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Can Payne End Violence?

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“I got a Ph.D. for one reason:  the liberation of my people,”  says Payne.

There are snakes in the yard.

After the heavy rains of spring, they started to appear in greater numbers, the little garter snakes that the neighbors have tried to expel from their own yards. They end up in the grass and on the patio of Yasser Payne’s home, because he cannot let them be killed.

“The pest control guys ask if I want them to get rid of them,” Payne says. “I’m like, no, man, no way. Animals are the most spiritual things on earth.”

Forever associated with the serpent in the garden, he who tempted Eve to taste the fruit of the tree of knowledge, the snake gets a bad rap among many Westerners, who have lost sight of its other great significance. Often depicted as a circle, a reptile eating its own tail, it is a symbol of regeneration, of constant renewal.

So the snakes remain in this place, the first house Payne, 38 years old, has ever bought. It sits on the wooded slope of Chestnut Hill in Newark, among other landscaped, well-spaced homes in a still-young subdivision. It is his garden—if not a perfect suburban paradise, a refuge just the same, his place of peace, where the nights are dark and the stars shine bright and he can leave behind the post-traumatic stress of a youth spent running the streets of Harlem.

Yet in the deepest part of night, alone in his bed, he lays awake, or wakes in a sweat, or wakes amid some somniloquy, or finds himself grinding his teeth. Because for all this relative comfort—and it is relative—his people are suffering. In neighborhoods like Harlem, and in Wilmington’s Southbridge and East Side, poor black people are struggling to survive, and because they are struggling, sad things happen. Especially among the boys and young men, who beat and stab and shoot each other, and do so frequently enough to drive Wilmington’s rate of violent crime to No. 1 in the nation

That’s No. 1 with a bullet, and Payne cannot allow that to happen.

“I got a Ph.D. for one reason: the liberation of my people,” says Payne. And his people—especially young men who make a living on the street—are not whom you think. 

 

To find out who they truly are, one need only watch “The People’s Report,” a new documentary film that shows residents of Southbridge and the East Side explaining their values, as well as their attitudes about crime, about their communities, about themselves. The film tells the story of Payne’s Wilmington Street PAR Project, a two-year effort to train 15 people—12 men and three women—from those neighborhoods, men and women associated with street life, including some felons, to survey others about their lives and neighborhoods, then analyze the results in a truly scientific way. 

One result of the study is hard data that can become the basis of sound public policy. The other is a mirror the community can hold up to itself in order to find a new way, to plant a garden in the heart, where violence doesn’t exist, neither physical violence, nor the sort of institutional, structural violence that keeps people from reaching—from ever even seeing—their emotional and, to a lesser, but still important degree, their material potential.

And it works. Members of the PAR (participatory action research) team have found gainful employment. Some have enrolled in college. Two are working on advanced degrees. And Yasser Arafat Payne believes he has found a way to transform communities by transfiguring individuals.

“Why do PAR? In part to demonstrate to the PAR family who they can be, to show them a little love,” Payne says. “The best finding I’ve learned: love trumps money, every time.”

Trained as social psychologist at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, Payne, an associate professor of Black American Studies at the University of Delaware, is, foremost, a street ethnographer, but of a different kind. Most street ethnographers come from outside the populations they study. They develop a theory or determine questions they want to answer, then design a program of study or experimentation.

Payne and members of the Wilmington Street PAR family—and he very much considers them family—are the people they study. They have an insider’s view of poor, black, urban neighborhoods, so they know what questions to ask. More important, the people they survey and interview respond candidly because they face researchers who are like themselves, community members who understand their experiences. When it comes to understanding how people deal with poverty and why they commit crime—how they cope with structural violence—this is important. Participatory research can mean the difference between conjecture, speculation or unsupported theories—there are many when it comes to race and class—and real knowledge.

“My doctoral adviser once told me that research has a lot to do with the biography of the researcher,” Payne says. “I come from the community—my family and myself. So if I can understand that, maybe I can help.”

 

The street, says Payne, means highs and lows. For part of his early life, “we had it all.” His parents had long before left dirt poor homes in rural Alabama and coastal North Carolina to, much later, become established merchants on 125th Street, the heart of black Harlem. They bought a nice house in suburban, racially mixed Englewood, N.J. They kept Payne and his older brother El Hajj dressed in the latest clothes. They threw big cookouts for the neighborhood and supplied turkeys and liquor to dozens of poor families at the holidays.

They also stayed involved in criminal enterprises like bookmaking and loan sharking. Payne frequently saw his father hurt other men for crossing him in some way, and though he never witnessed it, he was well aware of domestic violence. “Forget conflict resolution,” Payne says. “That was conflict resolution. That’s how I learned to deal with my problems.”

And the violence begat more violence. El Hajj almost shot Payne, accidentally, with their father’s gun. Their older brothers made them throw down with other boys in the pits where men bet on dogfights. “They would toughen you up,” Payne says.

More than anything, Payne wanted approval and affection from his mother, who had been hardened by her experience in Harlem. In her opinion and the view of some others, Payne needed some toughening. A shy and sensitive child, he wrote short stories to process the trauma at home. He wet the bed at night. He bathed irregularly, so young girls made fun of his body odor. “It made me really angry and belligerent,” he says. When his family lost its stores and fortune, he spiraled into depression. “To go from the middle class to no Christmas presents, no birthday presents, to rats and roaches running all over the place, man,” he says. 

At the same time, Payne was growing aware of the world around him, the disparities in life and the inequities of class. He saw it in the parents of friends who were hooked on crack or heroin. He saw it in the unstable homes or single-parent households all around him. He saw it in the faces of people who passed him hustling on the sidewalk, without giving him a glance. “I thought, how could they let this happen?” Payne says.

Forced by his parents into street peddling to help make ends meet, he would spend days on the corner, humiliated, angry, nearly in tears. There he listened to the drug addicts who worked for the family and his alcoholic uncle—the people he calls “my first set of friends”—talk about life and history and culture while he sold, among other things, books about black leaders and revolutionary movements. He read them all.

“He was in a miserable state about it,” says Scott Gaddy, a friend since fourth grade. “He would say, ‘Every day, I wake up and realize millions of people are suffering, and it doesn’t make sense. We’re all binded together.’”

School offered a validation of Payne’s talents and intellect. An excellent student, he decided in 10th grade that he’d become a psychologist—“a clinical psychologist, though I had no idea what that meant”—and he played sports well enough to earn a football scholarship to college.

 

He also began conducting an informal version of PAR. Dwight Morrow High School in Bergen County, N.J., 97 percent black and Latino, was the perfect place for case study. It was, at the time, the most violent school in the county, despite being one of the most affluent counties in the country. Kids gambled in the hallways, jumped each other, fist fought with teachers. Payne was very much part of that culture. He ran with a crew that looked for violent confrontations, and he lived in constant fear of getting jumped himself. Once, during a beef between crews in the street, he felt a bullet buzz his ear.

He also rapped in a group that would become popular enough to play the legendary Apollo Theater regularly. “We had a big studio in my parents’ home, so the rappers hung there,” Payne says. Managed by Spinderella of the popular 1980s group Salt-N-Peppa, “we made a lot of good music. We were all about social justice, had a lot of lyrics about that, so we were really trying to get the message out. But we were still in the street.

“I was buck wild in the street,” he says, “until I defended my dissertation.”

Payne is the only male from the Morrow class of 1993 to graduate college in four years. Despite good grades in high school, he was forced to take remedial classes when he started Wagner College, yet his grade point average never fell below the 3.15 he earned in his first semester.

By sophomore year, he decided to become a social psychologist. One of a handful of black students on a campus of 2,400, he also became a member of Black Concern and Omega Phi Alpha, a small fraternity viewed, he says, as “wild and dangerous” by the white majority. Omega Phi Alpha members studied African history and culture, and Payne stepped up his study of revolutionary movements. “That spirit really awoke in me,” he says.

As Payne rose to the high rank of elder griot for Omega Phi Alpha, he learned to become a powerful speaker who lectured often about the plight of poor black communities and young black men. All the while, he sold drugs to buy books and clothes and to pay for fun on the weekends. “It was schizophrenic,” he says. “I’d be out on the street at night, then doing a public service project at a church or school in the morning.”

His involvement in street life continued even as he learned the culture of the academy. He excelled in graduate school at Seton Hall University and through the doctoral program at City University, where he became deeply involved in participatory research under his doctoral adviser. But his street experience didn’t jibe with what he wanted out of life.

“When I realized I survived all of it, I broke down and cried. I realized, God, you must really have a plan for me.” So one day he took himself to Central Baptist Church in Jersey City, N.J., and he asked to be saved.

 

In other words, Payne has shed his old skin.

“We all begin like that,” Payne says. “It’s moral for us. ‘It’s OK to sell drugs. It’s OK to beat people up.’ In that context, it’s understandable. That socialization is intergenerational, and it’s sown deep into our bones. It’s not good, but it’s normal. I tried to be honorable in that life. I have a much more appropriate moral code now. For me now, I’d rather die than hurt someone else.”

His old friend Gaddy, a member of his rap group, says Payne had to get a Ph.D. to prove his worth, and for another reason. “He was going to be right, and if he wasn’t, he was going to figure out what to do to be right.”

Elijah Anderson of Yale University is one of the foremost black scholars in the country, a street ethnographer who wrote the seminal “The Code of the Streets” in the early 1990s. Based on Anderson’s study of poor black communities in Philadelphia, the work explains the nuanced relations between “decent” African-American families and those involved in criminal activities. The book helped Payne understand, in academic terms, what he knew intuitively from experience.

“Young men like Yasser bring something special to their work,” Anderson says. “There’s the drive and the motivation, but he also has a peculiar understanding of the issue.”

That Payne should end up here could be a bit of kismet, given our state’s embarrassing history of race relations. Delaware was the last state to free its slaves. In 1968, it suffered the longest military occupation of a North American city, in Wilmington, after years of frustration over lack of housing and employment opportunity erupted in race riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. And it has tolerated 35 years of busing to end the de facto racial, socioeconomic segregation and resulting educational inequities of New Castle County schools. Those facts jibe perfectly with Payne’s interest in black history—including the long history of black crime—education and the causes of violence. Delaware was also close enough to home that he could visit his family often. “Your community is everything,” he says. “I could never leave my people.”

That Payne landed at the University of Delaware, with a black faculty of about 3 percent and an undergraduate black student population that hovers around 5 percent, is less kismet, more of a strategic move on the administration’s part.

Payne was a fellow of the American Psychological Association Minority Fellowship Program. James M. Jones, recent past chairman of UD’s Black American Studies department, was the longtime director of that program, so he was well-acquainted with Payne’s record of publication when he interviewed Payne for his job. That record indicated Payne would meet the rigorous research demands of the academy, but Payne brought something more: experience with participatory action research. Payne’s academic interests, with his research methodology and his activism, was seen as a way to build a bridge with the local black community, which held a dim view of the University of Delaware, Jones says. 

 

With a federal grant secured through Wilmington’s HOPE Commission (set up during the administration of Mayor Jim Baker in 2006 to address violent crime in the city) and the Christina Cultural Arts Center, Payne and others identified hard-to-employ residents of Wilmington’s East Side and Southbridge to train, then put to work, as researchers. The team members created an 18-page survey of more than 250 questions, then hit the neighborhoods. They eventually collected information from one-third of the population, a statistically huge sample that allows for very accurate prediction of behavior, chief among them: violence increases when employment and educational opportunity are lacking.

Perhaps that’s not surprising. “I am aware of the problems,” says Raye Jones Avery, director of the CCAC. “My neighborhood is hellish. But to see it captured in a documentary, for others to see the despair in people’s faces, is a whole other matter.”

In addition to job training and education, the Wilmington Street PAR Project has an action component based on the arts. Part of that was a CCAC exhibit that profiled eight local victims of handgun violence. Part of that was “The People’s Report” documentary.

Produced by Teleduction of Wilmington as part of its socially conscious Hearts and Minds Films initiative, “The People’s Report” introduces viewers to the PAR project through members of the PAR family, summarizes the views community residents have about their challenges, shows young men in a barbershop explaining their attitudes toward crime and violence and, in an especially poignant scene, shows the emotional damage of violence as a group of mothers explain their grief over the violent deaths of their sons. 

Yet “The People’s Report” also explains the love and hope people have for their communities. “PAR organized everyone around the concept that people are valuable,” says team member Darryl Chambers. “We love each other, and we have a role in changing things for ourselves.”

Chambers grew up on the East Side and North Side, graduated Howard Career Center, then became the first in his family to attend college. Without funding for graduate school, he started to sell drugs to finance his continuing education. “I loved school, man. I could listen to people lecture all day,” he says. “I was not on the street to line my pocket.” He served 12 years in prison, then, went to work for the HOPE Commission. The commission is especially interested in understanding the effects of incarceration on the community, so executive director Charles Madden saw Payne’s project as a way to learn more. Through HOPE, Chambers hooked up with PAR. One important outcome of his participation: He is working on a doctorate in criminology.

Like Chambers, Jonathan Wilson Jr. found the PAR team shortly after release from jail. He had spent his adult life in and out of the correctional system in Delaware County, Pa., for various drug offenses before moving to Wilmington in 2009 to start over.

 

“The first appeal of PAR was that it was employment, period,” Wilson says. “I had a degree, but I wasn’t doing anything with it. Second, there was a genuinely thoughtful and academic approach to it. I was attracted by the idea of using people from the community on the team. It was the first time I saw qualified, educated African-Americans studying African-Americans. I was really impressed by that.”

One outcome of Wilson’s street life was he was paralyzed from the waist down from a shooting during a random robbery, the last of four shootings he suffered while “being involved in the wrong lifestyle.” One important outcome of his participation in the Wilmington PAR Project was his enrollment in Wilmington University master’s program in social services administration. Another: The Fatherhood Foundation, his effort, based on the high number of female-headed households in the community, to educate men about the importance of being good fathers. 

Not everyone from the hood wants to fix the hood, Wilson says. But there is more talent, intelligence, pride, love and desire to improve than anyone would understand by merely looking in from the outside. 

“‘The People’s Report’ starts the conversation that people can be comfortable discussing these issues,” says Madden. “As much as it has transformed individuals, it has transformed structures.” Convincing one of the state’s largest employers to hire a PAR team member, despite a past felony conviction, Madden says, is a step in the right direction. Jones cites a similar success at the University of Delaware.

“For me, it’s structural,” Payne says: The American style of capitalism creates systems that benefit some at the expense of others. “Most folks are oblivious to the economic realities. People are OK with the viciousness that is inherent in the system. We’ve normalized it as, ‘It’s just business.’”

Not that any problem is that simple, but the results remain: Some people forced into desperate circumstances, do desperate things. That’s been the case for some portion of black America for 350 years, Payne says, and though the laws have changed, some circumstances remain the same. The issues of 2013 aren’t so different than the issues of 1963.

Having studied revolutionary movements and leaders, Payne has identified several reasons for their failures. Many were full of fire, but short on strategy. Some sputtered with the assassinations of their leaders. Sometimes the leaders simply burned out. “They literally died for their movements,” Payne says. “There are no happy endings.”

Because it puts the power to change in the hands of the people, PAR, he believes, is sustainable. As his doctoral adviser, Michelle Fine of City University points out, it has been proven to be effective in reforming urban education, corrections and other systems. And as social movements around the world have shown, it is contagious.

 

“My parents feared that earning a Ph.D. would socialize me out of the community,” Payne says, “that I would start to think I was too good, marry outside the race, stop believing in God. My family gets it now. They totally support me. When I got my Ph.D., we had a big barbecue. My brothers made me hold up my degree.” 

Since the Wilmington Street PAR Project began four years ago, Payne and the team have made more than 100 presentations about it. He has held more than 40 viewings of “The People’s Report” since it was finished in the spring. After a summer that was supposed to be spent getting his new home together and unwinding, Payne is finishing work on a another documentary, “The Streets of Harlem,” based on an earlier PAR effort, and he is preparing for the national launch of a PAR project website and a series of town hall-style meetings about project findings. He intends to do a PAR project in the Christina School District and to expand the Wilmington effort to the entire city.

The Wilmington Street PAR Project has already inspired similar efforts in Compton, under the auspices of the University of Southern California, and in Lawrence, Mass., through Brandeis University. Payne envisions a network of PAR institutes established across the country, what he calls “research temples” that empower people to address problems on their own terms. If it can work in Wilmington, it can work anywhere.

“Whatever you believe, if you do the work, the universe has to honor it,” Payne says. “God doesn’t make any mistakes.”

Payne celebrates seven years at UD this month. Having bought a new suburban home, he has, on the face of things, become part of the middle class—a circumstance that, Anderson points out, could change the perspective of any researcher. Fine, his doctoral adviser, doesn’t believe that’s likely.

“He’s grown multiple roots,” she says. “He’s able to move through a number of different communities with dignity and inspiration. Most people from a privileged background couldn’t move through them with that kind of grace. There’s real authenticity. Yasser knows who he’s accountable to: the community, the university, his students.”

And, one might add, his family. After a lifetime of hard work and trauma, his mother, Bernice, died four years ago at 64. “I have her with me in a way I didn’t have before,” Payne says. “All my blessings are through her.” His father, James, 75, “the smartest man I know,” is suffering the effects of age and ill health. Of his older brothers, Calvin, 55, is in prison, Bashir, 49, is recovering from crack addiction, and El Hajj, 39, a certified nursing aid, is home, taking care of James. “You are who you are,” Payne says. “My family, I love them, and they love me. They taught me humanity, compassion and integrity, and I mean that.” 

The street is a part of Payne, even if Payne is no longer part of street life. Yet he’s not a typical UD professor, either: not white, not yet married, not yet middle-aged. And as a black academic who challenges the conventional thinking of other, older black academics, he has caught some heat for trying to legitimize the street. All of that leaves him in a unique place.

 

“Coming to the UD was a godsend,” he says. “I needed to get away from all that violence. Geographically, I knew my life was going to change. But it was also very lonely. I had to figure out a new relationship with myself. I realized I had to honor the process.”

Not long after his arrival, he was driving to his brother’s sentencing hearing when he saw a stray cat on the New Jersey Turnpike. He dashed into the traffic to save her.

“I grabbed her hard. I couldn’t let her slip away,” he says. “She reminded me of me because she had such a rough track.” He laughs. “She has an edge to this day. She’ll swipe at you. She’s all street.”

Freeway and her daughter, Kush, he says, have taught him a lot about social conditioning. They have brought companionship. And they have brought love. “Talk about God’s plan. It was perfect.”

Because despite all the study and presentations and community organizing and other work, ending violence boils down to one thing.

“Love,” says Payne. “The currency is love.”   

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