college, they come back,” she says.

Even the simultaneous arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic with her Poet Laureateship assignment didn’t dampen Bell-Bey’s spirits. She provided workshops online—eight in all, she says—attended by 50 women who she helped teach writing about healing from trauma. “I’ve not rested. I’m using my platform to reach more people.” 

The platform for youth that Bell-Bey and the Honey Hive have built is what another East Cleveland native, Taylor Calhoun, is aspiring to build, to a degree, with ArtHub.

Calhoun was awarded a $2,250 grant to start an online platform for arts and culture. Calhoun astutely realizes that a large audience awaits the entrepreneur who can serve up fresh content —videos, music and entertainment news, and views—and he plans to build ArtHub as a web site that aggregates and celebrates the best of popular culture.

Celebrity-driven brands and opportunities in fashion design, for example, and the music scene in Cleveland and elsewhere from the perspective of the artists who make the work and the artists who produce album covers all will be fodder for ArtHub.

But Calhoun is thinking beyond content to building a platform where collaborators will contribute art.

“I want it to be a continuous stream with every day something new,” he says. “That will be easier to do when I get people to subscribe to and upload their own art and pick what I want to promote. Everything is collaboration. You are not doing it alone. There are always four or five other geniuses in the room. ArtHub is not just me trying to get good promotion, it’s me trying to find the other geniuses, to [Marvel Comic hero] Nick Fury this!”

Food Depot to HealthMike and Veronica “Ronnie” Walton might be considered geniuses when it comes to expanding Cleveland residents’ knowledge about growing and appreciating food. The Waltons latest venture, Food Depot to Health, is actually a continuation of a little-known home-based sustainability practice to reduce food waste and improve soil called vermicomposting.

The couple held a series of workshops in 2019, introducing the concept of composting with worms, which can be done in big bins inside (making it ideal for apartments). The $3,000 grant will pay to set up another group of residents with vermicomposting kits (and the knowledge of how worm “castings” are super food for plants).

This follows on the last decade’s work as managers of the Gateway 105, a farmer’s market in Glenville neighborhood that featured cooking demonstrations and placed the Waltons in the roles of gurus on eating as a form of healthcare. It’s that level of grinding it out that built the Waltons reputation as local food champions.    

“We have a lady who brings two grocery store bags full of food waste to the farmer’s market because she knows we feed the worms,” says Ronnie. “Even something as small scale as vermicomposting, people get so excited when they see food scraps turn into dark brown soil and they put it in their plants and can see the difference (in the plants’ health).”

In addition to Gateway 105, which is restarting after its COVID layoff in a space at 1332 Churchill in Lyndhurst, the Waltons are helping to operate the League Park Market Place on East 79th Street and Superior Avenue in the St. Clair Superior neighborhood and are working with a startup farmer’s market called Loiter in East Cleveland.

“In 2020, a lot of people sought us out [who] felt hopeless and didn’t have control of food,” Ronnie says. “I went to see what it was like [during the pandemic] at the grocery store. It felt like the system we relied on wasn’t sufficient.

“It’s amazing to see the joy when folks who didn’t think about it start creating their own food. They connect to the process. It is empowering.”

Read more articles by Marc Lefkowitz.

Marc Lefkowitz is a sustainability consultant with more than 15 years of experience writing, speaking and advocating for a more sustainable Northeast Ohio. He served as Director of the GreenCityBlueLake Institute and editor of its well-known blog at gcbl.org. He has a B.A. in English from Ohio State University and an M.A. in urban planning from Cleveland State University. He is a regular bike commuter and transit rider. Photo: Liz Cooper.