Tory’elle Coleman was four when he first witnessed a homicide. Playing at the park outside his home in Deanwood, then pop-pop-pop-pop-pop, a man running, cops in pursuit, and a body crumpled on the ground bleeding out behind them. “A woman told me it was fireworks,” says Tory’elle. He shakes his head. What kids lack in knowledge they make up for in intuition. Truth came by the ambulance lights on his bedroom ceiling.
Street-wise we might say, Tory’elle knows which bus stops are trouble, when and why. He has testified on gun violence to the city council and shared his ideas for violence prevention with WMATA, the local transportation authority. He is 17-years-old and a junior at Phelps Architecture, Construction, and Engineering High School. He began attending Life Pieces To Masterpieces as a kindergartener and is now a junior mentor co-leading a class of 7- to 9-year-olds growing up in neighborhoods like his.
Tory'elle Coleman in 2015 (left) when BitterSweet first met him as a 12-year-old apprentice in the Legacy class. He is now a junior mentor for the Kings class as a 17-year-old (right).
“In order to be a leader you got to be a follower sometimes,” says Tory’elle, “and you got to follow the right people’s footsteps. You know, following Brother Moe's footsteps or Barack Obama’s footsteps, that's how you really do it.”
Brother Moe—Maurice Kie—was one of the first seven boys to join Life Pieces back in 1996 when Sister Mary Brown and Brother Larry Quick got it started as an art program. Seven about to turn eight, Moe lived with his mother and slightly-older brother at the top of the hill in the Lincoln Heights housing project of Northeast DC, a city then known as the murder capital of the world.
"I would see killings. I would see people being beat up like it was nothing. Drug dealers everywhere. Someone sicking a pit bull on someone because they didn't pay. And you still have to be a child while all this is happening, with violence all around," says Brother Moe.
“We would go experience Life Pieces and then walk up the hill, and it was just like, ‘Hopefully we see y'all tomorrow,’” he remembers, “because you never knew what was gonna happen. So, we became like a brotherhood. And that brotherhood is what I'm trying to transfer into the boys that we deal with now.”
A brotherhood. A fully supportive, affectionate, artistically expressive, nonviolent, multigenerational brotherhood. Intentionally here—in DC’s Wards 7 and 8—for 25 years. More than two thousand young men have been part of the program for some period of time and many are still connected, still mentoring, still volunteering, still leading. Including Brother Moe.
“It's really good for our boys to see positive examples of people that look like them, that come from their communities who can really understand the challenges they're facing on a day-to-day basis,” says Andrew Blickle, Community Engagement Manager. “It also does something really great for our mentors, you know. From a very young age they see themselves as change agents—as someone who is making the world a better place every single day.”
Today, Brother Moe is Program Manager of Life Pieces, and his brother, Donnell, having graduated art school, is Art Manager, helping with merchandising and creating an online store to support the program. And they mentor apprentices like Cateo Hilton, who co-leads the Kings class with Tory’elle.
“Brother Cateo, just from opening the building door to get into his apartment, I know what he go through,” says Brother Moe. “I'm proud of him just for overcoming those 50 steps to his apartment door where he's loved by his grandmother.”
“Growing up, you see things, you witness things, and you just don't talk about it,” says Cateo. “It's kinda like you just hold it in. So I feel like through art you are able to express your feelings without talking about it, 'cause there's a lot of things people seen, things children in Kings have probably witnessed, and they think it's normal but it's really not. So art is like a way for them to express themselves in a good way.”
A good way. “They're not even thinking
about trouble,” says Brother Moe. Tory’elle is thinking about how to fix the potholes on his street and becoming an architect, while Cateo is focused on his 4.0 and law school someday to become a defender of the defenseless. And that’s the difference Life Pieces makes. Teaching the power of self-expression through art and creating life-shaping space to ensure boys can be boys—even when Black growing up in neighborhoods besieged by violence.
“The main thing I always think about, it’s called ‘the purpose,’” says Cateo. “And it's: Our purpose is to provide opportunities for African-American males ages three to twenty-five to discover and activate their innate creative abilities to change challenges into possibilities.” For Cateo this means consistently achieving honor roll. For Tory’elle, this has meant speaking out on issues of public safety and gun violence. For both, it means setting a positive role model for others, and leading by example.
No matter what we go through, it's like we're always a family, a brotherhood.
Cateo Hilton, Junior Mentor, Life Pieces To Masterpieces
“Even before Covid, our boys have been through hell and back,” says Sister Mary. “The stuff that the world is shouting about now—we've known, we've experienced.”
Covid. A wholly different sort of challenge but the Life Pieces team has pulled together. “We didn’t skip a beat,” says Elder Bill, a long-time advisor. When schools closed, Washington Parks and People gave Life Pieces permission to transform the Marvin Gaye Greening Center into outdoor classrooms for virtual learning and tutoring (all at safe distance). Every morning at 6 a.m. the staff gather to construct nine tents with two chairs and a 6’ table between them. It’s a serious operation: Masks are mandatory and given eagerly, hand sanitizer flows liberally, a dozen propane tanks fuel small heaters within the tents. On really cold days, the boys stuff hot water bottles under their jackets to keep warm. But they’re still out there, happy to be somewhere—and safe.
We have the cleanest porto-potties in the country, fumigated after every single use, because that's love. What you're seeing now, this is how five years ago looks under pressure.
Sister Mary Brown, Co-Founder, Life Pieces To Masterpieces
Truly, with the parents partnering to keep the kids “podded” and limiting their exposure, Life Pieces has not had a single incident of Covid-exposure or spread—and they have not let a single day pass without connecting with the boys in some way. They’ve met technology needs, delivered groceries, supplied PPE…whatever it takes to keep the boys safe and connected.
For the past nine years, Life Pieces has operated out of Drew Elementary School, where they hope to resume meeting when it’s safe. Yet the event playing out this December afternoon in Marvin Gaye Greening Center was the end of year celebration with cookie decorating in the hoop-house and s’mores around the firepits. Sister Christa, a volunteer for 20-years now, made dinner for everyone and packed gift bags full of treats, tagged for each apprentice specifically.
Sister Angel organizes cookie decorating in the hoop-house (left), while Sister Christa serves dinner and gives treat bags (right).
Sister Christa was working at the International Monetary Fund and serving on a committee screening grants from local nonprofits when Sister Mary visited and gave a presentation. “It was love at first sight,” says Christa. She has been supporting the organization ever since. “It's my favorite place in the world, I just love it here. I have enormous respect for the staff and the mentors and the volunteers—they make do with so little. So, I'm just amazed at the resourcefulness and I wish it were a better known organization because there's such need.”
“This is hard. It's hard,” says Sister Mary. “Even today, we're timing this event so those children that we need to get back home can get to the bus station to meet their moms to go back into a shelter. Not all deal with homelessness. Many of them have hard working parents who experienced the loss of their family members. For the older boys, it's just heavier. The older you get, the heavier it gets, because you are fully aware of everything…” She trails off. Every single one of their high school students has witnessed or experienced gun violence firsthand, she knows. Every single one.
“All of them have experienced the underbelly of humanity firsthand. I tell the boys: ’At the end of the day, showing love and compassion will take you much further. I know you can’t see it right now,’ but that's a hard thing to do—to tell them that—when they see so much injustice. It's very hard,” says Sister Mary.
Every single day makes a difference, she knows. The level of intentionality required to draw the boys out of those dark moments and bleak headlines, helping them process difficult emotions and complex realities in a healthy way…well, that’s the programmatic side of the Life Pieces model. That’s their art—creating a safe space and nonviolent path, lined with support and positive role models to ensure these boys have a chance to show up fully and share their best with the world. And we have a lot to learn from them.
Even Life Pieces itself is an art—its way of weaving a multigenerational, life- and community-shaping brotherhood for the most vulnerable youth growing up in the District.
“Right now we're only having a small impact on Ward 7. We wanna have a bigger impact on the city,” says Brother Moe. “As long as the juvenile detention centers are increasing numbers, as long as fathers are choosing not to be with their children, as long as we live in a society where Black men aren’t really valued, there needs to be a Life Pieces To Masterpieces. There just has to be.”
“One way for everyone to help in our growth is to keep listening to our boys and their stories and to recognize that our boys and young men are change agents. They are leaders in our community,” says Brother Andrew. While the boys have a lot to learn from other cultures, other cultures undoubtedly have a lot to learn from them and their experiences as well. And perhaps the best way to do that is through Color Me Community.
Color Me Community is essentially the same training that apprentices, their families, volunteers, and staff go through except packaged into a workshop format that’s facilitated by Sister Mary and apprentices who share their stories and artwork. The workshop is available to businesses and organizations looking to engage on issues and -isms of division, creating safe space for individuals “to explore racial equity, inclusion and implicit biases in such a way that they can begin to see and experience themselves and others as an integral and valued part of shared humanity.” And, of course, it culminates in collaborative works of art using the Life Pieces style and method.
Tory'elle (left) and Cateo (right) with their art pieces in 2015.
Looking to share their stories and art as far and wide as they can, the Life Pieces family looks forward to the day when they have their own space. While Drew Elementary and Marvin Gaye Greening Center have been generous and gracious partners, owning their own facility would allow them to spend more time with more boys, simple as that.
“We need a facility, a factory that produces some strong, intelligent, African American boys and young men who are ready to take on this thing called shared humanity,” says Brother Moe. “So that needs a gym, that needs showers, that needs washers and dryers. That needs an art space, computer labs. We really wanna be about producing boys and young men who have an impact on this world and change this thing up a little bit—through art.”
Who could’ve known that 25 years later, Sister Mary would still be gathering up these life pieces and shaping them into masterpieces. But she is. She along with a growing number of others.
“Mary Brown really is Black history. She is making an impact in our community,” says Brother Moe. “Every day has been the same person for the past 25 years. Passionate, loving, caring and supportive. It's unmatched. Everybody tell her to take a break, but she really is giving her life to supporting boys so they can have a chance.”
Life Pieces is always a place for hope, in my opinion.
Cateo Hilton, Junior Mentor, Life Pieces To Masterpieces