Jason Sauer runs programs to help ex-cons reintegrate into society. A sometimes thankless job where he says you shouldn't get attached. But he did.
By Brittany Hailer
Voices Unlocked is a project telling the stories of Pittsburgh-area residents whose life experiences have been shaped by the penal system.
Meet the people behind this project July 7 at 6:30 p.m. at Alloy 26 in Pittsburgh. We will have food, refreshments and a jail cake. Register here!
Explore another voice in this series:
Sa’Von Martin was one of Jason Sauer’s first students. They met when Sa’Von was 12.
At the time a student of Summit Academy, a residential school for court-adjudicated youth, Sa’Von came to Jason’s Green + Screen program in Garfield to help beautify the neighborhood. He then followed Jason to Homewood, where the team mowed lawns, planted flowers and tended to community gardens.
Their relationship grew.
Even after the project was completed, Sa’Von and Jason kept in touch. Jason opened an art gallery on Penn Avenue, called Most Wanted Fine Art. It’s “a community service organization disguised as an art gallery,” as their website describes the mission.
The gallery has been a staple in Garfield’s community for 10 years, showcasing more than 400,000 works of art. Jason estimates that they represent about 150 artists a year. Jason became well known in the community, and then he started a contracting company with the goal of helping to renovate the homes in his neighborhood.
Jason’s company often hires ex-convicts with grant money initially provided by Goodwill’s Learn and Earn Program and later through a state grant provided by the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation.
Sa’Von’s been by Jason’s side since the beginning.
He helped Jason rebuild and repair homes for their neighbors in Garfield up until last month when Sa’Von was shot at 12 times in Homewood on Feb 8. He was murdered a week after he posed for portraits with Jason and his brother Keishon for this PublicSource story. He was 23.
When I interviewed Jason before Sa’Von’s murder, he said:
But Jason wasn’t talking about Sa’Von. Sa’Von was family.
Text in italics are Jason's words.
Jason, 41, describes bringing clothes and food to Sa’Von’s house for Christmas. He calls Sa’Von and his brother Keishon “nephews.”
He tells me about the times he took Sa’Von on family vacation to his hometown near Stoneboro, Pa. Sa’Von would pile in the car with Jason, his wife, Nina, and their son, Rowdy. Swimming was the highlight.
From the looks of him, Jason is a punk Pittsburgher covered in tattoos. He drinks PBR and is a nationally recognized demolition derby artist and champion. He’s also an Army veteran and has a Master’s of Fine Art in printmaking. These days, Jason and his wife open their gallery doors to poets, local rap groups, college students, painters, sculptors, women in recovery, weirdos, kids and any passerby on Penn Avenue. Jason says he identifies with the outlaw, wants to create a safe space for those who are the little guy, who maybe got picked on in high school, the kids who go against the grain.
A rehabbed derby car, graffitied yellow and gray, was parked behind Jason while we talked about Sa’Von. I could hear his son running up and down the gallery stairs. When Jason talked about Sa’Von, his brother, Keishon, or their mother, he lifted his arm and pointed his thumb behind him.
I asked, “So he’s been your neighbor?”
Jason walked over to Sa’Von’s mom’s house before my interview with him. He wanted to make sure that talking to the press was OK. He told me she wasn’t ready to talk and that dealing with the reality of why her son was murdered was something she wasn’t prepared for.
Jason speculates that perhaps there is something more to Sa’Von’s murder: retribution for lying, not paying a debt, beef from the past, etc. He admits that he isn’t sure. But he says:
Police have not shared a motive for the killing, and no arrests have been made.
Jason called Sa’Von’s brother and asked if there was anything he could do for the family. His girlfriend asked Jason to provide Keishon with more work. She said they still need money.
I asked Jason what Sa’Von was like.
Sa’Von could speak his mind effectively. He attended the Community College of Allegheny County for awhile. He also had two kids.
Jason asks me what PublicSource is going to say about Sa’Von. I ask him what has been reported on the news. Jason tells me:
Sa’Von’s younger brother is 20. He saw his brother go through it, so it was natural that he would join. He still has a chance, not only for himself, but for his family, and in Sa’Von’s memory.
Sa’Von himself, when interviewed in early February, said Jason could make a different future possible:
Sa’Von shared hopes for his children, too.
Jason plans to continue being a source of education and opportunity. Even as he hits roadblocks.
Brittany Hailer has taught creative writing classes at the Allegheny County Jail and Sojourner House as part of the Words Without Walls program. Her work has appeared in The Fairy Tale Review, Word Riot, HEArt Online, Barrelhouse, and elsewhere. You can read more of her work at BrittanyHailer.com.
PublicSource is collaborating with 90.5 WESA to produce audio stories for Voices Unlocked. Follow along! A new story will run biweekly for five months.