The Neighborhood Evangelist: Yusef Shakur

Author, educator, and social activist

Jun 10, 2015 at 1:00 am
The Neighborhood Evangelist: Yusef Shakur
Photo by Jacob Lewkow

Yusef Shakur is a product of his neighborhood. Born to teenage parents, Shakur was raised on the streets, becoming a founding member of Detroit’s “Zone 8” gang. By 19, he was sentenced to five to 15 years in prison for assault with attempt to rob, a crime he says he did not commit.

That could have been it for Shakur, or at least a pit stop on the way to a completely different life than the one he leads now. But during his nine years behind bars, he met his father for the first time, an unexpected turn of events that fomented a shift in Shakur’s future.

Meeting under such circumstances might be strange, but Shakur says it’s a matter of perception. “We’re being oppressed. And he helped me to understand that,” he says. “As I understood that, the weirdness went away — you know, accepting our manhood as a declaration for us fighting for our people in that environment and then continuing that fight when I got out.”

In prison, Shakur organized study groups, started a chess club, and challenged the prison’s policies — such as guards using racial slurs. “It was so we didn’t just see ourselves as incarcerated — understanding that we find ourselves incarcerated as a larger picture of exploiting and oppressing poor folks,” he says.

Once released, Shakur started changing attitudes in his neighborhood from the ground up, a philosophy he calls “restoring the neighbor back to the hood.” He organizes an annual backpack giveaway; opened up a bookstore, café, and community center; and has published books — The Window 2 My Soul, My Soul Looks Back, Scribes of Redemption, and Redemptive Soul. His work has been used in classes at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University.

“What happened is when the resources left our community, we turned on each other,” Shakur says. “It was like a dried-up lake — so we had to bring our own resources back, which was caring, loving, sharing our resources, and just doing it.”

Shakur’s solution for stopping crime is simple: “by giving a fuck.”

“Crime is a part of a larger system that forces people into doing illegal things as a result of survival,” he says. “However, what we have done is change how we look at each other and how we engage one another with a sense of value.”

Shakur points out a corner in his neighborhood where someone used to sell dope — they no longer do business there. “We changed the narrative by what we do when we do the block party, the backpack giveaway — they feel a sense of responsibility to that community,” Shakur says. “I’m not saying they’ve stopped selling dope completely, but they have figured out how to value and engage in that community, and it’s a process.

“Change is not something that happens overnight. But also learning how to respect them, they learn how to respect themselves and to respect their community.”