Helping to Empower and Heal Urban Communities
By Bonita Lee Penn
The Soul Pitt
The Sankore Center and S.H.E.H.U. Program
The Sankore Center sits as a beacon of light from within the shadows of the urban neighborhood of Pittsburgh’s North Side, Federal Street Corridor. The Soul Pitt was honored to be able to sit down with Brother Hamza of the Sankore Center to discuss the mission and programs being utilized to assistant our at-risk-youths, young adults and to help rebuild our communities.
The Sankore School was established in 1985 in Maiurno, Sudan, and in 2002 the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Center was established. The Center was named by the Institute founder, Shayhk Muhammad Shareef, after a mosque and school in Timbuktu, Africa. The Sankore Center is a positive vessel filled with the comforts of home, a place of worship, a place of education with a wondrous library of written resources. The Library has beautiful leather bound ancient books written in the original Arabic language along side of other important books that have been translated from Arabic into the English language. The subjects covered in the Sankore Center’s Library include those of literature, poetry, community, history and religion. One of the many books Brother Hamza shared with me this evening was a book of poetry written by Nana Asma’u, a West African 19th Century Muslim woman. Nana Asma’u was active in politics, education and social reform, as well as a prolific poet.
In keeping with the attitude of reverence for the word that lies at the heart of Islam, her scholarship and dissemination of it were expressive of the spirit of Islam in both content and form. Not all her poetic verse was theological, but all of it was relevant to some layer of the community. The message she conveys in her works is that worldly greatness is not a worthy aim, but personal goodness, patience and generosity, is what makes a person pious.
Another book was the English translation of The Way of Salvation. He stated this is one of the more popular books he distributes to the musical artists he comes in contact. After reading a few paragraphs I could understand why it is so popular, as it shares with the reader a simple yet sensible guide in weighing carefully your thoughts, your words and deeds, just as your dietary practice plays an important role in your overall health and well-being.
The Sankore Center’s doors are opened to people of all ages, ethnic and religious backgrounds and a serene gathering place to meet new friends and participate in healthy discussions and conversations, or a quiet place to enlighten your spirit and open your world to the wonders of new horizons with a good book.
Not only is the Center a place for community gathering and growth but it is also a place of intellect offering an educational curriculum in the study of Islam to students who come from all over to study. As any place which houses literary and intellect there is a presence of visual artistry, such as the portraits and photographs detailing the Muslim way of life. Brother Hamza explained to me the use of the wall chart showing the phases of moon, this chart is used as the Muslim calendar. There were many beautiful and vibrant paintings done by Muslims from across the world, even as far as China. The one I found especially captivating was the Arabic Calligraphy portraits, the artist uses Arabic phrases to compose a picture.
After touring the Center and experiencing a personal overwhelming feeling of peace, comfort and protection, who would think that such as place filled with richness of culture, history and love for community, would be a target of a Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.) raid? Those who didn’t know the existence of the Sankore Center found out through the media as the FBI conducted a raid on the building on a summer day in 2006. With all that has been going on since 9/11 and the establishment of the Homeland Security Unit, the government has been keeping a close eye on those they feel are not living and practicing the normalcy of American life. The public has been led to believe the raid was due to the Center being organized by Muslims, and the government is keeping a watch on the Muslim factors in the U.S. Let the truth be told, as it was the search for the “truth” that led to this raid. This search for truth reaches back to the assassination of Malcolm X. As a public exposed to the Babel of the media and “word on the streets,” we all have come to our own conclusions why Malcolm X was assassinated.
The Sankore Center not only offers to the community a place of refuge and understanding, they are reaching out to the communities with the S.H.E.H.U. Program, a collection of preventive programs to assist our youths and young adults to find their way out of the darkness of the street life and equip them with the life skills they need to become sufficient and responsible citizens.
The S.H.E.H.U. Program (Services Helping to Empower and Heal Urban communities) was founded by Brother Hamza and his co-worker and co-founder, Lugman Abdus Salaam. The various programs are built around a social service curriculum designed to work with at-risk-youth and at the same time help rebuild our communities. The important difference between the Shehu programs and the programs offered by other social agencies is that the Shehu programs specialize in the “prevention” of circumstances that are ailing our communities, meaning they address the concerns before they turn into even greater concerns; and the facilitators have first hand knowledge and practice understanding and sensitivity in today’s urban youth culture. Not only do the programs address concerns head on, they offer alternative educational tools in character reform, media literacy, youth empowerment and cultural history. The Shehu program uses traditional curriculum from Manuscripts collected from West African Scholars in their teachings.
A genuinely strong connection with the urban youth culture gives these programs a unique twist that enables them to directly connect with the youths on a grass root level that few social programs have. A few titles of the successful Shehu programs are the Underground Railroad; Scholar Warrior, 30 Below; and Life Skills 101. These programs have been implemented in the City schools, community organizations, and in the correctional system.
The Shehu program titled The Underground Railroad was created in Brother Hamza’s Teen Action Group Youth Center in Worcester, MA. The idea for this prevention program grew out of Hamza’s experiences living in Worcester, MA. He was once a street hustler with ties to the Latin King gang. He knew from experiences that the drug dealers started recruiting children at the age of 10, the age when the at-risk children would be searching for attention and a little bit of money. The Youth Center recruited them at age 9, offering them a healing environment of love and education. This was not an ordinary after school or tutoring program, this was a program that taught the children real life skills and paid them a decent wage for two or three hours of community work a week. The children felt needed and they were accomplishing something good in their community.
One project of great success was the Underground Railroad where each youth would draw a map of their community, marking the safe streets, the safe houses, the safe businesses; and then they would mark the dangerous streets, the dangerous buildings, the dangerous businesses. Who better to know their streets? Once they completed their maps, they went into the schools, the churches and other community organizations and shared what they learned. Once empowered with knowledge they decided on their own to take action in closing down one of their community’s dangerous businesses. They went all the way to City Hall with petitions to close down a business that permitted trafficking of drugs, and the youths were victorious. They returned to their community in triumph and celebrated with a cook-out in front of the business they closed down. This was a direct influence of teaching children how to empower themselves with a positive goal, also helping the community as a whole, giving them a sense of great accomplishment. The program in Worcester is funded through the University of Massachusetts.
After the success in Worcester, Hamza moved to Pittsburgh at the urging of his Teacher, Shayhk Muhammad Shareef, and established the Sankore Center and offered the Shehu Programs to Pittsburgh’s youths. This was not an easy task, but he knew the communities of Pittsburgh were in dire need of his programs, as he immediately sensed the mistrust of the community towards local government and police and the community’s lack of confidence in its youth. There was also a visible blatant of mistreatment of blacks by the police, who seem to have had a Willie Lynch chip implanted in their brains. One major road block is the lack of funding to carry out the programs to their fullest potential.
Since his arrival in Pittsburgh the program has been facilitated in several City high schools (Westinghouse, Perry, Lincoln, and Faison) and in various community centers.
One such recent program offered in the Pittsburgh Public School system, was titled Scholar Warrior, created by co-worker and co-founder of Shehu, Lugman Abdus Salaam. Scholar Warrior is a title that is used often in Africa and it is used in their male mentoring program. The program guidelines are similar to that of a black survivor game. A group of male students would be divided into teams, and each team would be named after a black organization or important person in history. Each group would be given clues using the alpha/number code system. Clues would be hidden in different parts of the school, when a code was found the teams would be required to go to the library or ask questions to research the answer. The winners would be awarded a small monetary gift certificate to a local urban retail store. While the students may have started off with the incentive of an award, along the way they were awarded a lot more, such as learning how to conduct research, working as a team towards a common goal, learning self control and learning about black history.
Involving the students in this type of engaging activity was a factor which assisted them in retaining much of what they had learned. The Scholar Warrior program connects to the students on their level, using their language and it was a huge success. This program is temporarily on hold while the search for additional sponsors and funds is underway.
The Shehu program has also became part of the rehabilitation curriculum in the Allegheny County Jail. Mrs. Carena Pope, a co-worker of Hamza’s at the YMCA of Pittsburgh, brought him in through the HOPE program. Below is a visual breakdown of the 30 Below program.
30* BELOW (PIMPS & HO’S) BREAKDOWN:
The Source – The Man
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Represents the Glass Ceiling – Black hustlers rarely break through
(you get caught 10-15 years Fed time)
(you get caught 3-5 years)
The 30 Below Program shines a variety of different but similar scenarios heightening the awareness of the unseen hustle to the group. One such scenario is the comparison of the street hustler’s position to that of the prostitute. They say to the young men, “You got your hustle on, got a few dollars in your pocket, a nice car, a nice crib, some Timbs, Air Jordans, and clothes. You think you got it made, you feel like you are on top of the world. Now let’s flip it, and check out a decent looking prostitute, she has a few dollars in her purse, nice clothes, shoes and purses to match, a nice crib, she’s smiling, like you, thinking she’s on top of her game. But look under that layer of hip clothes and money, she’s the one working the trenches, meeting up with bad johns, beat downs, every time she goes out on the block, she’s risking her health and her freedom and for what? At the end of the night, she walks away with change while the bulk of the profits go to her Pimp, so he continues to get rich. The hustlers are out there on the block, risking their lives and freedom, and we can ask the same question, for what? A little change and a little more change if you are the Money man, while the bulk of the profits go to the Connect and the Man. At the end of the night, the hustler walks away with some change but the profits goes to their Pimps to build their financial empires.
The Money Man and the 30 Below Man, (30 representing the age bracket of men involved at this level of the hustle are usually below the age of 30) same thing, you are prostituting yourselves, taking all the risks, and giving all your money to The Source/Man and The Connect and at the end the package you are the one paying the price cause you are the one getting caught up by the police.
Once the captive audience compares their place in the hustle game with a prostitute they become enlightened to the reality of it all.
Another scenario used to reach the understanding of this culture are to dissect the familiar comments spoken by many who have served or are presently severing time in a prison facility. Everyone is always saying how jail is cool; it’s ok; I’m maintaining; I’m a solider. Next time someone says to you jail is cool, think about this. You are sentenced to 3-5 or 10-15 years, your woman comes to visit every week and she is always looking fly. You return to population aroused, but, oh, before you get there, you have to submit to a body check. You have to bend over, spread and cough, while a guard, another grown man checks you. How does it make you feel to have a grown man check your private parts? How does this affect your manhood? This is happening to you every week for 3-5 or 10-15 years. Now after you are released, can you tell your homies, yeah jail is cool, it was cool having to spread and cough to the guards.
A third scenario used is the break down of the urban popular movie Scarface. This part of the program is to educate the audience of the deceptions of the glamorization of the drug culture in rap, video and films. How many times have you heard reference a person makes to Al Pacino’s violent character, Tony Montana? These comments can be from your friend across the street to the major rappers. It’s amazing how many idolized the way he clawed his way up from the position of a 30 Below Man to the rank of The Source/Man. The discussion breaks down how everyone hated Tony Montana. He was hated by his wife, his mother, his family, his friends, his associates, and those who worked for him. He even hated himself, sure he gained power and money, but, he lost his self-control. The program progresses to explain the importance of self-control and how to control your passions.
The programs not only teaches how to escape the street life but it shares the spiritually side of life such as – Purification of the heart from Jealousy, Envy, Arrogance, Showing off and love of leadership” it also deals with wanting for your brothers and sisters what you want for your self and that’s a better life for all. Another reason why the program has established programs to feed the homeless and hold clothing drives.
One would assume the aforementioned programs geared towards Blacks, Hispanics and others labeled as “at-risk” males; programs that have shown a success pattern within several communities and would be well received in all communities. One would think the search for funding and sponsors would be non-existent as funds would flow in from community organizations, businesses and educational leaders and government sources. One would think, with the short-lived success of other prevention programs, and with the emergence of a grass root prevention program such as Shehu which is aimed at grasping the reality of the beliefs, the morals, and the desires of the youth culture and meeting them head-to-head, word-for-word, life-for-life, giving them not only a way out of their mentality, but a way to use their skills and intelligence in a positive manner, to live responsibility in today’s society. It’s sad to think that the program that proved to be a success in a failing school system would be in danger of ending because of the lack of funding. The program is not about stripping the youth of their individuality, it is in place to assist the youth in realizing their strength, their intelligence and guiding them to overcome the barriers and stumbling blocks and use it to better themselves and become responsible adults and role models for others.
I asked Brother Hamza what are the goals of the Sankore Center and the Shehu Program. He said to have the Sankore Center complete with rehabilitation and have it filled with students, and the Shehu program to be fully funded with programs in place throughout the City.
At this time the Shehu program has offices on the North Side, Homewood and other East End locations. They are presently working on networking locally and nationally for program funding and sponsorships. The Shehu program has been in place in high schools, universities, YMCA’s, Boys and Girls Clubs and youth centers across the nation.
It was hard not to notice the sense of peace and happiness reflected with each word and smile from Brother Hamza, it had me wondering what would lead a young man who was born and raised in small town in Puerto Rico to Islam?
“I tried to do many things to try to experience Happiness from getting high, making money partying etc. All these things were a false form of happiness that never quenched the thirst that my soul was looking for” When my roommate who was a Latin King had completely transformed his life with Islam and had the look of complete joy and happiness in his soul” that’s when I found my experience with true traditional Islam and it has been the best thing I have ever experienced in my whole entire life.”
Check the Shehu website for the announcement of the Walk-a-Thon to raise funds for the Shehu Program, the Underground Railroad. Also watch for other upcoming events to educate our communities.
To learn more about the Sankore Center and Shehu Program click on