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Why We Don't Give Up On Our Children

"I used to roll up/'This a hold-up, ain't nothin' funny/Stop smilin'/Be still, don't nothin' move but the money'/But now I've learned to earn 'cuz I'm righteous/I feel great..."

-- Eric B. & Rakim, "Paid In Full"

Wonderful profile today by Marney Rich Keenan at the Detroit News on Yusef "Bunchy" Shakur, a Detroit writer and activist I've got a ton of respect and admiration for.

Some 18 years later, Yusef Shakur, 37, now sits in The Urban Network, a bookstore and community center he founded on Grand River Avenue in Zone 8, the same west-side neighborhood he used to terrorize as a self-described ruthless, heartless, hopeless gang banger and thug.

After spending nine years in prison, Shakur returned to his 'hood a responsible adult. He's a Wayne County Community College graduate, an involved father of two sons, ages 15 and 5, a Head Start teacher, an author, speaker and community activist.

I've interviewed Shakur, too, and the man is definitely the genuine article when it comes to his passion for and commitment to social upliftment. (He draws the name "Bunchy" from slain Black Panther Party leader Bunchy Carter.) He's a leader in this town, a self-described "freedom fighter" whose youthful mistakes helped him turn around when they could've just as easily taken him under. And he's a prime reason why, no matter how frustrated we become over dismal test scores or teen violence or underage pregnancies, we have to stay devoted to ideals and policies that give our children not just one chance at life, or two if they're lucky, but as many real opportunities as it takes for them to grow into the adults we need them to be.

He's why we don't balance budgets on the backs of scholarship programs and jack college tuitions into the stratosphere, why we do demand superior public education and pure hell for the besuited thieves who steal from students. He's why we need more effective parenting and more serious political leadership and a criminal justice system that will give as much of a damn about what happens to young men when they're set free as when they're locked down.

He's why Detroiters who know better can't cave in to cynicism and negativity, no matter how depressing the day's headlines or the cut scenes from the neighborhood street corner.

Yeah, Shakur was a teenage thug, but he's a man now, a good man who fights hard for the most beseiged communities in Detroit. And if we want more men like this, we need to embrace the reality that they aren't born, but rather they're made -- often from those same boys we so quickly surrender to the streets, the graveyards and the penal system. And while any community's "lost boys" have to learn also to be agents of their own growth and change, this isn't just about them being "salvagable." It's just as much about how willing we are to polish our gems in the rough.

Redemption can be a heartbreaking game, of course. There are no scripted outcomes, no guarantees of victory. But Yusef Shakur -- and thousands of men and women in metro Detroit just like him -- are living proof that it's also a game that ain't over until it's over. And the adults they have become are the best reasons I can think of for why we don't ever give up on our children.

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