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Building bridges: Wilmington man helps ex-convicts as they reenter society

Haneef Salaam, shown speaking as Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., listens at right, said he’s in the unique position of being able to effectively communicate with urban communities, while also connecting them to professionals who can provide aid. Submitted photos

WILMINGTON — Haneef Salaam spent the early years of his adulthood in and out of prison, first for drug distribution, then for probation violations that landed him back in jail multiple times.

Being a young Black man from the Southbridge area of Wilmington during the crack epidemic, the odds were already stacked against him.

Poverty leads to crime, Mr. Salaam said, and without fair economic opportunities and resources available, what options are there for urban communities?

“Poverty breeds crime and violence. African Americans have been neglected equal economic opportunities for a long, long time. While there are opportunities to gain employment, when you look at a livable wage or a livable salary, a salary that one can live off of and also save and build off of, those opportunities are few and far between for African Americans, with or without a criminal background,” said Mr. Salaam, 41.

Before his then-girlfriend, Qaadirah — who is now his wife — gave birth to their first daughter 17 years ago, Mr. Salaam’s life looked very different. Now, for the past 15 years, he has been working for local nonprofits to help formerly incarcerated individuals like himself reintegrate into society and find success.

Mr. Salaam said he’s in the unique position of being able to effectively communicate with urban communities, while also connecting them to professionals who can provide aid.

“I actually think knowing the criminal justice system and just having a firm understanding of urban communities, or ‘the hood’ as I would typically say, is one of my gifts,” Mr. Salaam said.

“Because of my desire to be a professional and engage in this work, I now have the unique ability to be relatable and effectively communicate in two different societies, because the hood is very different than regular, typical society,” he said.
“So I could go in some of the roughest parts of Wilmington and communicate with them and help them to understand how to better themselves. I can also communicate with professional, elected officials and business leaders to help them understand how they can best help individuals who need them.”

Early in his childhood, Mr. Salaam said his life was relatively normal. That changed when his house was hit by the crack epidemic of the ’80s and ’90s, he said.

“Growing up here in Wilmington in the Southbridge area, my life was a bit different. Growing up and to this day, my mother and father are still married. So my parents raised me and my brother with a lot of solid morals, principles and values, and instilled in us the desire for success. Unfortunately, in the early ’90s when the crack epidemic was really affecting a lot of African Americans, it affected my household, as far as my parents and their lifestyle,” Mr. Salaam said.

He detailed the “dramatic change” his life took as he entered his teen years due to the impact of drug use in his family and neighborhood. This change would pave the way for his later decision to sell drugs.

“My life took a dramatic turn at like the age of 12 or 13, where I started to be able to identify with my peers and the things that were going on in my neighborhood more than I had in the past,” he said. “I did finish high school and went to Delaware State (University) for three semesters, (but) while at Delaware State, I was arrested and later convicted for felony drug charges.”

“Because of my desire to be a professional and engage in this work, I now have the unique ability to be relatable and effectively communicate in two different societies, because the hood is very different than regular, typical society,” Mr. Salaam said.

Being a first-time offender when he was arrested in 1999, Mr. Salaam said they let him off relatively easily, yet minor probation violations would continuously land him back in prison over the next four years. At the time, probation violations as small as missing curfew or testing positive for marijuana could land someone like Mr. Salaam back in prison for anywhere between 30 days to a year.

“I got quite into the probation system. And today, as I fight for probation reform, a lot of that is because of the unfair treatment I felt I got while I was on probation,” Mr. Salaam said. “Once I was in the probation system, I was caught up in a cycle of going in and out of jail over that next four-year period of my life. From the age of 19 to 23, I never saw four years home, … and it wasn’t due to any new charges after that initial drug charge. After that, it was all violations of probation.”

Soon after his last probation violation that would land him in prison for a year, Qaadirah learned she was pregnant with their first daughter. Mr. Salaam said missing the pregnancy and birth of his elder daughter, in addition to the guidance from his now-wife, is what made him decide to turn his life around.

“It was my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, even before giving birth to my daughter, who really started planting the seed and questioning my actions, saying, ‘You’re going in and out of jail. Yeah, you always have money, but why do you live like this?’” he said.

“She always questioned why I had such a hatred towards doing the right thing and living right. She planted the seed, and then when I was locked up and had to leave her alone for the pregnancy of my daughter, that’s when really I made the commitment to never do anything to jeopardize my freedom. I came home knowing I was going to be a good father and do whatever I needed to do to ensure I would stay in the life of my daughter,” Mr. Salaam said.

After being released from prison for the last time in 2004, he started his own home renovation business because of his passion for construction. This business did relatively well until Mr. Salaam got in a car accident in 2005, which resulted in serious injuries to himself and 12 months of physical rehabilitation.

Once construction was out of the question, Mr. Salaam got his first job working in nonprofits at Public Allies Delaware, an organization that helps youth overcome racial and socioeconomic barriers to find education and employment. In the mid-2000s, this was one of the only nonprofits that would hire Mr. Salaam with his criminal background. Following Public Allies Delaware, Mr. Salaam has spent the past 15 years working and volunteering for other nonprofits, while also giving motivational speeches in his free time.

This type of work led to the advocate’s belief that economic opportunity is the key to fighting discrimination.

Wilmington, and the Southbridge area specifically, has been marked by the U.S. Census Bureau as one of the worst places in the country for economic mobility, meaning people born to impoverished families often make the same or less income than their parents as adults. Research by Harvard University also suggests that the neighborhood a child grows up in plays a significant role in his economic prospects as an adult.

“I believe you have to give individuals the opportunity to make a decent living for themselves and their family, whether that’s through employment, whether it’s through technical and financial support for entrepreneurship — I think that’s really imperative,” Mr. Salaam said.

“I’m one that believes African Americans are due (for) reparations. If we help other oppressed groups of people receive resources, finances and land to be able to build generations, then why not African Americans? After going through slavery and years of injustice and discrimination, why not provide financial resources strictly for that group of people to have an opportunity to fulfill their duties?” he said.

“I think without economic equality, the system of oppression will always exist.”

Mr. Salaam said it fulfills him to make a living helping people with pasts like his realize they can find success by adopting a new mindset.

Mr. Salaam also touched on how many African Americans are repeatedly traumatized by their encounters with police, who he believes often target Black individuals and neighborhoods.

“I mean, let’s be real. Let’s look at how police are policing. Not just in Delaware but across our country, they are in predominantly African American neighborhoods,” he said. “If you go to a young, white child and ask them if they know the police and what they’re for, they say, ‘Yes, the police are my friend. They’re there to help me, and when I need help, they show up.’

“If you ask a same-age, young, African American child that same question, most times they’ll say, ‘Oh, they’re trying to hurt me and my family. I don’t trust them, and I don’t like them.’ That just shows that it appears police often come in predominantly urban communities, African American communities, searching or hunting for people that are not abiding by the laws.”

Now, Mr. Salaam works as the in-reach coordinator for the Wilmington HOPE Commission, where he recruits inmates from the city to be in its reentry programs to help them find jobs after prison and otherwise reintegrate into normal life. He still lives in Wilmington with Qaadirah, his wife of 11 years, and their two daughters, 17 and 15. His older daughter plans to pursue a career in nursing after graduating high school.

Over the past 15 years working for nonprofits, Mr. Salaam has been employed at many places, such as the Welfare to Work program in Philadelphia, where he helped people receiving government assistance find stable jobs to support themselves. He also volunteers at the Delaware Coalition of Smart Justice, where state organizations work together to advocate for police and prison reform.

Most recently, Mr. Salaam was appointed to a subcommittee within the Delaware General Assembly’s Law Enforcement Accountability Task Force to recommend laws on police reform to the state’s Legislature. The group, formed in June after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, will report back to lawmakers at some point before its mid-2022 deadline.

Mr. Salaam said it fulfills him to make a living helping people with pasts like his realize they can find success by adopting a new mindset.

“I just try to help people change their thinking and believe they can make it,” he said. “Living a criminal lifestyle, I had to change my mindset. I had to understand that wasn’t the only option. It’s hard. It’s easier said than done. So I just try to help people change their mindset and understand they can make it, because when I share my story with … people who know me, watch me and still see the things that I do today, it’s motivation that it can be done.

“There’s a lot of doubt within our people in these communities because they’ve been oppressed, beat up and kicked for so long that they just don’t believe anything will ever change. And that’s all I’m trying to do for them: instill inspiration in people and motivate them to live their best life.”