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Memorial Mural to be unveiled in Ypsilanti to honor those lost to gun violence-Part 2

(From L to R) Mural artist Curtis Wallace, Mary Smith-Phillips, grandmother of shooting victim LeRonte Benion-Phillips, and mural designer DeShawn Chambers.
David Fair
89.1 WEMU
(From L to R) Mural artist Curtis Wallace, Mary Smith-Phillips, grandmother of shooting victim LeRonte Benion-Phillips, and mural designer DeShawn Chambers.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And on Saturday in Ypsilanti, there was going to be an unveiling of a memorial mural. It's going to honor those lost to violence and gun violence in our community. I'm David Fair. And in the first part of our conversation earlier today, we spoke with Washtenaw County Sheriff's Deputy Derrick Jackson and Jamall Bufford from Washtenaw My Brother's Keeper about the recently formed Community Violence Intervention Team and the prevalence of violence and the strategies for preventing and dealing with it in our county. It was formed after a series of fatal shootings in the Ypsilanti area in 2021. Now, in the second part of our conversation, we're going to hear some personal experience as to why the memorial mural has been created. I have three guests at the WEMU table with me. DeShawn Chambers is a 16 year-old and student, and it is his mural design that is going to be unveiled tomorrow. DeShawn, thank you so much for coming in today.

DeShawn Chambers: Thank you for having me.

David Fair: And we're also joined by Curtis Wallace. He is the one who actually created the memorial mural. Curtis runs the Be Creative Studios in Ypsilanti. His artwork can be found hanging in homes around the world and at the Ann Arbor Library. And he's created other outdoor murals in the Ypsilanti and Detroit metropolitan areas. Curtis, thank you for being here. I appreciate it.

Curtis Wallace: Thanks for having me, David.

David Fair: And I'm glad to say that we have Mary Smith-Phillips here, but for all the wrong reasons. Mary's grandson, LeRonte Benion-Philips was among those who has been murdered in our community, and his will be among the names memorialized at the mural unveiling on Saturday. LeRonte was only 18 years old. Mary, thank you for taking time to come in today.

Mary Smith-Phillips: Thank you for having me, David.

David Fair: And, Mary, I want to start with you. I can't imagine the thought of losing a child or a grandchild. What were the circumstances that led to LeRonte's murder?

Mary Smith-Phillips: Well, from what I understand, he had gotten to a fight at the high school with one of the boys. And, after that, without saying too much, because, of course, there's a trial going on. They sent him messages to finish the fight because the fight was broken up at the high school. And he thought he was going to finish a fight. And I guess they came with guns.

David Fair: It's only been a few months since he was killed--the grief just as fresh. How do you think you're going to react to seeing his name on that mural tomorrow?

Mary Smith-Phillips: You know, at first, I wasn't going to go until Saturday because I thought I was going to be very emotional. But I was out there yesterday, and it was very moving, you know, to see that mural with all the names. There's honor behind it. But, you know, it's sad that the reason they're up there, you know. But I think I did all right.

David Fair: Well, DeShawn, this mural is your design, and it probably stemmed from a personal experience in which you've been permanently impacted by gun violence. Can you share that story?

DeShawn Chambers: So, back in, like, 2019 was when my friends first started getting killed. And then after that, all of my friends just started dropping and left and right. After a couple of years of this happening, everybody would be saying, like, "Long live this person and long live that person," without actually doing anything for them. And so, when Crime Intervention came into my job or whatever, and they asked us to create an idea about what we can do to help our community out and what can we do to stop violence in our community. I came up with a rose. The rose was basically to symbolize all of my friends lives who got lost in the community and other people whose lives have been lost in the community and to basically show their families, like, they're not being forgotten. And they can still grieve with their family members. And people in the community will, like, acknowledge them. Like, they're not just there for no reason. They were actually killed in a gruesome way.

David Fair: Do you think that art has helped you through some of the grieving process?

DeShawn Chambers: Art has helped me tremendously because it's, like, periodic when I'm drawing. I can just sit there and do what I want and create what I want without having to think about, like, what I'm doing wrong or something like that. I'm just sitting there doing what I need to do.

David Fair: And, Curtis Wallace, when you first saw DeShawn's design, how did that hit you?

Curtis Wallace: It was heavy. It was heavy seeing the parallels of this young man creating this black rose. As you know, I am simultaneously doing the same thing. So it was just, you know, when I heard about the project, I didn't even know it was him. Jamall came to me and spoke just of a student because it was still in the working, you know, the inner workings, the process of it. And so, you know, he didn't give me too much. It was more just, you know, him telling me that this is something they're working on and that they had a student who had submitted the work. And then he showed me the work. And I was like, "Wow!" You know? So, I was impacted by it heavily without even knowing that it's a student that I've had, you know, for the past four years. It hit me really heavy.

Memorial Mural Unveiling Flyer
Washtenaw My Brother's Keeper
Memorial Mural Unveiling Flyer

David Fair: And the fact that gun violence is one of our biggest public health issues across the country and obviously here at home, did that make the Corner Health Center in Ypsilanti the appropriate location, Curtis?

Curtis Wallace: Absolutely. And, you know, the Corner Health Center was right on board. And they have verbalized it themselves. This has been an honor for them to be able to provide the space because it is directly what they deal with, you know, and trying to help the community have different resources or just resources in general. So, absolutely.

David Fair: And, DeShawn, art has been a sense of relief for you, a sense of creating a new path forward. But the impacts that you felt through all of this violence that has touched your life will last forever. What do you hope art will take you to? Where do you want to go? And how do you plan to avoid being sucked into what so many are getting in trouble with?

DeShawn Chambers: I just plan on staying on the right path, doing what I need to do now. Like, just going to school, coming home, going straight to work, doing what I need to do, and staying out of trouble. I won't be in those streets when I'm out of school. Go straight home. Do what I need to do. Like, when I'm outside of my job and stuff like that, the only people I be hanging out with our family members. So, I'm not getting into trouble if I wanted to.

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and we're talking with the DeShawn Chambers, with Curtis Wallace, and with Mary Smith-Phillips, a day in advance of the unveiling of a memorial mural that will be unveiled in Ypsilanti honoring the many who have been lost to violence in our community. At the unveiling tomorrow, Mary, you're not going to be the only parent or family member to see the name of a loved one lost to violence, as you mentioned. You were looking at those names earlier. It's an experience that only those who have experienced in terms of violence can truly share in an understanding way. When we--the rest of the community--when we stop and we look upon those names, that piece of art, that symbolism, what do you hope that the rest of us walk away with and understand?

Mary Smith-Phillips: That it's not just a person on the wall. That person had a life. They were loved and that we need to make some changes to make sure no more names goes on that wall.

David Fair: DeShawn, how important is it to you to make the kind of community impact that Mary is talking about?

DeShawn Chambers: It's very important because too many lives are being lost too early. People be saying like, "God takes lives at the right time. He never makes mistakes." But mistakes are being made where how many people are being killed in our community and how young they are. People are not even here. They're 20 years old, and they already passed away.

David Fair: And, Curtis, you've been doing art and working with people of all ages--teaching them expression--at Be Creative Studios. Do you have a belief that art is one of the pathways to create a future of nonviolence?

Curtis Wallace: Absolutely. Everything starts at creation. It's my obligation to help my community discover not just ways to create these images, but it's how do you express yourself, how to get some of that anger, some of that sadness, like Deshawn said, and just express it without, you know, affecting the whole community. You know, that little pebble--just, you know, a way to just express themselves is the most important thing to me at this space.

David Fair: I would truly like to thank all of you for making time today and for coming in and for sharing your stories, and my peace be with each of you.

Curtis Wallace: You as well.

Mary Smith-Phillips: Thank you.

DeShawn Chambers: Thank you for having us.

David Fair: That is Mary Smith-Phillips, whose grandson will be among those memorialized tomorrow. DeShawn Chambers. He's the 16 year old who designed the memorial. And, Curtis Wallace, the artist who created it. The unveiling is going to take place at 10 a.m. tomorrow, Saturday, at the Corner Health Center in Ypsilanti. And the public is invited. For more information or to listen to the first part of our Community Violence Intervention Team conversation that we held earlier today, visit our website at WEMU dot org. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.


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