Make no mistake about it… I’m an Idealist. I will never stop believing in what this city can be. In the face of violence, I believe there can be peace. In the face of despair, I believe there can be hope. In the face of a politics that has divided us for too long, I believe we can be one people, reaching for what’s possible, building a stronger more united city.
That’s the journey I’m on today. But let me tell you how I came to be here. As most of you may know, I am a life-long resident of the city of Newark. Three generations of my family lived in the Baxter Terrace housing projects. Believe it or not, at one time, all of the people that lived there were like one big family. People looked out for one another. It was in this “School of Hard Knocks” that I received the best education I ever had, and where I learned the true meaning of family, survival, and faith. Unfortunately, over the years the infamous housing projects became synonymous with drugs, crime and violence. Although my mother worked hard to support me and tried to provide everything I needed, the fascination with street life and the cash I could make from selling drugs was far too tempting to resist.
The only thing I gained from my years of running in the streets was a five year prison sentence and 5 gun shots wounds from three separate incidents. My last and most serious incident dates back in 2002. I regained consciousness at UMDNJ Hospital with a catheter lodged in my throat and several tubes attached to my body. I spent a total of six weeks lying up in a hospital bed. During my stay, through a series of operations and procedures, I was treated for the following: Diaphragm laceration, Liver laceration, colon injury, abdominal compartment syndrome, respiratory failure, multiple organ failure, and abdominal wall reconstruction. The doctors named me the “Walking Miracle” when I finally began to recover.
Believe it or not I gained something from this experience. Because it was in this time of crises, during the darkest hours of my life that I grew closer to God. The seeds of faith are always alive in us, but sometimes it takes a crisis to provoke them to grow. And it took a crisis to provoke those seeds to grow within me. I started replacing my doubts and my fears of changing with Faith. Faith in God and faith in my own abilities to overcome life’s greatest challenges.
It was through faith and an urgent need for change that led me to start my organization, back in 2005 and I’ve never looked back. Stop Shootin’ has continued to be at the forefront of a grassroots movement that has helped the City of Newark set the national standard for urban violent crime reduction. We’ve challenged the community to re connect with one another, and to recommit to eliminating senseless loss of life. There’s been significant strides in community leadership — people pulling together on blocks and in neighborhoods in phenomenal cooperation. We have achieved what many are saying is remarkable success.
But for all the progress that has been made, we must surely acknowledge that Newark has yet to fulfill its true potential. We still have much work to do, and a long road to walk before the truth of our city is fully realized. This is a time where you can go to any community meeting or street corner and hear people express anxiety about the future. I hear them convey their uncertainty about the direction we’re headed as a city. Whether it’s the upsurge of violence over the summer months or the lack of quality education or their jobs, you hear people say that we’ve finally arrived at a moment where something must change.
Now, the people of Newark understand that government alone can’t meet this challenge. We realize that we need to stop looking for some external force, some outside factor, some knight in shining armor to fix our problems. We are the source of our own solutions, our own changes, our own imaginative creations, not our government, our corporations, our political parties. If change is to happen, it must happen down deep in the psychological soil of our own being. We have to decide to change. We have to recognize reality.
Thus we do need change, not the campaign slogan type, but the substantive change. The kind that King talked about when he said, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability”. It must be carried in on the backs of Newark’s most dedicated servants. We are that generation, this is our highest calling. In the months and years to come, it’s time for each of us to understand that we will never solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together because the challenges that are facing our community and our world are much greater than any of our personal, political or organizational differences. We are all in this together. We may live or work in different wards and communities but we are fighting in a common cause.
Therefore, when our cause seems doomed and the future lost, when despair becomes unbearable and our hearts are on the edge of breaking, let us conjure hope and honor and high resolve in yet one more stubborn affirmation! I encourage us all to summon a new spirit of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other. Let us realize the potential power that our unity can unleash to bring about positive changes in our community.
Yusef Ismail is a self- motivated achiever with a boundless passion to end senseless gun violence in urban communities, nationwide. Yusef is a Co-Founder of Stop Shootin’ Inc., which is a non-profit organization based out of Newark, New Jersey. The agency promotes programs and events focused on providing young people with educational, cultural, and economic alternatives to criminal activity. Since Stop Shootin’s inception, Yusef has managed the organization full-time as the Executive Director. Under his direction, the agency has continued to grow by leaps and bounds. Yusef has been vital in turning an often used catch phrase into an action-oriented organization. Yusef Ismail continues to give of himself, time, and talent selflessly to Newark’s youth and families.