When Yusef Shakur talks about his life, he doesn’t mince words.

“I got kicked out of all public schools. My mother made me a ward of the state at the age of 15. She thought I would kill somebody or go to prison. She made the best decision she thought she could at that time.”

Shakur co-founded a gang at age 12. He fought constantly and admits he totally disrespected teachers, especially women.

“I was angry and fighting was a way to release it,” he said.

Today, Shakur, 40, is owner of a bookstore and cafe that also serves as a community center in his old Detroit neighborhood. It took a stint in prison, a reunion with his father and some deep introspection for him to turn from bad boy to community activist and entrepreneur.

His mom was 15 when he was born. His parents broke up when he was six months old.

“Growing up was hard,” said Shakur, who has two sisters. “It was a challenge not having someone I could relate to– a father or big brother.

His mother was an alcoholic. “Her drinking played a role when she would discipline me. I started harboring anger against her and it would come out in school. ”

He found some solace in a gang. Then as a ward of the state, he was shipped off to a training school for over a year. He returned determined to change his life.

“I went to a different high school, got better grades,” said Shakur. “But I had not dealt with the real issues and did not have the skills to.”

A teacher suggested he apply for college and the idea frightened him. He felt as if his new life was way over his head. Stressed, he tried to commit suicide, swallowing an overdose of pills.

His mother found him and called the ambulance. Once well, he returned to gang banging.

“I wasn’t strong enough to withstand peer pressure,” said Shakur. “Eternally, I had not looked at myself to deal with those things.”

He gang banged for a year and then at age 19, he was sentenced to five to 15 years for assault with attempt to rob, unarmed. Ironically, said Shakur, he did not commit this crime.

In prison, he was lonely, homesick and tired. He began to question the path of his life.

“I decided to write my father,” he said. “I knew he was in prison, too. When he wrote me back it was like the weight of the world was lifted. He said, ‘Man, you made a mistake; what you going to do?’”

As it turns out, Shakur’s father was right across the street in a maximum security prison. (He was serving a sentence for an armed robbery and attempted murder, but Shakur said his father later received another 30 years for a murder inside the prison, after an inmate lied on him.) The two corresponded regularly by mail and, a year later, they ended up in the same prison.

Shakur remembers the anxiety he felt during his transfer to the new prison. “On the bus, I’m not talking to anyone. I’m thinking: I’m about to see my dad.”

They were locked down for 23 hours a day, but Shakur and his father managed to set up a time to meet in the law library.

A few memories stand out about the first meeting, said Shakur. “He said the greatest gift a father can give to his child is his time and that he neglected me, but he would do everything he could to give me his time from now on. He also gave me “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”

“We spent six months together. We went to the gym, to the law library and passed letters to each other.”

Then his father was transferred. Still, they spent enough time together that Shakur felt himself changing, his anger receding.

“I no longer was seeing the world from the eyes of a gang banger but from the eyes of human being,” he said.

He saw his father again briefly six years later when they were reunited at another prison for just a few days. “We went to chow together, got up and exercised, ran, played basketball and talked.”

They knew their time was short; the son was headed home.

Shakur remembers, “He walked me to the fence. He was crying and he said, ‘They can keep the lion caged, but the cub must go free. When the cub goes free, part of the lion goes too.’”

It was January 3, 2013. Shakur had served nine years.

“I was definitely a different person–but frightened,” he said. “It was like I had a mountain waiting and I wasn’t prepared to climb.”

A son born while he was away was now eight years old and Shakur desperately wanted to provide for him. He couldn’t find a legitimate job, so he started selling drugs again. But he couldn’t continue. “I looked in mirror and said, ‘This is not who I came home to be.’”

He got some temporary jobs, including one at Head Start program. A supervisor impressed with his work told him to apply for a full-time position and he was hired as a teacher.

Shakur will never forget that the HR person told him, “I’m going to hire you because I don’t see the person who got locked up; I see a new person.”

He enrolled in community college and wrote his first book, “The Window 2 My Soul.” By the time his job with Head Start ended, he had a new career as an expert on gangs and a community activist. He had a difficult time getting a store to carry his book, so he opened his own bookstore, said Shakur, now the father of two sons. His oldest son is 20, his youngest is nine.

He held rap and poetry showcases and other activities at the bookstore. A couple of years after opening, he received a $25,000 grant and was able to expand his business to include a café and computer space. His small store is now the Urban Network Bookstore/Cyber Café.

Some time ago, he started a backpack and school supplies, initially held at his mother’s house.

“When we opened the store, it became significant–not that we were making money—but that young people saw different options. They see guys selling dope, but also they see a guy who looks like them running a business,” said Shakur.

Meanwhile, he tells his story across the country. He wrote a second book, “My Soul Looks Back”, about his journey since prison. And he also published a collection of letters his father wrote him from prison called “Scribes of Redemption.”

Carl Taylor, a sociologist and professor at Michigan State, said, “Yusef is an amazing young man. He’s like a lighthouse for those who have been incarcerated and need guidance.”

Rich Fieldman, who works with the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership in Detroit, calls Shakur “part of the new leadership” and a combination “of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King and the people on the streets.”

Said Shakur of his work today, “There’s not a price anyone could pay me to stop. If I couldn’t use my social prestige to help make someone else’s life be better, I’d feel like I was being extorted.”

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