35 days out of jail have been enough for Cleveland Woodson to get a running start on his big ideas. After a life of what he calls “nonsense” - gun violence, hustling, and incarceration - he’s hoping to become an entrepreneur and web industrialist, and hoping to help end the cycle of violence in West Philadelphia. A father of six who’s lived through generations of feuding between neighborhoods, Cleveland thinks the first step is healing the divide between the “south side” and “north side” in West Philly, and that the only way to do this is through the participation of community leaders.
Cleveland is currently developing two of his many web-based ideas, A Whatever Man: an on-demand labor assistance service, and Draw Some Attention: a social media network for individuals who want to spread the word about what they do.
“I was selling drugs, I was shooting people, I was running from bullets, getting shot at. I'm running for my life … tears running down my face cause bullets coming my way are being stopped because there's a car right here. So I really come from all that. I come from spending five years in prison here, two and a half years in prison here, three years in prison here, eight months in the county, a year on Riker’s Island at the age of 18. I was in the mix early.
“What played a major part in that was my household. My father lived in a whole ‘nother house … It basically was just me figuring out my way, but I was in the box … At that age you don't know better. All you know is what goes on in this box … This box is everything that urban people got … At the time, you couldn't tell me that this was nonsense … I probably would've put my hands on you if you had even tried to talk me away from this or out of this, of my way of living.
“You're not allowed to see the beauty of everything else. Nobody shows you, nobody tells you that there's beauty out there. All you know is I'm broke, my clothes is jacked up, my fashion is off … So nothing is right. So I [went] out on my own and try to make it right … the way that I see money is being made. Our way of making money is on the streets, selling percocets, selling weed, selling drugs, getting girls to sell themselves. Nobody told us the world is bigger than this box.”
“In 2014 when I got locked up … I went through a situation as far as my religion during the month of Ramadan. I really couldn't participate in fasting properly … due to the simple fact that my only income was illegal … For you to be ascribing yourself to this particular ritual during this time of fasting, anything like this, like selling drugs or all of that, is a complete no-no. You're not just leaving off food and drink, you're leaving off all of this.
“My heart was hurt … We have rent to pay, we have children, we have cars, we have real issues, we have responsibility. Now for 30 days, can I just go without hustling? … So I just said for the rest of the month … I'm not going to fast, but I'm going to make this my last year of ever having to go through this again. I'm going to figure something out so I can legally earn a living from here on out.
“So I wasn't out there playing with guns and running the streets and riding around and shooting at the age of 34 … I really was trying to transition from selling drugs into just being a legal individual. I didn't have drug money up the wazoo … I didn't say, alright that's it, cold turkey. What I said is I'm going to work towards leaving this behind. And in my plans of working towards that, I got busted … So it was already in my heart [when I went to jail] that I wanted to leave this life alone … The minute they put them handcuffs on me and sat me in that car, I rode to the police district with my head up … Because I knew from this day forward, I will never sell another drug again.”
“[Now] I'm trying to mature into something great. My children are becoming adults themselves, but on their path to becoming adults, they're getting sucked into this same cycle … One thing we can do is … get the children to realize the cycle exists [and] show them what it is before they get to it … Once we get them to that point, let them make a decision: do y'all wanna go through that cycle? … It's not in everyone's path … But for the kids who's gravitating towards the street … it's wanting to be in the mix … wanting to be involved in the little bit of money that's probably being made, wanting to be involved with the nonsense that's going on.
“A lot of things ends up real bad for the one who doesn’t consciously look at things, for the one who lacks the awareness of the outcome of the situation … A lot of these things is what we lack as urban, street individuals.”
South Side, North Side
“There's a situation in West Philly … If you're on the south side of Market street, you're considered a ‘south side boy,’ if you're on the north side of Market street, you're considered a ‘north side boy.’ This goes way back … People literally getting killed on the south side and north side, it just didn't have that label.
“I have a son that … never got in no trouble before … but his picture is down at the police station in their database due to the simple fact that they have him labelled as a gang member. And he says he's not a part of it in that major of a way, he just considers himself a south side boy due to the simple fact that he grew up on the south side of Market.
“The minute you get locked up and you go to jail, it's no longer a south side-north side thing. It's a West Philly thing. This is how boxed in they are. How is it that on the streets, y’all can live right across the tracks from me, and I hate y’all, I go to war with y’all, and I want to fight y’all, and y’all want to fight me, but the minute … I get locked up for something I did on my side, you get locked up for something you did on your side … We're looking at each other like, ‘Hold on, I ain't no sucker … If y’all don’t actually kill each other first, and then y’all make it to prison, it's like, ‘Man we put all that nonsense behind us.’”
“A lot of the children today really just need a strong group of individuals who can actually show them … Because the majority of those street individuals don't know what else exists. My children, they don't have a clue what exists. Why? Because I've been in prison. I've been home for 35 days exactly. And within this 35 days, I realized [my 15-year-old son has] found a way to make his own money - buy a PlayStation 4, games, sneaks for his brother, Moncler jackets … He’s had his taste, he knows what's out there. But at the end of the day, he only knows what's out there limited to the box. And now that I'm home, he's actually being shown that there's actually way more out there opposed to just what West Philly has to offer.
“[A] child is gonna do whatever he feels as though he wanna do, and that child always don't know what's right … That child's success really relies on the parent … I'm trying to make a chance and give change early before it's too late within my own household. And that same effort that I put into my own household, I'm willing to put into my own neighborhood and my own community as well … If I can do anything to show these individuals what's really out there … I would be 100% willing to.
“I want to … get a group of individuals that have heavy influence on each side … that's tired of seeing their young'uns dying and getting killed, or becoming a killer and ending up getting locked up … It's all about using the individuals with the influence … It wasn't rallied like that and brought like that when I was coming up. I wasn't shown concern from the streets … I'm talking about an ‘inside of our home’ type thing … We're correcting our own affairs. Not one police officer, not one uniform, not one fireman, not one schoolteacher, not nobody in governmental authority needs to be at this affair, because it'll get taken more serious if they realize wow, [it's] our oldheads that's worried. This shows true concern.”
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March 2017 | Interview and Text by Tia Yang | Portraits by Alexander Atienza