Kasib Abdullah loves a good chat, and whenever he gets rolling on a subject he’s passionate about, he peppers his speech with some of his favorite self-coined phrases. Here’s one you’ll hear a lot: “I’ve always been the grease behind the wheel.”
Abdullah is 70 years old, around 5-foot-6, and when he’s working at the Regus Durham office of his nonprofit organization, Believers United for Progress, he’s likely to wear the same clothes you’d imagine he once wore as a baker, a restaurant manager and a cleaning-service supervisor. On this day, it’s faded jeans, a N.C. Central cap and a rugged jacket, ideal for outdoor work.
And even though he talks a lot, he’s still kind of quieteven-tempered, speaking matter-of-factly. He’s proud of his resistance to getting his hackles up when provoked, a skill he learned in part from the teachings of the Nation of Islam, to which he’s been an adherent, although an imperfect one, for a half century.
When he talks about building self-sustaining communities in black neighborhoods, that’s when you finally feel the “boss” vibe on himan unshakeable belief in his mission, and an ability to persuade others to come on board. And this boss’ mission is to bring the Hayti Districtonce a prosperous African-American neighborhood that has struggled since the late 1950s, when urban renewal brought the Durham Freeway and the displacement of homes and businessesback to its glory days.
“I want to see us brought back to self-sufficiency,” he says, “where we have jobs, where we meet the needs of the community and we’re able to engage each other more in a community-type atmosphere.”
That last itemcommunity engagementis “something that’s been missing in all communities,” he adds. In recent years, this problem has been particularly acute in Hayti, where “unproductive behavior” (as Abdullah puts it) linked to low incomes, drug trafficking and gun culture is likely to breed more suspicion than cooperation among neighbors.
Believers United for Progress has been on the second floor of the Meridian Parkway building for about seven months. It was born around 2005, when Abdullah and the restaurant he worked for, New Visions of Africa, began reaching out to surrounding neighborhoods with community dinners. These days, BUFP administers federal initiatives such as the summer feeding-service program, which provides free breakfast and lunch to at-risk kids all over Durham while school is out.
About two years ago, New Visions ceased operating as a sit-down restaurant that served soul food out of a steam table and began devoting its time and labor entirely to BUFP. Now, on any weekday afternoon, if you peer through New Visions’ door, you’ll see head cook Edgar “Luke” Caldwell and some helpers packing old produce boxes with meals and snacks to be delivered to about 300 kids in afterschool programs.
“Some kids might not be able to get anything during that time period, between getting out of school and going home,” says Caldwell. “There’s a lot of kids going through poverty right now. I try to help them out. There’s a lot of kids out here that’s running around doing bad things.”
BUFP works to encourage positive behavior by getting kids to volunteer. At the John Avery Boys & Girls Club, one of BUFP’s food-service beneficiaries, young people are encouraged to pursue interests that lead to a solid career.
Fourteen-year-old Grace Thornton has been coming to Avery since early 2015.
“I want to do graphic designing and make my own games,” she says. “I usually draw my own characters, just to see what it’s like. Or maybe get some help trying to program my own game.”
One evening last week, Grace met Abdullah at the Boys & Girls Club for the first time. She thanked him for New Visions’ chili cheeseburgers the night before.
Pointing at-risk kids in a positive direction is particularly important at a time when Durham’s violent crime rate is rising precipitously; last year, the city saw a nearly 100 percent increase in homicides, and in some pockets the sound of gunshots is an almost-nightly occurrence. Many of these problems are rooted in factors common to inner cities: gangs, drugs, handguns, but perhaps most of all poverty. The state government isn’t doing much to help on that score: Even-stricter rules for unemployment insurance benefits and food stamps take hold this year. Nonprofits like BUFP that serve urban areas are going to see firsthand the effects of those economic burdens on poor families.
Abdullah’s focus on at-risk kids comes with some personal knowledge about the allure of the street hustle.
He says his central motivation is his belief in mutual respect and his concept of “community life.”
The latter was instilled in him during his early years on Central Avenue in Newark, New Jersey, where he ran his first business at age 12, selling hot dogs at a neighborhood bowling alley. By the time he was 18, he’d converted to Islam and was following Elijah Muhammed, the controversial founder of the Nation of Islam.
“Elijah Muhammad wasn’t a racist,” Abdullah says. “He was just telling people to stand up on their own. Do for self. That was his message. The white man was the devil? That was necessary back in that time.”
As a young adult, Abdullah and some friends moved to Chancellor Avenue, where they ran a row of businesses: a meat market, a grocery store and a produce store. But that’s not all they were running. “We were doing a lot of things that we had no business to do,” he says.
For instance, selling heroin. Even so, Abdullah insists he never strayed far from his “moral compass.” He treated others with respect and never sold smack to anyone who wanted to try it for the first time. Looking back, Abdullah says, he just wanted to make money.
He left Newark in his late 30s in an effort to get back to his “inner self,” he says. Baking jobs and unspecified con games in various cities followed. By the 1990s, he decided to stop doing drugs himselfhe smoked pot, did some coke and dabbled in heroin, he says, but never shot up or smoked crackand moved from San Bernadino, where he was selling cakes, to Durham, where he landed a job as a cleaning-service supervisor. He soon learned about Hayti’s “rich history,” he says, as well as that of Black Wall Street and a city divided along racial lines by a freeway. He found the spirit of community, entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency in post-Reconstruction Hayti inspiring.
“My vision was to get the community back to the history of the community,” says Abdullah.
He went to work for New Visions as a restaurant manager around 2000, and it wasn’t long before he started inserting himself, quietly but firmly, into his adopted community, even when that meant confronting problems head on.
“It was a meeting of the minds,” says Abdullah, “because we knew the climate of the community. At that time, Fayetteville Street was known for prostitution. It was known for drug dealing.”
Some of his tactics proved controversial. Abdullah would get up early in the morning and politely introduce himself to the street-corner prostitutes near the restaurantand then try to dissuade them for being there.
“I would tell them, ‘It’s not safe for you to be out here,’” he says.
They usually declined his request for them to leave, so he moved on to plan B. He began walking up and down the street wearing a sandwich board. One sign read: “Hoes spread AIDS.” The other: “Hoes have AIDS.”
“I didn’t mean to disrespect them,” he says. “I told them, I said, ‘If this is what you want to do, go in front of your house and do it. You’re not gonna parade up and down the street doing that, because we’re not gonna tolerate that.’”
Neither the streetwalkers nor the police were especially fond of his efforts. “They didn’t like me because I did that,” says Abdullah. “See, our police don’t live in our community. Police don’t care about our community. I’ve had more words with the police than I’ve had with the people on the street.”
That includes gang members.
“I’ve spoken to many gang members,” Abdullah says. “I’m respected like they’re respected. I said, ‘If you want to be a Blood, that’s fine. Be a positive Blood.’ And if you want to be a Crip, I ain’t gonna tell them to stop Crippin’.”
In an effort toquite literallyclean up the neighborhood, BUFP runs Operation Clean Sweep, which gets residents involved in removing trash and graffiti from their neighborhoods, an attempt to foster personal commitments to neighborhoods and to neighbors. Abdullah says that volunteers will sometimes place a trash can on a street corner occupied by a drug dealer, and kindly ask that dealer to make sure passers-by throw their trash in it instead of on the street.
“They do it!” Abdullah says. “That’s how you approach people. The bigger effect is to make people more conscious. And then they see the drug dealersthey’re bringing out the positiveness in them. Because when God blessed one, God blessed all.”
As part of his community-building ambition, and to help him realize his dream for the Hayti area, Abdullah plans to enlist partners in the areas of drug rehabilitation, job training, mentoring, cooking classes and re-entry programs for ex-convicts. BUFP is working on a plan and courting partners, says Abdullah, and he hopes to start moving on that later this year.
“Our main aspiration is to get our own building, to have a full-service building where we could invite other nonprofits that are doing things that we’re not doing,” he says.
All he needs now, he adds, is to find some more partnersand a suitable spot.
Because, as he also likes to say, you need to make sure the wheel has spokes.