Two days before his 30th birthday last week, Leon Ford found out via email that The Hear Foundation he co-founded with former Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert is one of five awardees of the 2023 McNulty Prize Catalyst Fund administered by the Aspen Institute.
The mission of the organization Ford co-founded is spelled out on its website: “The Hear Foundation is the first and only nonprofit in Pittsburgh dedicated to collaborating with community leaders, Pittsburgh Police, residents and the city to create a safe, thriving community for all.”
It’s a monumental task in a city riven by as many racial and class divisions as Pittsburgh. Here, mutual suspicion between minority communities and the police has been the rule — not the exception — for generations.
Ford’s fateful encounter with the police on Nov. 11, 2012, could easily have become just another statistic proving that grim rule.
A little over a decade ago, Ford was shot five times by officer David Derbish who was determined to bring a fugitive named Lamont Ford in on an outstanding arrest warrant despite Leon Ford’s insistence that he had pulled over the wrong guy.
It was a case of “mistaken identity” that left Ford using a wheelchair and the city reeling from yet another reckless use of force by a cop against an unarmed Black man. Six years after that shooting, the city settled with Ford for $5.5 million.
The money could not restore Ford’s ability to walk, but removing the crushing weight of financial marginalization was the least a city that promoted the officer who shot him five times to the rank of detective could do.
In 2019, Ford briefly considered a run for the Pittsburgh City Council District 9 seat, but changed his mind once he realized he could be a more effective agent of change as a civilian activist who wouldn’t be beholden to political or tribal loyalties.
Last year, Ford donated the bullet-riddled hoodie he was wearing on 11/11/12 to the Heinz History Center. It was an act of psychic liberation for a man who had benefited from years of therapy he underwent as a result of the PTSD he suffered after the shooting.
Asked how he felt on the 10th anniversary of the shooting last year, Ford exhaled, smiled and answered with a conviction that bordered on supernatural.
“I had a deep sense of gratitude for my life,” he says. “I come from an environment where … [pauses to collect his thoughts]. I can name six different friends who came to visit me when I was in the hospital who are dead now.
“Literally, I could show you pictures where I’m with five people and I’m the only one alive, so I think context plays a huge role in my perspective.
“[The parents of those friends] look at me and that’s the closest they can get to their child. I can still hug my mom and shake hands with my dad and I can still be there for my son. For me, that outweighed the pain because I still get to live a good life despite my inability to walk,” Ford says.
The young man the cops were trying to catch made one more appearance in Leon Ford’s life.
“Lamont Ford died in a police chase the year after I was shot,” he says. “I talked to Lamont before he died and he felt guilty; I told him, ‘bro, it’s not your fault.’ On the news, they thought he was this gang member (like Leon Ford), but he was just like me — a teenager just navigating life in Pittsburgh.”
Ford now mentors Lamont Ford’s son, also named Lamont, who is the same age as his own son, LJ. The two Ford boys, who are not related by blood, are linked by their fathers’ separate encounters with the police a decade ago where blood was spilled.
“In regards to the police,” Ford says, “I don’t believe my gratitude takes away from accountability. As human beings, we’re complex. I can lean into my gratitude and be happy I’m alive, but still be frustrated with the system. But I don’t live in that frustration. I turn that frustration into action.”
Ford makes speeches across the country about overcoming bitterness and working constructively on a better future, and has even shared his story with audiences overseas.
A much-circulated photo of a smiling Ford playing chess with Sir Richard Branson, the British billionaire and entrepreneur who founded Virgin Galactic, gives some idea of the range of influential people on the world stage who have been moved by his story.
To the surprise of many, Ford continues to live in Larimer, a neighborhood in east Pittsburgh he affectionately refers to as “the ‘hood,” because he doesn’t want to lose touch with his family or friends who continue to be a source of strength and encouragement to him.
He’s also an example of perseverance and strength in the face of adversity to many young people in the community. He considers that a high calling along with his work with The Hear Foundation.
Ever ambitious and willing to take on new challenges, Ford is writing a TV pilot about four friends with disabilities in Pittsburgh that he hopes will echo the surreal sitcom “Atlanta” in some ways.
He’s also gearing up for the publication of his second book, “An Unspeakable Hope: Brutality, Forgiveness, and Building a Better Future for My Son” (Atria Books).
He’s keeping busy.
On Tuesday, March 28, Ford will be joined by his four fellow 2023 McNulty Prize awardees — Ajay Nair, Benson Hsu, Kaya Henderson and Adib Dada — in a virtual conversation at 11 a.m. The conversation is open to the public.
Tony Norman’s column is underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its efforts to support writers and commentators who cover communities of color that historically have been misrepresented or ignored by mainstream journalism.