University of Delaware Professor Yasser Payne’s Efforts to Decrease Wilmington’s Crime Rate
Growing up running the streets of Harlem, Payne’s seen more than his share of violence—and he believes he has a way to end it. Will it change a troubled Wilmington?
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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.