The modern day hero wouldn’t be caught wearing a cape, or fighting crime in an iron suit, or seen contemplating life from the tops of skyscrapers.
The modern day heroes are the people who inspire us to strive when the future is grim, to take another step when it seems impossible, to dance like no one is watching (when really, there’s always someone watching). The modern day hero inspires us by being their genuine selves.
As a regular civilian, I search for these kinds of extraordinary people; those that are inspirational in every day life. I yearn for them, I hunger for them: the heroes that save the day, on the daily.
A former inmate turned art therapist who works with the disenfranchised—the lost, the perpetrators, the victimized, the forgotten—to help them realize their own light.
I was led to today’s everyday hero through Phil and Grace, last month's heroes from Mani Mogo.
Today’s story, takes us on a slightly different path. A former inmate turned art therapist who works with the disenfranchised—the lost, the perpetrators, the victimized, the forgotten—to help them realize their own light. Meet Dave Cho, whose own battle toward the light begins in one of Toronto’s most notorious prisons.
But, let's go back to the beginning.
Dave and Phil are childhood friends with very similar beginnings that eventually branched into very different paths.
But as the saying goes the wolf we feed grows stronger and the creative, intuitive, curious wolf of Dave’s life was not fed.
Growing up in Rexdale in the 90’s, Dave’s path was not unlike many other kids in that area at the time. His neighbourhood was over run with gangs and it was as easy to access drugs as it was to pick up a dirty magazine at the local 7/11. He dabbled in that life since he was a young kid, and at the same time was drawn to art, to music, to reading. But as the saying goes the wolf we feed grows stronger and the creative, intuitive, curious wolf of Dave’s life was not fed.
When Dave was 14, his dad took every art material he owned—every paintbrush, every book— broke it and threw it in the trash.
Dave tells me: There is a story I tell when I am with my clients, especially with the group I facilitate with perpetrators of violence. I tell this story because I think it resonates with them. The story is that inside everyone there are two hungry dogs fighting each other: one being positivity, the other being negativity. And the question is, who wins in the end? They are both very hungry. And my answer to that question is always: the one that you feed the most.
When Dave was 14, his dad took every art material he owned—every paintbrush, every book— broke it and threw it in the trash. His father did this because he wanted the best for Dave, even though it came across punitively. As a traditional South Korean man, Dave’s dad wanted his son to travel the path that so many first gen immigrants are pressed to tread. Go into law, medicine, business. Anything but the arts. It's at that moment Dave snapped, fuck you, I’m going to figure out a way to do it anyway.
And he would, it just wouldn’t happen until years later.
Dave’s dad also got into a serious automobile accident and it put a new pressure on the already financially strained family. He had to relearn to walk, was unable to work, and eventually the insurance company refused to pay their family any additional compensation.
He was in his early 20's and was entrenched deeply in the world of dealing drugs, violence and the prison system. This, to him, was his life at the time.
And so Dave’s involvement in drugs and organized crime grew. He was a lower class kid going to an upper-middle class school, and while other kids talked about cottages and summer vacations, Dave fought to prove his belonging in other ways. Dealing drugs actually empowered him at the time—he held the keys to a kingdom that only cash would grant. And though he made lots of cash, it was the sense of mastery that drove him.
Fast-forward a few years and this mastery has landed Dave in a notorious (and now defunct) prison, known for housing dangerous criminals in brutal conditions. It was his third time inside, and this time it was for 10 months. He was in his early 20's and was entrenched deeply in the world of dealing drugs, violence and the prison system. This, to him, was his life at the time.
Sunday was fight night, inmates were treated like cattle fed through a trough. The guards turned a blind eye to the hours of ritual destruction.
He recalls prison as a dark time. It was a pre-conviction prison where everyone was legally presumed innocent, but treated as guilty. He got used to being strip-searched. He got used to being called a number rather than a name. Being debased and dehumanized became normal. Sunday was fight night, inmates were treated like cattle fed through a trough. The guards turned a blind eye to the hours of ritual destruction.
Dave had accepted that this was the way the river was flowing and it became normal to him. He got into a routine of doing morning workouts (pushups, sit-ups, using other inmates as weights) and during one such session, he saw a Bible passage pinned to the wall with dried toothpase (inmate glue).
Greater love has no one than this, that one should lay down his life for his friends.
Though he wasn’t and still is not a religious person, it dawned on him. Life is about service, and the best thing he could do is to help others. This was a turning point. Slowly prison didn’t seem like such a dark place. Dave became the range librarian, he wrote a letter to a judge for an inmate who couldn’t write and requested a suit for his trial. Many of the inmates—guys up on serious charges, guys up on homicide and all kinds of assault charges—came to him for prenatal books. Some were looking at 7 years or more if convicted, but they wanted to know how they can fix their relationships while they were on the inside, they were looking for books on parenting.
Dave started to see them as human.
He then told me about his bunkmate who started to open up to him as the two played Scrabble every night. The bunkmate told Dave about his early traumas and it was these kinds of moments in prison that allowed Dave to connect with others, who hadn’t really been nurtured.
From prison, he went straight to a St. Catherines clinic for addiction, was put on house arrest, was accepted to school and granted permission to travel back and forth.
Ultimately, it pushed him to look at the system in which he’d grown up: Rexdale. An urban warzone with very few social services, heavy police presence, saturated with drugs and gangs.
“It seemed that when I started to change the way I saw myself and changed the way I started moving in the world, taking up space differently, things started to kind of line up. I’m not saying it goes like that for everyone, and I don’t want to sound cheesy, but it felt like this was the path I was supposed to go on. It kind of kept me motivated though and I was questioning it every step of the way."
Always having been interested in the social systems, Dave went on to complete an undergrad in sociology. Ultimately, it pushed him to look at the system in which he’d grown up: Rexdale. An urban warzone with very few social services, heavy police presence, saturated with drugs and gangs.
"They took a big chance with me. It was the first system that really nurtured me "
A friend introduced Dave to the Toronto Art Therapy Institute and despite a criminal record that was pages long, he was accepted to train as an art therapist. “They took a big chance with me. It was the first system that really nurtured me ”, Dave told me.
This program did good by Dave, and now, years later, he’s worked with children on the autism spectrum, victims of abuse, and those impacted by mental health concerns, leading them to healing through art. What kind of art? “Well, whatever it is they want to do. Sometimes drumming, sometimes painting. I offer up supplies and ask my clients: 'What calls to you?' And afterwards they reflect on what came up for them.”
Through art, something that’s in holding gets externalized, opening up a tunnel towards healing. Keeping it locked in results in anger, rage, frustration. Just like prison.
He told me one night, over beers, in a particularly dark and noisy bar that “It’s my mission in life to show people that there are other ways of expression than verbal ". There’s a way to engage through art in a way that’s different than speaking. Through art, something that’s in holding gets externalized, opening up a tunnel towards healing. Keeping it locked in results in anger, rage, frustration. Just like prison.
For a long time he worked with victims, mostly women and children. More recently, the light is leading him towards the perpetrators of violence, tying in with his obsession with systems, and how people end up where they do. “It’s not about taking away accountability, I believe in accountability,” he said, “but it takes away blame.”
He meets someone with an inner child, with their own experiences, sometimes having survived their own stories of abuse and neglect.
Sometimes Dave’s getting ready to meet a perpetrator of violence—a new client—and on paper they look really rough. But when he meets them it’s never as expected. He meets someone with an inner child, with their own experiences, sometimes having survived their own stories of abuse and neglect.
And they’re almost always men, another facet which fascinates our hero. He is hooked on unpacking masculinity, power, aggression, control, the messages internalized by men. He works with men who may have limited or no access to their children because of actions they took. Men who may never be able to see their kids again.
But don’t get me wrong, Dave isn’t immune to the effects of toxic masculinity.
"I still am impacted by it. I think it’s everywhere. It impacts everything from the words we use, how we move through space, how we interact with females and children, and other men. I really believe that men are scared of other men above all. I can feel that myself. Do I measure up? If men are perpetrators of violence am I going to be a victim of that violence? Do I have to protect myself from that? Do I have to put on this mask that limits my emotions, limits that disconnect me from my partner or my children? I want to understand that I want to unpack that, I want to say: 'you know you can be different', but I know how hard that is when the world is telling you messages… that aren't true. So you have to start a movement."
In his own way, on his own time, one child, one person, one piece of art at a time, Dave is leading his own movement. It’s a quiet revolution.
Sometimes the progress is huge. Sometimes it’s small. And sometimes it’s very small. There are days when he doubts himself and wonders if he’s doing the right thing or making a difference. But he thinks that’s part of the job. Doubt and uncertainty have us examine our own selves, like the paintings displayed on the walls of his art therapy room.
This is what draws me to Dave. He believes in the power of self-expression and looks for it in the darkest places. He takes what’s inside, and brings it out. He takes what’s torn him apart and locked him up, and out of that creates a life purpose. He turns fear into paint, anger into music, as if he has supernatural powers to help him. And, like all the best superheroes, he’s always the first to humble himself.
“I’m not going to fix anybody, I’m not a magician or a wizard. I’m helping you heal but that comes from you.”
And then I asked Dave the same question I put to Grace and Phil last month: When has your heart ever led you astray?
Really I think it was my heart that led me down my path. I thought I needed to provide for my family, I thought they were counting on me to make money and provide for them, and so I turned to dealing. That landed me in prison, separating me from my family. Now in hindsight, I realize that really what they needed was for me to be at home with them. To be present.
Understanding Dave, his struggles and how much of a difference he makes every day has really inspired me. Wherever our paths go from here, Dave, I’m glad mine has led me to you. But how could I miss it, after all, when your light was shining so bright.