Reeve Summit 2022: ​Leon Ford Finds Grace by Acknowledging Pain

Posted by Reeve Staff in Daily Dose on August 11, 2022 # Reeve Summit

Leon Ford2022 Reeve Summit Keynote Speaker Reflects on Trauma, Hope, and Inspiration

On November 11, 2012, during a routine traffic stop, Leon Ford, an innocent Black man, was shot by the police, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. Every day is now a reminder of the prejudice of that Pittsburgh police officer, who mistook Ford for a wanted gang member.

“Those officers took something from me,” Ford says in a gut-wrenching scene in Jackson Tisi’s short documentary Leon. “It’s not just the ability to walk—it’s something deeper.” Watch it here.

Given that lived experience, Ford’s message may surprise many. His keynote address at the 2022 Reeve Summit will be about “acknowledging pain, working through traumas, and moving forward,” he said in an interview. His own journey embodies those themes in many different ways, he says.

Register for the Reeve Summit: Where Care, Cure and Community Connect, in-person October 13-14 in Washington, DC.

Acknowledging the pain of his own trauma was a “huge first step” essential to his healing, Ford says. “I retracted for a long time. I didn't want to participate in anything that was going on in the world.”

Just 19 at the time of his injury, his parents had a hospital bed installed for him in the basement. “I would just lie there for days and weeks at a time, very depressed. I didn't want to engage with social media. I didn't want to talk to people. I was just stuck, you know? Mentally and emotionally.”

How to Become Inspired

With counseling – which Ford says was the most courageous act he’s ever taken – he came to understand that his own reaction was in fact normal and expected. “When you experience a traumatic event or your life is very different than everyone around you, it's normal to feel left out and to retract. You can't just fake it and say, ‘I feel good’ when you feel terrible inside. You can’t fake inspiration,” he says.

“For me, it was important to acknowledge that I did feel terrible inside and to be able to identify why. That was the beginning of figuring out how to become inspired.”

He began to seek out other stories, people who have faced life-changing adversity and turned it around. “I relied on those stories for inspiration,” he says. “This is one of the reasons why I get out and I share my story.”

He has a perspective unlike most, sitting as he does at the intersection of young, Black, and male in America, the victim of trauma at the hands of police, paralyzed and in a wheelchair because of it. In the decade since the incident, Ford has rebuilt his life from the depths of despair in his parents’ basement to become a voice for change and healing through mentorship and social activism around trauma and mental health. He fought – and was eventually cleared – of aggravated assault charges levied by the police after the incident. He sued the Pittsburgh Police Department for the violation of his rights and won a $5.5 million settlement. He earned a Volunteer Service Award from President Barack Obama in 2014. And in an ironic twist of history, his latest endeavor, the Hear Foundation, partners with a former chief of the Pittsburgh police to help end gun violence, heal trauma, and support workforce education in poor communities of color.

‘We Lift as We Climb’

“There’s an African proverb that says, ‘we lift as we climb,’ Ford says. “So, as I climb up higher, I'm lifting somebody else up. That inspires me. To watch people, go from deep sadness and frustration to living their lives and finding jobs, I find that very inspirational, especially when I can use my voice to help.”

How does he maintain hope in the face of personal and societal pain? “I just focus on what I can do, how I can add value to the world, understanding that I can add value to the world just by speaking with somebody. It's the little things, those small conversations that matter.”

He tells of one he had recently with a transgender person. Theirs was a lifestyle that was not accepted in Ford’s upbringing, and about which he admitted he had “a lot of ignorance.” Yet meeting this person and hearing their perspective really opened his mind.

“I think that's what's needed,” he says. “We all may have different lived experiences, we might all have different perspectives, and the more we converse, the more we can understand each other. Even if we still disagree, we can be more open to giving respect and understanding their platform.”

He says one reason he’s able to be “graceful” with people who have different views is because he needs grace himself. “I know I'm not perfect. I have some parts of me, connected to how I was raised, that I'm holding on to that I know may not be right, because society has changed so much,” he says reflectively. “In order for me to love myself like I love other people, I have to give myself grace, and I have to give other people grace.”

Learn More

Hear Leon Ford’s journey in person at the upcoming Reeve Summit: Where Care, Cure and Community Connect, October 13-14 in Washington, DC. Register now.

Watch the 2020 short documentary, Leon, about Leon Ford’s journey from despair to inspiration.

Read “Surviving a Police Shooting Turned a Teenager into an Activist,” by Kim Lyons, in The Verge, August 31, 2020.

By Brenda Patoine

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.