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Nation Building

Can Farajii Muhammad Create a New Generation of Leaders for Baltimore

Photos by Christopher Myers
Farajii Muhammad poses in front of City Hall with members of his Youth Empowerment Movement.
Muhammad leads a Youth Empowerment seminar with local students.
Muhammad takes his message to the airwaves at the studios of WEAA-FM.
MUHAMMAD formed the New Light Leadership Coalition and the Youth Empowerment Movement with wife Tamara.

By Christina Royster-Hemby | Posted 8/16/2006

A young black man stares quizzically at a PowerPoint presentation trying to relate to the customs of the people of Guadalajara, Mexico. Clean cut with dark-chocolate skin, he came here for a financial seminar titled "Managing Non Profit Finances for a Rapidly Growing Organization." But he had no idea that it would involve sitting through a presentation by Rare, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to protect relatively untouched wild regions around the globe. The young man is just starting out as an entrepreneur and could use any financial advice he can get, but as the presenter expounds about a rare bird found around Guadalajara, the young man puts his pen down on his yellow pad and glances out a window at the hot July sunshine.

"How do you inspire people to embrace conservation?" Rare President and CEO Brett Jenks asks. And as the conversation turns to how Rare used knowledge of the customs of the people of Guadalajara, folkloric ballet, and mariachi bands as marketing vehicles to turn Guadalajarans into advocates for the environment, the young man starts scribbling notes. There is a connection to be made between Guadalajara and people who look like him after all. Maybe he can shake up black youth in his hometown of Baltimore using their customs in order to convince them to conserve another endangered population--themselves.

Though heís 27, Farajii Muhammad doesnít look a day past 18. Only the gold wedding ring that adorns his left ring finger and the care with which he chooses his words indicate his maturity. But when he hears something in conversation that strikes a chord, a youthful "Thatís whatís good" or "Oh snap" breaks through his well-spoken polish. And then thereís the T-shirt he wears to the seminar, which features the word revolution scrawled across the front. "I like to wear T-shirts that spark some conversation," he says.

That makes sense. For the past year, heís been the host of Listen Up, a radio show on Morgan State Universityís WEAA-FM that deals with the youth perspective on issues ranging from HIV/AIDS and teen domestic violence to the young victims of Hurricane Katrina and the failing Baltimore City public schools. Prior to that, he hosted a similar show of WBGR-AM. And in 1999, at 19, he co-created the New Light Leadership Coalition, a nonprofit organization that advocates leadership development and training for minority youth ages 16 to 25.

But now he is taking his career goals one step further. He says that young African-American men and women in Baltimore donít have a voice in their own city. So, in 2003 he started another nonprofit organization, the Youth Empowerment Movement, to fulfill his vision of not only training young leaders but also placing them in positions of power across Baltimore--City Hall ("Young Guns," Mobtown Beat, March 8), educational boards, political arenas, every aspect of city life. While he is attending a financial seminar, he isnít just any entrepreneur. Heís a would-be social entrepreneur.

This past May, Muhammad was one of 12 people chosen from over 1,000 applicants to receive a fellowship from the New York-based Echoing Green Foundation, a nonprofit that, according to the organizationís web site, "provides first-stage funding and support to visionary leaders with bold ideas for social change." This means Muhammad will be awarded $60,000 in seed money over two years to bring his vision to fruition. The fellowship is slated to begin in September and runs until September 2008.

"We are really looking for amazing leaders of promise," says Echoing Green President Cheryl Dorsey. "And weíre also looking to support these leaders who have an innovative idea for social change, and [we] have the management tools to build a sustainable organization over time."

A former Echoing Green fellow herself, Dorsey is also a native of Baltimore, and knows firsthand about the challenges young people face here. "As someone who was born and raised in Baltimore, I take tremendous pride and satisfaction in finally being able to fund a fellow from Baltimore and in Baltimore," she says, noting that Muhammad is the first Baltimore fellow to be funded in the foundationís 19-year history. "In many ways, Iíve always seen Baltimore as a city with two faces--great need and tremendous promise. And Farajii embodies that promise perfectly."

Considering the seemingly intractable problems many young Baltimoreans face--poverty, crime, a flailing education system, a lack of opportunities--can Muhammad build a nation of youth here?

"Did Dr. King have a dream?" he laughs to himself, then sobers. "I hope so. I think I have a pretty good shot at empowering young people to become decision makers in the city."

Sitting in a black leather office chair in the Towson offices where the New Light Leadership Coalition and Youth Empowerment Movement are housed, Muhammadís starched dress shirt and jeans give him the air of a well-meaning young bureaucrat with resources at his command. But he understands that foundation money and a nice office donít guarantee his quest will be a success.

"I donít like to attack people on the air," Muhammad says during a discussion of his radio show. "But they know, when they are interviewed on my show, that Iím going to get to the heart of the matter and Iím going to keep it real. Iím going to speak the language of the youth that I serve [on my show]. Because theyíre the ones who are going to listen to the show and become motivated by it to get up and do something about their condition.

"And they will also be the ones to call me out and put me on blast if they donít feel that Iím representing them properly," he says. "Dude is not with us," he quips, laughing.

 

Muhammadís mix of a passionate message for youth and a professional and educated approach to organizing with adults gives many local observers hope for his future, and for what he can do for this city. After all, young black Baltimoreans sure could use a savior. But Muhammad is the first to acknowledge that those kind of expectations, that kind of attention, can be overwhelming.

Just before the seminar in D.C. begins, he confides that when other Echoing Green fellows heard he was being shadowed by a reporter, they told him, "ĎWow, youíre going to be famous.í" Itís something that people have been telling Muhammad all his life. But heís not so sure that he wants notoriety.

"Sometimes the spotlight can blind you," he says. "Sometimes you donít see what other people see."

Ultimately, he tries to downplay it all.

"The only thing that makes me stand out," he insists, "is the fact that I have had some opportunities that other youth around Baltimore havenít."

Farajii Muhammad was born Farajii Rasulallah in Baltimore in 1979. Farajii means "one who comforts" in Arabic; Rasulallah means "messenger of God." He changed his last name to Muhammad--"one who has praised much"--in 1998 after Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan urged devotees to change their last names to Muhammad.

The youngest of three children, Muhammad was born in a middle-class household in the Alameda section of Northeast Baltimore, where he attended Northwood Elementary and Chinquapin Middle schools. But he was also born into the Nation of Islam, the African-American Muslim sect established in the United States in 1930. Muhammadís father, Hazzon Muhammad, has had a varied career, from being a manager at a Hechingerís to owning his own carry-out restaurant; he currently works as a security guard. Muhammadís mother, Kareemah Rasulallah, died when he was 10.

Muhammad says he grew up in a nice, family-oriented neighborhood that he felt a part of. Yet, because of the Nation, he excluded himself from certain activities, such as Halloween and Christmas celebrations. "In the Nation of Islam, we believe that holidays arenít a true representation of those events or people they claim to represent," he says. "And these holidays have mixed pagan traditions with noble ideas." Muhammad acknowledges that many are leery of the Nation of Islam and its members thanks to its reputation as an organization that is anti-white and to Farrakhanís past anti-Semitic rhetoric.

Muhammad wonít be drawn into a debate about the worthiness of the Nation of Islam, or what Farrakhan should or should not have said. He will say that the positive effects of the organization on the black community, such as the mobilization of black men for the Million Man March and the Millions More Movement, have helped raise the level of consciousness of black people. "What [Farrakhan] says transforms lives for the better," he concludes.

When it came time for high school, Muhammad found himself competing with hundreds of kids from all over the city for one of 15 to 20 coveted spots at the Baltimore School for the Arts. "I was so insecure about my talents and my abilities, back then," he says. "I was thinking, Man, this is a hoop dream." To Muhammadís surprise, his acting audition got him in.

"I wanted to be the next Denzel Washington," he says of his performing dreams. "He never takes roles that are demeaning, like dressing up as a woman or shucking and jiving. His roles always show that he has a backbone. And itís very inspiring to see a black man on film playing those type of characters without fail."

He worked hard for those dreams, focusing on breath training and character development, and his dedication started to pay off in 1994, when the high-school sophomore was cast in a small role in Major League II, a feature film shot in Baltimore. "My greatest lesson from that experience is that 15 minutes of fame is just that--I thought I was going to go Hollywood, because I was on-screen less than 15 minutes," he says with a laugh.

Muhammad got no closer to Hollywood, but he did get closer to something else. "My relationship with God has always played a key role in the road that Iíve taken in my life," he says. As high school went on, "I was reading, praying, studying--trying to become a better Muslim, and a better person."

After graduating from the School for the Arts in 1996, he enrolled at Towson University, where he studied public relations. In 1998 he met 16-year-old Tamara Hunter at Muhammad Mosque No. 6 in West Baltimore. Their friendship blossomed into love while they were creating New Light Leadership Coalition, a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering young people through a holistic peer-centered approach to leadership development.

"The New Light Leadership Coalition first started with my internal look at my own possibilities," Muhammad says. "I felt like I had all of this potential, but I felt like there werenít many outlets around the city for it." So he decided to create some.

In the wake of the 1998 Million Youth Marches in Atlanta and New York, Muhammad and Hunter were inspired to bring young people together for leadership training. They planned their own National Youth Conference in Baltimore for November 1999. "We called it a National Youth Conference, but the farthest students only came from D.C.," Muhammad chuckles. About 100 young men and women attended the conference, which included workshops on getting involved in politics at school and the importance of being a leader. Without any sponsors, Muhammad and Hunter fronted more than $1,000 to put it together.

"We didnít make any money from the conference, but there was an interest, because 100 people attended," Muhammad says. "The fact that we were new and were able to attract that number of people was a huge success for us."

In order to keep the fledgling New Light and its activities going, Muhammad worked a few odd jobs to pay the bills. He recalls, for example, working as a car salesman at a dealership in Woodlawn. One day, he says, he took a customer for a test drive, an older African-American gentleman.

Muhammad says that eventually the man turned to him and said, "ĎYou know, I didnít come here to buy this car. I came here to tell you that this is not what youíre supposed to do,í

"And I said, ĎWhat?í And then he dropped the topic and said, ĎI donít want this car. Have a good day.í

"When he said that, it just resonated with me," Muhammad remembers. "Because I knew he was right." It took a while for the message to sink in, but he quit a few months later.

 

The National Youth Conferences continued, but Muhammad and Hunter decided that they couldnít just put on conferences every year as their main activity and expect the organization to grow. So they they soon came up with the idea of developing a training curriculum, based on developing students personally, socially, and politically, and going out to schools and other youth organizations--"anywhere where we could find a youth audience," Muhammad says.

He estimates that 20 or so former trainees became members of the organization and went about the business of training more new leaders. Soon, New Light was training clients not only all over the city and state but in neighboring states such as Pennsylvania as well. To date, Muhammad estimates, the group has trained 3,000 young people.

Like any new nonprofit organization, though, Muhammad says New Light has faced its share of challenges. There was turnover on its board of directors, because "weíre dealing with young people 16 to 25," he says. "Thatís a very transitional part of a young personís life--going from childhood to adulthood. Sometimes the level of commitment and interest goes up and down." New Light also faced funding issues, though Muhammad and Hunter soon learned to balance building a new organization with continual fundraising efforts. "Things balanced out a bit after a while," Muhammad says. "We started getting more committed board members, people started to recognize our name, and we were earning enough money to cover expenses."

In January 2003, a group of local youth organizations, including Safe and Sound, the After School Institute, and the Youth Congress, held an informal meeting to discuss partnering on a youth agenda. "There was a consensus that we needed to work together," Muhammad says. "I volunteered to lead the collective of these organizations."

That collective became the Youth Empowerment Movement, an initiative of New Light Leadership that created a forum for young Baltimoreans to have a greater voice in their city. The Youth Empowerment Movementís goal is to create opportunities for young people to serve on governance boards of the city in decision-making roles. For example, if a Youth Empowerment Movement member was interested in pursuing a spot on the cityís school board, Muhammad says, "we would see if we have any relationships with anyone who either sits on the school board or works with the school board. From there we would have a conversation about training them on procedures on the board and getting them placed." The organization also advocates for young people to have a greater voice on boards where they already have a lesser voice, Muhammad says, again citing the school board, where the student representative carries only partial voting power.

But Muhammadís plan is not only to train young people to serve on boards but also to use the network to pull other young people into the web. "Thereís a multipronged approach to youth development and community activism," he says. "Youíre bringing people together, motivating them, getting them trained up, and placing them directly into decision-making roles or positions."

But even while getting the Youth Empowerment Movement off the ground, Muhammad says he was thinking of scaling back on his work with young people so that he could support his burgeoning family (he and Hunter married in 2005). Or, as he puts it, "Yo, I need to bring some money into this household." He graduated from Towson in May 2006 with a degree in public relations and began considering getting a job in PR to keep "the food on the table."

In the meantime, he had applied for the Echoing Green fellowship. "I thought, Letís see how I do," he says. When he found out heíd gotten it, "I couldnít believe it. I was like, This will keep food on the table, too."

Nonetheless, Muhammad says his vision is still a work in progress. "Weíre still in the stages of getting young people to understand that thereís a need for a movement," he says. "And getting decision-makers to see the value bringing us to the table. . . . Thatís why the Echoing Green Fellowship is so important, because it will give me the time and the resources to figure out what that process is going to be.

"I donít have all of the answers right now," he says. "But thatís what weíre working on."

 

Muhammad has his work cut out for him. The situation facing young African-Americans in Baltimore do not lend themselves to easy nation building. According to local nonprofit organization Advocates for Children and Youth, black children are suspended from school more often than their white counterparts, arrested more often, punished more often, more harshly sentenced, and incarcerated more often. According to an Advocates for Children and Youth fact sheet, while African-Americans make up only 32 percent of Marylandís youth population, they represent 64 percent of youths detained and 72 percent of youths sentenced to state facilities. Infamously, 75 percent of young African-American men drop out of school before graduation in Baltimore City.

"Right now young people are really suffering--from low self esteem, for example," he says. "We canít see past the violence. We canít see past the despair, the poverty, and the lack of quality leadership."

Muhammad says that this breeds a culture that is individualistic, materialistic, and disconnected from history.

"When you talk about young people in Baltimore, and you ask them whatís life like, theyíll tell you, ĎItís murder land,í or, ĎLife is my blockí--the [scope] is very narrow and limited."

But hundreds of organizations have spent years and sometimes millions of dollars trying to address the needs of young people in the city--from the well-funded Annie E. Casey Foundation to scrappy grass-roots organizations such as the student-led Algebra Project.

And there have been other young black male figureheads who have taken up Muhammadís course. At the same time that he was creating the New Light Leadership Coalition, LaMarr Darnell Shields and David Miller were creating the Urban Leadership Institute, a non-profit organization with a not-dissimilar focus on youth. There are striking similarities between what Shields and Miller do and what Muhammad does. Both organizations train youth leaders. Miller won a prestigious Open Society Institute Fellowship in 1999. Shields has a radio show, too--Amazing Youth on powerhouse local urban station 92Q, although Shieldsí 15-minute airtime is markedly shorter than Muhammadís.

But can one person be the catalyst for change?

"One person can be effective, but, historically, one person has never led a movement by themselves," the Urban Leadership Instituteís Shields says. "And putting that burden on one person is a heavy load to carry. When you look at the civil-rights movement, people say that it was led by Dr. King. It really wasnít--it was the people behind Dr. King." At the same time, Shields allows, "One of the reasons that people are attracted to Farajii is most movements have been led by young people--civil rights, Soweto, Tiananmen Square."

Muhammadís youth is a plus, but itís not the only thing he has going for him, Shields concludes: "The reason why Farajii is [powerful] is because heís young, heís handsome, heís clean cut, and heís effective and has a plan."

Walker Gladden, a youth coordinator for East Baltimoreís Rose Street Community Center, says that while Muhammadís work is certainly worthwhile, thereís pressing work to be done in the city at street level. For the past six years, Gladden has spent his days working with 14- to 25-year-olds, many of whom are homeless and/or fresh from juvenile homes. Of Muhammad, Gladden says, "I commend the young brother in terms of what heís doing, sharing information and empowering youth through speaking, but they need hands-on intervention and hands-on interaction."

Gladden says that heís seen Muhammad at City Hall and in Annapolis, but that he hasnít been seen where he is needed the most. "I donít see him here in the community," Gladden says. "I hear about him in the political arena, in terms of speaking at . . . a seminar about youth empowerment. But where heís needed the most is definitely in the heart of the streets, on the corners where these young men are."

Asked about Gladdenís concerns, Muhammad says that the Youth Empowerment Movement is and will be everywhere. "[We] need soldiers on all fronts," he says. "Our strategy is to be in the streets and in the conference rooms, so folks will feel the impact of change everywhere. Plus, young people need leaders who are accessible to resources beyond their communities."

But he is prepared for some resistance as his plan gets under way, and he expects it from the very institutions that most often deal with the issues and problems of young people in Baltimore.

"There is no doubt that there are powers that be in City Hall, the police department, and the school system, the three major institutions that deal with the growth, the cultivation, and the development of youth, that donít want to see us unite," Muhammad says. "If you take City Hall, for example, as long as those politicians donít believe that we have a place there, then they will never believe that they have to address our issues. They wonít be held to a standard of accountability."

Muhammad says kids hear from these three institutions that they care about the citizens, the constituents, the students, but those messages are not congruent with reality. "[Officials] say, ĎWeíre looking out for the best interest of the students,í" he says. "But how can that be when some schools look like buildings in Beirut right now? Windows are open, stuff falling out of pipes in the ceilings, lights are broken, bathrooms are unusable or donít have doors. And then you hear about [adult teachers and administrators] misappropriating funds.

"When you have a system that is suffering in that manner, then there has to be a reconstruction of the whole system," he continues. "Thatís the problem. Young people are no longer the priority of the city. We are casualties, even though the cityís future is based on us."

Jann Jackson, executive director of local nonprofit Advocates for Children and Youth, agrees. "Oftentimes we make decisions about young people without involving them, even though they have to live with the consequences, not us," Jackson says. "If we want our young people to be able to inherit the responsibility for this society, we have to provide opportunities for their involvement and training.

"Adults need to realize," she continues, "that when young people are at the table, there are great ideas and sometimes better solutions."

 

"Whatís up, family?" Muhammad half sings, smiling, as he walks into a City Hall conference room one July morning for a youth development seminar. While Muhammad sometimes rails against City Hall, he realizes that these are the literal corridors of power, and if his trainees are to eventually seize their share of that power they need to know their way around. "Having the seminar at City Hall takes the young person out of the community and gets them thinking about their leadership on a broader scale," he says.

Thirty or so student leaders, most of them black, huddle around a conference-room table talking about the state of their own condition. They have come from as far as St. Timothyís School in Stevenson and as close by as Digital Harbor School in Federal Hill. But they have come for one reason: to attend the New Light Leadership Conferenceís summer leadership institute, during the course of which they will be going through many exercises together--including creating a community project that they may later take back to their communities. They have also come to use their voices.

Some of the young men and women wear baggy clothes, and a few young brothers at the head of the table wear cornrows. A few kids occasionally speak out of turn. And though Muhammad is sporting a suit this particular day, itís clear that heís still one of them, and they donít try to overstep their bounds with him. After all, they are his Guadalajarans, and he has used his knowledge of their city, their language, and their culture to show them that he is down for their cause.

As the discussions go on, the students complain about how politicians only seem to care about the blight in their neighborhoods during election years, and wonder why the government doesnít use more boarded-up houses for treatment centers. They wonder why older people donít encourage them more instead of writing them off, if what they really want is to see kids succeed. They wonder why older people donít seem to remember when they were growing up, and what it felt like to be treated that way. Yet they are hopeful.

"I feel as though our generation is going to succeed," says Nicole Harris, a junior at St. Timothyís School, who wears her braided hair in a perfect bun behind her head.

Harris tells the story of seeing a young black kid on a street corner trying to sell bottled water. Some drivers seemed to scoff at the boy, but, as Harris says she learned by talking to the boy, "he was just trying to raise money to go to Kings Dominion. Why is it whenever youth are trying to do something positive, they assume itís negative? There are a lot worse places he could be than that corner."

Muhammad interjects one of his habitual firecracker "Oh!"s like heís won the lottery: "Go ahead, sister, get into the discussion,"

"Weíre the people who are going to replace yíall once you die," says LaTonya Briggs, a recent Harbor City High School grad. "They stereotype us so much that we canít make a [true] statement on who we are.

"You think this generation doesnít care--thatís because weíre a reflection of you," says Waqia Austin, a senior at Forest Park High School, as if there was a baby boomer standing right in front of her. "What did you do that was so different?"

Things are arguably far worse for these young men and women, in many respects, than for their parents. And yet, says Tuesday Barnes, a sophomore at the Bryn Mawr School, "youth are better than their communities. [We] still get good grades."

"We donít have no voice," says Julian Scott, a sophomore at Eastern Technical High School. "We canít speak out, and when we do weíre shut down."

Muhammad smiles. Around this table he sees leaders of promise, leaders who will be able to join the Youth Empowerment Movement. During the course of the two weeks, he hopes to help them channel their frustration and anger into focused energy. Later during the session, they will break up into teams to learn how to build a community service project in their neighborhoods, write organizational budgets, and form business plans. They will also play leadership games and attend a computer lab to brush up on the latest technology. Ideally, once these students leave this seminar, they will be more aware of their own abilities and what their voices can do.

"Young people have to be awakened to their value and purpose, which is to be the generation of fulfillment," Muhammad says. "Once we wake up to this reality, then we can start the process of becoming change agents in our communities and in the city.

"Revolution begins in the mind," he says, echoing one of Farrakhanís quotes. "So we have to change the thinking of young people first in order to make any change in the streets."

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