|Ice The Beef Director Chaz Carmon last year, at a march for jobs. He is pictured with Tyrick Keyes' mother Demethra Telford. Thomas Breen File Photo for the New Haven Independent.
Chaz Carmon believes a community organization saved his life by giving him a second chance. Now, he’s dedicating his career to the same work.
Carmon leads the youth anti-violence group Ice The Beef and is coordinating this year’s neighborhood festivals for the International Festival of Arts & Ideas. In recent weeks, he has both attended and organized several rallies, to protest an officer-involved shooting and gun-related violence in the city’s neighborhoods. Last weekend, he called for both youth and adults to put down their guns and hold each other accountable.
“We must lead by example,” he said at a rally outside the Stetson Branch Library. “We must remember that our children are watching you, and will model whatever they do after you. If you pick up a gun, they’re going to pick up a gun.”
But before people knew Carmon for his anti-violence work, he was just a kid growing up in New Haven. Born in 1977, Carmon was raised across several of the city’s neighborhoods as one of three kids. Despite the fact that his mom and step-dad both worked, he said he sensed that his family needed additional financial support. At 12, he turned to selling drugs.
“It’s [it was] all about the money,” he told himself. His mindset was fixed on helping his family.
When Carmon was 12, it led him to back to housing projects in New Haven’s Dixwell neighborhood, where he had spent some of his childhood. There, Carmon recalled, drugs were easy to obtain. He began selling as a way to make money, then found himself caught in a cycle that he couldn’t break. When he was 18, Carmon moved out of his family’s home and in with friends.
He kept selling drugs as a way to make money, watching as business grew. But at 24, Carmon said the law started catching up to him. In a recent interview, he recalled walking down Howe Street, angry at both himself and the city while thinking about the consequences of drug trafficking. As his faith wavered, he lifted his voice to the sky and began talking to God.
“Well God,” he said out loud. “if you’re real, show me you’re real. Get me out of this.”
Something told him to go inside the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) on Chapel Street, and visit an old friend named Thomas “Mr. A” Anastasio. The two began catching up on each other’s lives. When Anastasio found out that Carmon risked jail time, he offered him a job instead of an admonishment.
The YMCA needed someone to monitor kids in the game room, Anastasio explained. He asked if Carmon might be up for it. Carmon said yes right away.
At first, Carmon interacted very little with the kids who used the game room. He told them what was allowed and what wasn’t, and they followed the rules. He recalled feeling that the job was boring; all he did was watch middle and high school students argue and play old video games.
But then Carmon realized that they were bored—in part because they were playing on old equipment. He bought several new games and game systems to liven the area up. His once average group of 10 kids per week turned into 25 to 30, and kept growing. The room, by his estimation, became the most popular room in the YMCA. His bonds became stronger with the kids, and so did the interactions between them.
The YMCA became a turning point for him in ways that he couldn’t have expected. One day early in the job, he skipped work to sell drugs. He said he knew instinctively that it was a mistake—he didn’t feel right afterwards. The next day at work, several of his game room regulars wanted to know where he’d been.
One by one, they told him they’d been planning to do “bad things” in his absence. Some said they thought of stealing cars and fighting with other people. Deep within Carmon, something clicked. If he didn’t miss work, the kids who looked up to him would stay on track. He made a deal with the kids: he would come everyday if they stayed out of trouble and made honors.
Maybe kids at the YMCA thought Carmon saved them, he said. But it was the other way around: they had saved him. Just months into that job, he realized that he wanted to work with youth as a way to give back to the community.
In 2000, he was awarded the Building Strong Kids Of America award from the national YMCA. That year, he also joined the New Haven Public Schools (NHPS) district as a teacher’s assistant, working in several of the district’s schools. For years, he recalled, that classroom experience sustained him.
Then in 2014, Carmon got a call from Darrell “D-Russ” Allick, who had founded Ice The Beef in 2011 as a nonviolent alternative for New Haven youth. Allick’s mission was a deeply personal one: his younger brother Donell had died as a victim of gun violence earlier that year. Now Allick wanted to know if Carmon would come on as director of the organization. Carmon accepted—but had three cautionary words for Allick.
“Save ‘em first!” he said.
When Carmon stepped into his current role at Ice The Beef, he built an arts core into Allick’s mission, adding vocal music, spoken word performance and dance as pathways to nonviolence. In his five years leading the organization, he has turned to that approach because “I really want them [students] to be able to use their words,” he said in an interview last year.
In the past two years, that outlet has helped guide both Ice the Beef’s youth and Carmon himself through the death of friend and fellow Ice The Beef member Tyrick “Reese” Keyes, whose young life was cut short by gun violence in summer 2017. It has translated to performances at schools, local theaters, and nationally-recognized music venues like the Apollo.
Recently, three members have also formed Kompozure, a teen doo-wop group that has consistently brought New Haven audiences to its feet, and recently performed for Mayor Toni Harp. For Carmon, it’s all in a day’s work.
“It's not about the money,” he said. “It’s not about me. It’s about our children’s future.”
This piece comes to the Arts Paper through the second annual Youth Arts Journalism Initiative (YAJI), a program of the Arts Council of Greater New Haven and the New Haven Free Public Library. Over eight weeks this spring, ten New Haven Public Schools (NHPS) students will be working with Arts Paper Editor Lucy Gellman and YAJI Program Assistant Melanie Espinal to produce four articles, for each of which they are compensated. Read more about the program here.