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?
(page 8 of 9)
“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.