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 quiet—even-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 him—an unshakeable belief in his mission, and an ability to persuade others to come on board. And this boss' mission is to bring the Hayti District—once 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 businesses—back 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 item—community engagement—is "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.