| Follow Us:



Urban Network

5740 Grand River
Detroit, MI 48208

Yusef Shakur

By Tunde Wey & Claire Nelson
March 21, 2012

Yusef Bunchy Shakur is well versed in the language and syntax of Detroit. He is an interpreter of the language of the city’s majority African-American population. He offers sage advice on how to help a broken community. And he is a reformed son of the notorious Zone 8 neighborhood: an ex-convict, a father, an author and community activist.
Shakur runs the Urban Network, a multi-purpose, community-centered business consisting of a bookstore, an entertainment company, and a publishing outfit. Each subsidiary is an avenue for Shakur to “restore, rebuild and re-spirit from the ground up.” This is his life’s work.
Located on Grand River, the Urban Network building sits close to the street. Inside, the flexible space is seamlessly occupied by a bookstore, café and digital community space with computer stations, a recording studio, and an entertainment system featuring video games and a very large television screen. Then there are the books – lots of them – by local and international writers, all thematically consistent around empowerment and the African American experience.
Here, Shakur hosts poetry and open mic sessions, workshops, book discussions and movie screenings. He is intentional about creating a space that offers a counter narrative to the prevailing conditions in his Zone 8 neighborhood, where approximately 40% of households live below the poverty line. The murder risk is eight times the national average, and 31% of residents over the age of 25 did not complete high school.
Shakur sees these problems of crime, violence and poor educational infrastructure as results of institutional neglect, leaving “no viable economic structure for the community to sustain themselves.” As a result, he says, individuals engage in unhealthy activity.
With the Urban Network, Shakur offers an alternate vision to the pervasive inner city hopelessness he describes as “social disorder and madness.” His community-focused business model is a practical pushback against the reality of his neighborhood’s opportunity deficiency. The Network also provides the community more than its tangible assets – like exposing youth to the sort of positive models of entrepreneurship and leadership that were not available toShakur growing up.
A legacy of the system, Shakur was remanded to state custody as a teenager. His gang activity eventually led him to prison, where he would spend almost a decade behind bars. Shakur’s rehabilitation from street hustler to community activist began in earnest when he met, in prison, his erstwhile absent father, who challenged him to educate himself and understand the origin of his incarceration.
In 2010, he would go on to pen a memoir, The Window 2 My Soul, but became frustrated by the limited prospects available to him as a returning felon. When he couldn’t find a local bookstore to sell his own books, he opened his own. He now also publishes other emerging literary artists under his Urban Guerilla Publishing.
Today, education and storytelling continue to be central to his work. Shakur partners with local leaders and organizations, including the office of City Councilman Kenneth Cockrel, to provide school supplies to neighborhood youth. He also uses his story of reformation to educate returning citizens through HOPE (Helping Our Prisoners Elevate).
These acts of community stewardship have not gone unrecognized. The Annenberg Foundation granted Shakur $25,000 to expand the Urban Network’s offerings, and he was recently awarded $10,000 from the Black Male Engagement Challenge to provide literary classes and digital training. Resources like these make his work possible.
When asked how he could be better supported, Shakur encourages people to donate to efforts like his. “Patting someone on the back won’t make a difference” – but the love and commitment to make a difference will.
“There is a state of emergency, and people change at their own pace. So it is difficult to put a time frame on success. It is determined by the community and the people doing the work. And the work to be done is varied.”
While the time and distance of change may be unclear, Shakur’s vision of success is not. “Winning looks like serving, engaging and mobilizing. That’s where people begin to take ownership of projects and formulate new alternatives. Instead of robbing or selling dope, they are doing something more productive, like planting gardens and selling books.”
Thanks to Shakur and the Urban Network, these aren’t radical ideas but real opportunities.

“If we educate, empower and inspire people to live in a space that is conducive to manufacturing healthy human beings, there will no longer be a need to fight against each other.”

Portrait by Marvin Shaouni Photography.

Share this page
Signup for Email Alerts

Twitter Feed

Related Resources

  • The Annenberg Foundation
    The Annenberg Foundation exists to advance the public well-being through improved communication. As the principal means of achieving this goal, the Foundation encourages the development of more effective ways to share ideas and knowledge.