Community Profile: Yusef Shakur

This weekend, several community organizers and City of Detroit officials are expected to attend a party honoring former gang member Yusef Shakur. It’s been ten years since Shakur was released from prison and started his efforts to improve his community. WDET’s Rob St. Mary has this profile.

(click the audio link above to hear the story)

On Grand River near McGraw – not far from where Olympia Stadium used to stand – is a strip of businesses. One of them is a bookstore run by a man whose life story is available for purchase on the shelves.

“We’re at the Urban Network Bookstore which is in my neighborhood. That came as an outgrowth of me writing my book and when I wrote by book and published it myself I went to numerous stores around the City of Detroit and so, for whatever reason they weren’t as welcome to me to put my book in their store. And so, instead of giving up on myself and getting discouraged, opportunity presented itself in my neighborhood to open up my own bookstore, so I did.”

That’s author and social activist Yusef Shakur. His metamorphosis is chronicled in the book “The Window 2 My Soul: My Transformation from a Zone 8 thug to a father and freedom fighter”. Shakur – who was born Joseph Ruffin – grew up in the Detroit neighborhood known euphemistically as “Zone 8”. The name is a reference to the 48208 zip code. That near Westside community includes the neighborhoods of Northwest Goldberg and Woodbridge.

Shakur says his struggles started early. His parents were teenagers when he was born. He never knew his father. His mother battled alcoholism. By his early teens Shakur was running the streets. A few years later… Shakur had been kicked out of every public school he attended, had numerous run-ins with the law and was eventually handed over by his mother to become a ward of the state. When he was released at age 18, Shakur says he tried to get his life together… but it was hard to do that in his neighborhood… where there were few opportunities for positive advancement. Then… he says he was convicted of a crime he didn’t commit.

“Some of my friends… associates… went up to the local neighborhood school, Northwestern High School, and jumped on some guys – the football team – tried to take their coats. I was one of the guys who got charged along with a few other guys… because it was a gang related incident and with me being a member of the gang I got convicted. Now, again… that crime there per say I didn’t do it… but I recognize that I created the atmosphere because there were a lot of things I had done.”

Shakur entered prison at the age of 19. But, within a short time a few things would happen that he says realigned his self concept. Shakur was able to make contact with this father for the first time. It started simply with letters. But a few years later… both men found themselves housed in the same Michigan prison. Shakur says reconnecting with his father behind bars led him to develop his mind and repair the emotional damage that pushed him out into the streets to embrace a life of crime. Shakur says his father directed him towards books to expand his worldview.

“The things that he was writing me in his letter was very profound… but I couldn’t comprehend it because my mind was still street… but I did comprehend the warmth and desire of a father and that spoke to me… because I needed that and I wanted that. And when we was finally together his actions of who he was magnified ten-fold… through seeing him… everything just made sense. I took it and ran with it. You know, every boy wants to me like their father and prior to me going to prison I was just like him but in a negative way and here was an opportunity to be just like him but in a positive way.”

Shakur says his father guided him towards books about the civil rights struggle, the Black Panthers and community activism. After nine years behind bars… Shakur says he walked out of prison a new man.

“And like I say… proudly… prison didn’t rehabilitate me, it was my father.”

Very much like the story of Malcolm X entering prison as Malcolm Little and leaving with a new name and sense of purpose…

“I entered the prison as Joseph “Jo Jo” Ruffin… and when I left I was Yusef Bunchy Shakur.”

Since landing back in his Detroit neighborhood in 2001… Shakur has spent his time organizing and helping those in need. He has started mentoring programs. He works with ex-offenders. And he organizes a backpack and school supply giveaway… which helps up to 500 kids every year. One of the people who have worked with Shakur over the past several years is Detroit City Councilman Ken Cockrel, Junior. He says he’s seen first-hand the impact Shakur has by just recounting his story.

“One of Malcolm X’s famous quotes is I want to talk right down to the people in a language they can easily understand… and Yusef does that. He’s probably most effective… when I’ve seen him with young people one-on-one, just really having in-depth conversations about what it’s like to go through some of the stuff he has gone through. And when I’ve seen him do that one-on-one with young black men that he’s trying to keep from making mistakes he’s made… it’s very powerful.”

Ron Scott is with the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality. He says he’s become close with Shakur and has worked to help him in his efforts.

“I think it’s my responsibly and others to sort of help him make that development… and because he’s just not doing it for himself. It’s not just about ego; it really is sincerely about humanity.”

Cockrel agrees. He says Shakur’s efforts are truly about working on the neighborhood level.

“What he does he does really on a shoestring budget but never the less he’s been able to have a very important impact. He’s not out here running a foundation that has a corner office in some high rise building with a couple of secretaries and lots of computers and cell phones and lots of technology… he’s doing what he does in a very grassroots, simple way and yet he is still having a very important impact and the way in which he does thing is very significant as well because he still very much has his finger on the pulse of the streets.”

Ron Scott says Shakur’s life highlights an important principle when relating to people… especially ex-convicts.

“That we don’t have a throwaway society. That young black men like him can be reclaimed and transformed. That it is never too late to make a start in life… in effect, some of those who we have… like Eldridge Cleaver said years ago… “soul on ice”… whose souls are on ice… many times when they are off ice and they come out they can bring a unique construct… a unique perspective on how we do things.”

Moving forward, Shakur says learning from his father has brought him around to becoming a better father to his own son. He says ultimately that’s where the change can be made.

“We have to step up. You know, incarceration is not dealing with the problem. We need to find restorative justice in other ways. We have to rebuild the family – strong families produce strong communities which produce safe communities and that’s something we have to get back to and we are all a part of that.”

Redemption has been defined as the act of purchasing back something that has previously been sold – but in the case of Shakur he has found that giving of himself to improve his community has led to his own sense of deliverance.

I’m Rob St. Mary – WDET News.