Category Archives: social justice

Ordinarily Extraordinary: Rafi Peterson Transcends Labels & Builds a Legacy

Rafi infront of the transition house 

When I first began working with IMAN, I would always hear about the legendary Rafi Peterson. I would talk to people around the office, and in the community about their different experiences living on Chicago’s south side, but I was always told, “You should hear Rafi’s story.”

 Rafi’s a big man, with a deep, resounding laugh, honest eyes, and an endearing smile, but he also possesses a certain kind of intensity that implies that he’s no joke. One day, after a colleague insisted that I approach Rafi for a one-on-one, reassuring me that he didn’t bite, I finally got the opportunity I had been waiting for. Sitting in the living room of Project Restore‘s Transition House, Rafi led me into the parallel worlds of prison, the projects, and what it means to be a black man in America.

 This is his story. 

Growing up in the Urban Serengeti

Growing up in Chicago’s projects of Argyle Gardens – Rafi learned the game of the “Urban Serengeti” from a young age. Joining his first crew at the age of fourteen – which called itself the “AG mob” – he hustled in the drug trade to make ends meet. After being shot when he was sixteen, and having a recurring nightmare about his enemies uniting against him, Rafi decided to escape the hood by joining the military right after high school. Following his discharge from the army, Rafi went back to a life of dealing, leading a crew in his neighborhood.

After a relationship with a dealer went sour and his family’s life was threatened, Rafi was incarcerated in a state prison for twelve and a half years for murder. Upon entering, Rafi realized that the “system was just as corrupt in (prison) as it was outside (in the projects).” In the 80s and 90s, street gangs in the city were reinvented – “making the drug and banging scene at the top of its game, and Chicago the murder capital of the world.” During this time, street organizations ran the institutions. “When you came into the institutions it was gang leaders representing ‘folks’ and one representing ‘people’ sitting with the correctional officer assigning you to housing.”  Because Rafi was not part of an organization, he was assigned as a ‘neutron’ and put in the kitchen.

Big Muhammad

 While working in the kitchen one day, three vice lords (or street organizations) sent representatives to put Rafi “on count”; a way to indoctrinate other inmates into their gangs by forcing them to pay protection. Rafi refused, resisted, and showed them, “kill me or take something if you can.” Holding his own, the vice lords eventually backed off of him; but the fight got the attention of others in the jailhouse, including a certain “Big Mohammad.”

Big Muhammad was a “Big, huge brother, with a beautiful, beautiful smile, who wore eight long braids, and had a sentence of 2700 years.” Intrigued by Rafi’s fearless character, Big Muhammad “sent some brothers to holler” at him. Knowing that the vice lords would come after Rafi again, Big Muhammad had Rafi moved to his cell, taking him under his wing, and teaching him about Islam – lessons which changed his life forever.

Embracing Islam has deeply impacted Rafi’s life, and has guided him in every aspect of his work. Today, Rafi claims, “If I was not Muslim, I would not be breathing air today.”

Giving Back- Project Restore

In 1998, a year after his release, Rafi met Rami Nashashibi, the Executive Director of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN). Together, they coordinated a “taleem service” in Cook County Jail’s Division 11, giving religious classes to brothers in prison. Through these encounters, they soon realized that such rehabilitation efforts went well beyond that of the prisons; that it was critical for ex-offenders to have a positive support system welcoming them back home to society once they were released, in order to keep them from going back to “the life.”

From these conversations, Rafi and others at IMAN developed Project Restore. Two years later, in 2007, the Transitional House was introduced, which houses “formerly incarcerated Muslim men who are focusing on community service, counseling and job training.” These brothers play a significant role in the community through their work with CeaseFire, doing vital violence prevention work with youth and street organizations in the hood.

A few years ago, Rafi was chosen as one of only six people across the nation to participate in the Muslim Integration Program under the State Department’s Institute for Training and Development (ITD). Interested in Rafi’s work with young gang members, the Institute invited him to hold workshops on youth empowerment in the Netherlands; a country in which the fastest growing groups going to prison are young, Moroccan and Turkish males who Rafi describes, “happen to look like me.”

His Biggest Accomplishment

Working his way up from the projects and prison to getting two bachelor’s degrees, and becoming a critical leader in community empowerment initiatives on the Southside of Chicago and even abroad, Rafi is an incredible reservoir of willpower and experiences. When asked what his biggest accomplishment was, he proudly said, “My daughter.” Rafi’s daughter grew up visiting him in maximum security prisons, learning to braid hair by braiding Big Muhammad’s locks, and was often taunted by her girlfriends about “her daddy being in prison.” Today, she is a successful high school teacher, married, with a beautiful son.

Rafi’s proudest moment was being asked by his daughter to lead a violence prevention workshop at her school. At the end of the workshop, Rafi revealed to the students that he was their teacher’s father, much to their surprise. “For her to be able to have me come to her place of work, and not hold her head down in shame – that was a great accomplishment. That was one of the most joyous and prideful days of my life.”


Today, Rafi serves as an IMAN board member and continues his work in reducing violence in Chicago Lawn. In early April 2008, Rafi was recognized as a Community Hero by LISC’S New Communities Program and next month, he will be honored with the “Excellence in Community Leadership” award by Holy Cross Hospital, where he does violence prevention work with CeaseFire.

He will also be beginning his master’s program this fall.

Transcending labels and building a legacy, Rafi is an unstoppable force – a dynamic, inspirational leader whose life serves as a moving reminder about the power of the human spirit, and one’s faith.

In Rafi’s Words:

 Lessons on the Urban Serengeti & the State

“The strong will always control the weak, but the wise will control the strong. So I learned over the years to become wise as well as strong. Out there is a food chain, it’s the Urban Serengeti. And the higher up on the ladder you are (on the street life), the better you can eat.” 

 “In the African American community you cannot tell if the prison is an extension of the community or the community is an extension of the prison.”

“They (the state) always allows a certain amount of dope to enter these institutions; that’s how they maintain control – to keep the inmates out each other. How do you keep rats from gnawin’ outta’ a basket? You keep the basket shakin’ and the rats turn on each other.”


“Allah is the best of planners. If I hadn’t went through what I went through yesterday, I wouldn’t be who I am today.”

“I was once a convict. I’m not proud of it, but that’s a reality for me. But I have went and gone beyond that, and I have gone beyond that by the graces of Allah, my Lord, and I know I have been blessed.”

Rafi’s Soundtrack.



Filed under ordinarily extraordinary, podcast, social justice

Brave New Voices Slam into Chicago

After an unforgivably long hiatus, I have returned to the world of cyber psychosis and decided to reconnect with the blogging world. A number of things prompted this return, but most notably it was the incredible new things I’ve been experiencing and the inspiring people I’ve had the honor of meeting.

A week ago, on Saturday, July 18th, I witnessed some of the most ridiculously gifted youth perform at the 2009 Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Finals at the Chicago Theater. Armed with their poetic zeal, these teens graced the stage with a kind of expressive strength, confidence, global consciousness, and relentless love for their art that touched me to my core. The fire and courage behind their words left me speechless, leaving me victim to what I would call “awediance paralysis”: wide-eyed, and open-mouthed, captivated by the creative power before me.

Through each verse, these brave new voices masterfully wove an intricate patchwork of our struggles, leading an all-out war against ignorance and indifference. Unabashedly delving into topics such as racism, homosexuality, drugs, aids, and rape, these youths took us on a roller coaster of emotions – schooling us on the power of the human spirit.

I’m still working on getting a hold of the audio podcast of the performance, but in the meantime, here’s a clip I found which gives a taste of the talent from that night:

Props and congratulations to all of  you. You have awoken the beast within.


Filed under culture, social justice

Congressman Gutierrez Holds Urgent Press Conference on Comprehensive Immigration Reform



Two days ago, Congressman Luis V. Gutierrez  (D-IL) held a press conference in Chicago on Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR). Gutierrez called the urgent meeting on Ya Basta (or “Enough is Enough!”) in light of the election of Barack Obama to the presidency. Calling the US’s current immigration system “broken and overwhelmed,” Obama has expressed support for the legislation, reportedly telling the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials that, “I want to come back to you, during the first term of my first year and sign comprehensive immigration reform.”


Surrounded by mothers, Muslims, priests, community organizers, families, and children holding signs reading, “I was born in the USA, please don’t take my mommy away,” the congressman reaffirmed his commitment to keeping families together and continuing the struggle against ICE raids and deportations, which have intensified over the last several years under the Bush administration’s “War on Terror.” The Guardian recently reported that “The U.S. Government arrested and deported a record number of illegal immigrants, nearly 350,000 in the past year.”


Splitting speaking time between Spanish and English, Gutierrez shunned the “political actions” taken by this administration to “feed that thirst that the very right wing elements of American society have, the xenophobic elements.” Of undocumented immigration he further went on to say: “It’s a misdemeanor, not a criminal offense. Stop criminalizing it. Make them pay a fine. Put them on probation for a few years. Let them work, and toil away, and learn. Make them learn skills, make them take English lessons. Let them deserve it.” In response to Homeland Security’s premise that it is protecting its borders from terrorists, the Congressman argued, “Then, stop raids on the woman who windexes store windows at 1 am to prepare them for you to go shopping. We know she’s not dangerous. These people are not a threat.”


I decided to make an impromptu trip to the press conference upon receiving an invitation from the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), and I’m glad I did. It reminded me of those I had left behind in Tijuana, Mexico – a place I was fortunate enough to explore in the Spring of 2007 during Global Exchange’s “US-Mexico Border Tour.” Among those I learned tremendously from were the migrants at Casa del Migrante, who put a human face on an issue which is largely misunderstood by those who are unaware of the unjust loopholes of NAFTA – a trade agreement which, though it claims to be about “free trade,” does not honor “fair trade.”  Over the dinner they shared with me, these men shared stories of their struggle to make ends meet for themselves and their families – forcing them to travel through rough terrains and risk their lives to cross the border into a country whose policies have long-defended the unjust actions of its corporations in Mexico, while simultaneously viewing Mexicans’ desire to work and survive as a threat to its national security. All I have to say is four words: Ningún Ser Humano es Ilegal… No Human is Illegal.


I was able to capture two clips of Guiterrez’s press conference. In the first, he supports Obama’s pick for Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, saying that he would be “effective” and “get things done.”


In the second video, he censures the current administration’s “hypocritical” policies and practices, and also expresses his hope and desire to work with Mccain again, who (to my surprise), once supported CIR but who (not surprisingly) distanced himself from the issue during his run for the presidency.


Gutierrez later affirmed to reporters that he was interested in Illinois’ open senate seat, but emphasized that working for comprehensive immigration reform was his top priority, a statement which was met with resounding applause and cheers from the group around him who was probably thinking, “Si Se Puede… Yes We Can.”


On a side note: The Sunlight Foundation’s  Open Congress project is an excellent source of up to date information on current legislation going through Congress; in effect, it uses the power of the Internet to create greater government transparency and accountability. Check it out!

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Filed under politics, social justice