Student Creates Butterfly Project in Response to Tamir Rice’s Death

Shelly Gracon’s Butterfly Project focuses on community building to bring healing, hope and a model of peace to Cleveland.

Second-year social work master’s student Shelly Gracon describes herself as very outspoken and an activist who takes a sustainable approach. Those qualities have served her well as she has worked to address the shooting death of a 12-year-old Cleveland boy and create a long-term environment of healing and hope for those directly affected and for the broader community.

Tamir Rice was shot and killed in November 2014 by police responding to a report of a young male with a gun in a park outside the Cudell Recreation Center on Cleveland’s near west side. The gun turned out to be an airsoft gun. The shooting has drawn international attention and Tamir’s name is now one of many synonymous with the Black Lives Matter movement against police use of force that has swept the nation.

At the time, Gracon, who is in the Community Practice for Social Change concentration, was doing her field placement assignment with Cleveland City Councilman Matt Zone. He represents the area that includes the recreation center. Eleven days before the shooting, she had helped organize a community safety forum at the very same recreation center. When the shooting happened, the social worker in her immediately kicked in.

“I asked myself, ‘What can I do from a social work perspective to help the family, the children who every day see the gazebo where Tamir was shot, and the community at large?’ My first thought was some kind of art project to create a community change process and find an avenue for healing,” she said.

Planting the Seeds

Gracon approached Councilman Zone, who put her in touch with Tamir’s teacher and art teacher at Marion-Seltzer Elementary School, which is adjacent to the Cudell Recreation Center. She teamed up with the two teachers and her sister, a licensed counselor and art therapist.

With $5,000 in funding from Councilman Zone’s discretionary fund, Gracon began the Butterfly Project, named to symbolize the transformative journey a butterfly undergoes. The first initiative was a summer camp in July for children ages 5 to 15 who knew Tamir, which included his sister, 15-year-old Tajai, who was nearby her brother when he was shot. The camp included yoga, meditation, art therapy and conversations about building community in a nonviolent way. Near the end of the camp, participants helped begin construction of a butterfly-shaped garden next to the gazebo with plants to attract butterflies. The goal was to help transform the area from a painful reminder of the tragedy to a place of hope. They created clay tiles for a Buddhist prayer wheel, broke up rocks for the outer walls, and learned how to create an entrance out of clay and other materials to help build the garden. The garden will be officially dedicated in the spring.

“The children were so engaged throughout camp and helping build the garden. It was beautiful to see them take ownership of it and see how the camp and garden provided tools for them to deal with their anger and grief. They have become ambassadors for peace,” she said.

Gracon, Tamir’s family and friends, community members and others gathered at a day of contemplation and action November 21 to honor the one-year anniversary of the death of Tamir. Gracon and Mark Chupp, PhD 2003, Assistant Professor and Chair of the Community Practice for Social Change concentration, facilitated the event with help from other Mandel School students. While the garden at the Cudell Recreation Center is mostly complete, the Butterfly Project will live on. Gracon views the summer camp, garden and community meetings that have happened at the rec center as a pilot program that could be replicated in other Cleveland neighborhoods.

“The ultimate goal is to create a model of peace that could be taken anywhere, whether that’s in Cleveland or beyond. It’s about hope and healing, and also working with entities at conflict. How can we—the community, children and law enforcement—work together to build a coalition for peace?” said Gracon.

If early attention for the Butterfly Project is any indication, Gracon’s model could easily expand its reach. There are plans to present details about the project to Cleveland City Council members and city administrators to encourage them to bring the Butterfly Project model to their wards and the greater community.

“Shelly has been singularly focused on leaving a lasting memorial, which she has accomplished. She is a very dedicated, deeply spiritual person in a mindful way to help people in grieving moments,” said Zone. “Others have naturally gravitated to the Butterfly Project and are now giving their time to work with children at the rec center.”

Dr. Chupp has used the program as a lab in his SASS 567: Assessing, Building and Organizing Community class to apply conflict resolution and peace-building practices. Gracon has also trained and coordinated a subset of students from the class to serve as facilitators at community dialogues sponsored by the Butterfly Project.

Learning to Be a Leader

Gracon is a single mother with an 8-year-old son. She received a bachelor’s degree in theater and liberal arts and a certificate in nonprofit management, and wound up working in marketing and event planning for both nonprofit and for-profit organizations for nearly a decade. She said she always knew she was a community organizer, especially after founding She Speaks in 2010, which held monthly poetry readings and other events to empower women. While community organizing was in her nature, she didn’t know how to turn that passion into a career until she learned about the community practice concentration at the Mandel School.

“To be effective as a community organizer, I needed the tools to be respected at it. The community practice concentration has been a perfect fit for me,” said Gracon.

Dr. Chupp has taught and advised Gracon for two years. He said Gracon has been very effective at building consensus and empowering neighborhood children and adults to have a stake in the work she does in the community.

“Shelly demonstrates what it means to be a social work leader. She left her professional life to come back to school so she could have a larger impact. The Butterfly Project integrates opportunities for grief work and trauma healing, as well as community dialogue and social change. As a social worker, Shelly facilitates processes that promote healing and restoration at all of these levels,” said Dr. Chupp.