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‘Sound of Us’ tells stories Northeast Ohioans want to tell — in their own voices.

Understanding his childhood trauma led this Cleveland man to heal humans and houses

Fred Ward speaks while standing on the porch of a home with a Khnemu Foundation sign.
J. Nungesser
Ideastream Public Media
After healing while he spent 10 years in prison, Fred Ward has dedicated his life to helping others rebuild.

Cuyahoga County accounts for a larger proportion of people in prison than any other county in Ohio. This story is part of a “Sound of Us” series in which formerly incarcerated poet and speaker Cardell Belfoure interviews Clevelanders who’ve been to prison themselves and are now working as activists. The series was produced in partnership with the nonprofit Building Freedom Ohio.

I'm standing outside a house in Cleveland's Glenville neighborhood. It looks sharp now, with new grey siding and windows. But not long ago, it was empty and condemned.

The house is a perfect symbol for Clevelander Fred Ward and his motto: “From condemnation to restoration, whether it's a house or a human.”

Restoration is "the whole point," Ward told me, as we toured the freshly painted interior. "That's how we move."

The house is being renovated with funds raised from Ward's nonprofit, Khnemu Foundation, which provides support for people reentering society from prison. When the renovation is completely done, it’ll provide a home for at least four women.

"Transitioning back from either incarceration or just bad circumstances," Ward said. "Give them a place to heal."

The reason all this is important to Ward is that he’s had to go through some healing himself. He was locked up for 10 years — during most of his 20s. He’s in his mid-50s now and has been free for 24 years. That distance from his time in prison has given him deep perspective on himself as a younger man.

"My younger self was the manifestation of inequities, you know, experiencing circumstances that you don't really know the root cause of," Ward explained. "So you don't have a clear target. I'm clear now."

On the hot seat

Clarity came for Ward while he was in prison. It started with the realization of how his childhood affected him.

"I’ll never forget, I was sitting in the anger management group, and I'm in the hot seat. You know, in anger management we had the hot seat. So I'm in the hot seat this day. I'm talking about how I got tied up when I was 10 years old to a chair getting a whooping. You know, how I got a whooping for everything, you know?" Ward recalled.

He remembered looking around the group and seeing everyone’s reactions — empathy, sorrow, sadness. He said it was the first time he realized the effects of that violence early in his life.

"When I realized it, I said, ‘What else have I not questioned?’ Because when I got older, I tied people up, too. Because I had been tied up. You know, 'hurt people hurt people,'" Ward said.

As he better understood the systemic oppression that had contributed to the violence he'd endured in his childhood, his anger remained. But he was able to redirect it toward trying to help others.

For example, in addition to running the Khnemu Foundation, he’s also the statewide director for Building Freedom Ohio, which campaigns to erase "collateral sanctions" — laws and policies that keep people from fully reentering society, including ones that prevent people with felonies from renting houses or being hired for jobs.

Ward also writes poetry for a book he's working on. Here's an excerpt from one poem he finished while we were working together:

Similar to the innate longing to survive,
not merely riding the ebb and flow of existence,
but knowing naturally within oneself
that to be anything other than the quintessential essence of self
is not worthy to have said one existed.

"I think that it’s important to think deeply about who we are and the beliefs that shape us," Ward said when I asked him what he wants people to take away from the poem. "Question everything."

"Question everything." That's the only way, he says, to find at least some answers.

Fred Ward (right) speaks with Cardell Belfoure while standing on the porch of a home with a Khnemu Foundation sign.
J. Nungesser
Ideastream Public Media
As the statewide director of Building Freedom Ohio, Fred Ward helps ease the transition for others reentering society.

Cardell “Mighty Roc” Belfoure is a poet, spoken-word performer and roofing apprentice based in Cleveland. His business, Words Are Power LLC, teaches people to express their experiences through writing. He previously taught poetry while incarcerated at Grafton Correctional Institution and participated in Ideastream Public Media’s original Poetic Reentry series.