The Next Page: Transformation in progress

A Braddock arts collective is helping former prisoner Jonathan Reyes find his way.


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I was abandoned.

After 15 months of hearings, trials and incarceration, fighting for freedom while trying to hear the leading voice of God through this crisis, I came to my new home with nothing.

At least I had a support system in jail.

I was engaged, my daughter was born, and there was a whole bunch of people just waiting to hear my story and how I handled things. But when I entered a halfway house in Braddock about three years ago, I knew I was on my own.

I still had a purpose to fulfill. What did Blaine ask of me through his grandmother, Leah Salutric, when I pleaded guilty to misdemeanor involuntary manslaughter in May 2010? Complete my sentence. Don't let the system corrupt me.

And one more thing: Be successful, so that Blaine's death would not be in vain! I had no clue how to pursue that task, but I knew I could not for a second ignore it. Lead me, Lord.

So here I stood, dropped off in a strange town, one with as many struggles as I had.

I was abandoned, broken-spirited and encouraged to make a turn around.

I spent the first moments of the rest of my life at the Braddock Carnegie Library, just trying to catch up and move forward. There were computers available, so I was able to reach out to family and friends while trying to find work. I had a need to get to something familiar. Anybody who knew me since I was 16 would tell you that if I did nothing else, I kept a job.

In less than a week, my work history was written well enough for a nearby town's pizza shop to hire me as a temporary team member. The day a manager's position opened up, I was told, it would be all mine! That day has come time and time again, and I'm still a team member. They say, "You're the best we got, wish we can make you a manager, but you're a felon!"

"I'm not a felon. I have no felonies. I have a misdemeanor. I'm a 'misdemean'" I respond.

"But you murdered someone, Jon. Surely you understand."

"I understand that you've got me confused with a murderer, a person whose intent it was to kill someone, whereas my situation was clearly an accidental shooting. No intent intended or malice of any sort."

"You had a gun," they note.

"It was legal." And at that, the conversation has been brushed off in a thousand different ways that all lead to the same conclusion: No advancement. No success.

How about school? That will help me become successful, right?

I signed up for full-time classes at Community College of Allegheny County's Boyce Campus. My program was ethnic and diversity studies in social sciences with a focus on social work.

I was interested in this program for many reasons. I wanted to gain an overview of black culture and history. I was still thinking that one day I'd be back in my hometown, Uniontown, but I wanted to make a difference in the community I live in now. I also wanted to advance my idea for changing the way the legal system handles young offenders, an approach that would involve intense in-jail and out-of-jail mentoring instead of lengthy sentences.

My first (and only) semester was extremely successful before I had to opt out of school to get my finances in order. I met my wife, Jona, at CCAC and earned nine credits. One of the classes I aced was speech. My sternly gentle speech teacher was impressed with my ability to move the spirit of a crowd and suggested that no matter what I do, I should pursue motivational speaking. Duly noted.

From 2010 to 2012, a series of social injustices caught my attention. Jordan Miles was beaten in Homewood, Braddock lost a battle to keep its UPMC hospital open, and Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida. These events stirred my passion for change.

I was lonely for a while. None of my friends was interested enough to talk about these topics. Then I ran into librarian and artist Ruthie Stringer, who is active in Transformazium, an artists collaborative based at the library. We discussed possibly starting a wide-ranging discussion forum to be hosted by me.

I was so excited about it all that I got in touch with NewPeople, a publication of the Thomas Merton Center, which I believed might appreciate the ideas of the forum. The forum never got off the ground, but I wrote a few articles that generated a positive response. I followed Rob Conroy, Western Pennsylvania director of the gun-control group CeaseFirePa, to Harrisburg to tell my story and got invited to go to the 2013 Summit Against Racism in East Liberty.

The Lord led, Satan intervened. The rest of last year was riddled with death, partial incarceration and poverty. No matter how hard I tried to focus on this passion for social change, it was swept away by the overwhelming force of my reality. My work hours plummeted and led to temporary homelessness, which led to me being sent back to the halfway house. My son, Jonathan Blaine Reyes, was stillborn. Then my 12-year-old brother, Zachi Telesha, lost his battle to cancer.

I mention these trials to say this: Transformazium has been a source of light in these times of darkness.

The people there mentioned housing and job opportunities to me every time we saw each other. They knew everything about me and never judged me, and when their hope of starting an Art Lending Collection with the Braddock Carnegie Library Association was accepted and funded last year, I was one of the first people they thought of involving.

I'm a Puerto Rican-Nigerian, working-class, undereducated criminal living in a poor community. Nobody is willing to give me a respectable paycheck. But the people at Transformazium believe in my ability, hired me and put me to work, which they would have done for anybody who has shown promise, regardless of social identity.

So what is the Art Lending Collection? It's a component of the 2013 Carnegie International. Allegheny County residents can come to the library and peruse about 100 pieces of art, donated by Carnegie International artists and other local and national artists, and take a piece home with them for three weeks for free. All that's needed is a library card.

There's more. Passes to the Carnegie Museum of Art can be borrowed for two days. Anybody who comes in can select artwork to be hung at the International, which runs through March 16, for two weeks.

My goal is to get the word out about the Art Lending Collection and publicize the transformative power of art.

Art needs people, and people need art. The only reason people don't pay attention to it is that they think it doesn't represent them. What adds to that theory is the notion that art is a luxury, that it costs too much to appreciate. Art is a luxury, but it's a luxury that we all can share, unlike mansions and Bentleys.

When art is shared, views are shared. When views are shared, a movement starts. When a movement starts, change happens.

My favorites in the Art Lending Collection include Lincoln Cushing's "Paul Robeson," with its statement about artists and slavery, and Carnegie Mellon University professor Ayanah Moor's piece consisting entirely of the words "This blackness is just for you." She won't say what the words mean to her.

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, what is the worth of words in the form of a picture?

Transformazium's decision to hire me has taken me places I wouldn't have thought I would be. My name went on a wall at Carnegie Museum. I'm in a position to advance and affect how a nonprofit art organization operates. I gave a presentation on the importance of radical art to the 2014 Summit Against Racism.

About 50 people attended the workshop. I used what looked like a soccer ball to convey the message that we have to stop judging people based on stereotypes. If we want to get to know people, we have to reach out and touch them.

When I passed around the "soccer ball," the audience found out that it really was an awesomely designed piece of Styrofoam, way too light to be a ball, way too fragile to kick around. It was then that the crowd realized that this piece of art was advocating change. I just facilitated the idea.

What's next for me only God knows. My plan is to find another part-time job that can help sustain me. Hopefully, I can also find the time to continue my schooling. I continue to strive.

■ ■ ■ ■ 

In May 2010, Jonathan Reyes (jon.a.reyes1987@gmail.com) pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of his friend, Blaine Salutric, 20, of Uniontown. Mr. Reyes, then 22, said the gun, which he was carrying for self-defense, went off accidentally. He spent months in prison before his release to a halfway house.


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