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How making art can help stop violence

Celebration of Black Writing is a reminder that the written word can change lives.

It's been said that the pen is mightier than the sword. In my journey, I've seen that axiom work in profound ways.

The ability to write has saved my life.

Like any teenager growing up in the inner city, I had my scrapes with daring and danger but never anything too serious. Until the night when I was mistaken for a gang leader who looked like me.

I was hanging with my friends on our favorite street corner when a car pulled up, the window rolled down, and a gun barrel pointed squarely at my chest.

Despite the bravado we wannabe street toughs displayed in our own quiet circles, I froze.

Fortunately for me, the gun jammed and the car sped off, leaving me standing there alive but quaking in my Pro-Keds.

After such a life-changing moment, I did the only thing I knew how to do to process this near-tragedy: I wrote about it.

My writing led me to study journalism, to launch a career in communications, and, eventually, to write on this very page.

Writing helped me make sense of what would have been a senseless act. And it gave me life in the process.

The written word, like all art forms, can transform, inspire, or create life from lifelessness.

Any force that has that power attracts its share of devotees, and this spring Art Sanctuary - one of our city's most respected arts nonprofits - is having its 27th annual Celebration of Black Writing Festival. With such past luminaries as Nikki Giovanni and this year's Lifetime Achievement honoree, J. California Cooper, the event gathers authors, publishers, fans, and critics to share their work, learn tips of the craft, and fete one another's talents. Workshops, readings, performances, and book signings will be held through June 4 under the heading "Word Play: Let's Have Some Serious Fun," shining the spotlight on comedy as this year's primary focus.

Lorene Cary, a renowned author and executive director of Art Sanctuary, was asked the purpose of the Celebration of Black Writing: "It's to demonstrate that art matters in the lives of those who engage in it and are affected by it."

Stated like a true wordsmith, but how do we show how much art matters to us?

We can do so by the number of tickets we buy, the amount of music we download, and the number of artists we support. There's even a Cultural Engagement Index, a term coined by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, which measures how Philadelphians connect with various art expressions throughout the region. According to the alliance, there has been an 11 percent increase in cultural activity over the last two years, with African Americans and Latinos in the region more involved in these life-affirming activities than other groups.

Despite rising engagement, however, funding for the arts - particularly in public schools and community-based programs where many people discover their creativity for the first time - is dropping and has been dwindling for years. As a result, fewer resources are available where they're needed most.

One could argue that funding those areas of need is throwing good money after bad, that the subtleties of various art forms would be lost amid trash-strewn alleys and graffiti-covered walls.

Of course, those places are where art makes the most sense.

And who's defining what is and is not art?

Walls throughout the city have been transformed into masterpieces that are the envy of the world, thanks to the Mural Arts Program, which has turned former wall-writers into bona fide virtuosos.

Urban poets and spoken-word artists are taking the anger and anguish of Philly's streets to stages and open mics in every corner the globe.

And music? Folks from the 'hood have been laying tracks for decades - from the Sound of Philadelphia, which defined a generation's fight for equality, to emerging talent shaping the soundtrack for the future yet to be.

That's what great art can do. It can inspire legions to march for their very humanity or be the steady drumbeat that drives us to the dream written only in the privacy of our hearts.

It can also give us the voice that we never knew we had.

Write on.