Brother Jeff is deeply committed to movements that uplift and heal communities. He’s worked closely with many other leaders and activitists –to name a few: Dick Gregory, Mauala Karenga (founder of Kwanzaa) Muhamid Ali, Jesse Jackson, the Reverend Al Sharpton, Minister Louis Farakhan, Lenora, Fulani, and Kwame Ture (aka, Stokely Charmichael.)
In 2000, Brother Jeff began his crusade to help reduce the disproportionate HIV and AIDS rate in the African-American community, and he developed “Brother Jeff’s Community Health Initiative” and created the successful “Pro Active 4 A Change: HIV/AIDS African American Community Conference” to help. Brother Jeff has also been the catalyst to bringing organizations and service providers into Historic Five Points such as “Out of Life Colorado,” the “Colorado Hip-Hop Coalition,” and the “Five Points Community Mobilization Project.” These programs are currently addressing HIV/AIDS, prison issues, youth services, mental health, and drug and alcohol counseling.
Brother Jeff has published the Brother Jeff’s Annual Business and Community Resource Guide. He says, “This publication is designed with a desire to keep the community connected and informed and serves as a resource for individuals and groups wanting to share and learn more about community-based organizations, businesses, and services.”
A friend of Brother Jeff’s summed him up well: “This is an amazing young man with the largest smile on planet Earth. I have personally witnessed the incredible way this man embraces individuals who are hurting. Brother Jeff is one in a million….”
How did the idea for the “Brother Jeff’s Cultural Center & Cafe” in Historic Five Points come about? Although the Cultural Center opened in 1994, I started developing it back in 1985 during the “Summer of Violence” when there were a lot of gangs that were permeating Northeast Denver. I felt it was important to have a safe place. A place where individuals could come to express themselves in an informal manner – in a safe environment.
We offered poetry readings, mentoring for young people, and really touted literacy and education through cultural arts as a link to give these individuals opportunities for higher education such as going to college. It really grew out of gangs, drugs, violence, and it has changed over time, but it’s certainly rooted in this kind of community development.
What inspired you to get involved personally? As a native Northeast Denverite, I spent a lot of time at the Hiawatha Davis Center, which offered activities for young people and a lot of adult/young people interaction.
I never realized that those individuals who were the coaches in our lives were actually volunteers, and they had jobs during the day and volunteered to work with us after work. There was this sense of community, which I totally was nurtured in. Like I said in the 80’s, when gangs, drugs and violence took place, many people started saying, “That’s how life is.”
Young people dying; to me, that wasn’t how life was. I remember a lot of the laughter, a lot of the joy, but I also saw a lot of the sadness and anxiety. There is a disconnect which often takes place within our society. My mission and goal became that things could be rewarding and fulfilling; and yes, there is a place for individuals to interact in one another’s lives. Particularly between young people and adults.
Do you consider Brother Jeff’s Cultural Center your proudest achievement? Yeah, I would say that the Cultural Center has been a huge achievement, only because I think that it has been a success because the work that has come out of the Cultural Center has impacted a lot of lives on different levels.
The issues change with the times, but we are able to respond to situations such as the recent one with the New Orleans evacuees; we did a lot of work out at Lowry. We have found our place, and we serve a need, and it is my hope that individuals that have gained from others work will be able to share their work with future generations in our community.
What do you think is the biggest issue this country is facing today? Individuals are often in their own world, and there aren’t a lot of interactions between people of different races, backgrounds, socioeconomic standards, and educational backgrounds. We usually meet each other through crises or through issues, which often can be polarizing and divisive. As opposed to if we got to know one another better, we would probably be able to get along better. The individuals who do come out of their comfort zone are the ones who, like glue, bring society together because they are reaching in different directions, and they are able to share insight with those individuals who may be narrow in their views or minds in their own world. One of the major problems is that we don’t take advantage of the good things that exist about our diversity and our differences, and we live in an isolated world.
You are a Muslim and practice the faith of Islam, where do you worship? Islam isn’t necessarily where you go, it’s about certain tenants, like right now we are fasting for Ramadan, but wherever we are, when it comes time, like for our daily prayer, there are about six or seven mosques here in the Denver area we can go to. The beautiful part about the location on Parker Road is that it is very international.
There is such ignorance about Islam, about the Muslim religion, especially since September 11th. Hatred creates negativity, and nothing gets done and hatred creates death and destruction that shouldn’t be going on in the world. We aren’t interacting. We should cross religious lines as well, so instead we meet one another through the media, or the press - or during a bad situation.
Throughout time, a lot of individuals have done a lot of beautiful things as well as a lot of ugly things in the name of religion. It comes down to; do we characterize an entire faith by the action of a group of individuals? It’s easy to do that when we bring bias or misunderstanding to the table. This is what Islam is, this is what Christianity is, this is what Judaism is; if you look at the tenants of any of those faiths, the tenants are very beautiful, and they are very conducive to mutual living and being in agreement. When we allow individuals who may have a perspective to characterize an entire faith, regardless of what that faith is, they become distorted in their views.
What can we do to change this? One of the things I did out of 9-11, was I got various faiths together saying, “I want to learn more about something I didn’t know about.” Efforts like that don’t usually take center stage in a world where violence and sensationalism are more appealing to the general public.
Everyday there are great people who come together to cross faiths. There are a lot of people who want to understand more about other’s faith. I think that Islam in the Western mind has been vilified, but that’s not unlike any other marginalized community or movement; it’s not unique. It seems like we would learn from the past, as opposed to continually make the mistakes of the past.
As long as there are indivuals crossing those lines and extending their boundaries, I believe ultimately world tolerance will supersede in time.
Who is your hero? I grew up in a community with many people who have impacted my life. I admire someone like a Mohamed Ali in terms of what he was able to accomplish, what he stood for, and what he was able to overcome.
Who is your mentor? My mom. She was a single mom and a strong driving force in my life with just a sheer determination to survive and succeed. It was incredible to me.
What charitable events do you hold each year at the Cultural Center? We do an annual HIV/AIDS Conference, a community health initiative – it’s a national conference held at the end of September each year. This year’s was postponed because of Hurricane Katrina. We also do lots of Black History Month programming in February – but our main vane recently has been around HIV/AIDS.
What one word do you think describes you best? Idealistic.
What one world would others use to describe you? Energetic.
What makes you laugh? People. To do this work, you have to have a good sense of humor.
What makes you cry? Again - People. The same thing that makes you laugh can make you cry. What makes me sad are individuals who aren’t reaching their potential, whether it be based on them or external forces, each individual is here to experience life to the fullest, and with whatever their capabilities are, be able to do whatever they can to ascend. Just so that it is within the rules and doesn’t discourage someone else’s growth and development.
What do you believe is the key to a successful marriage? Patience.
What in your opinion is the lowest depth of human misery? Hopelessness. Any condition that you can pull yourself out of with hope is good. Unless it is hopeless, and that’s how it is with no hope, there is nothing.
What do you like to do with your leisure time? Run, exercise, play chess, play the trumpet, read.
What is your favorite quote? “If not us, who, if not now, when?”
Can you share a really special childhood memory with us? At around age nine in elementary school, a teacher gave me a pair of boots in the wintertime.
Is there something you still want to learn how to do? I want to bungee jump off the Royal Gorge. I’m building up to that. And, I want to learn Latin.
Why? I think Latin is a link to the English language and the origin of what was really intended for Western languages.
What do you want to be remembered for? That I was committed to freedom, justice, and equality and was willing to struggle on behalf of those in need.
What’s one thing that no one knows about you? I’m not ready to reveal my secret yet. : )
Brother Jeff’s community affiliations, awards, & recognitions: Member of the Colorado Black Chamber of Commerce, Serves on the Board of Trustees for the Denver Foundation, the Denver Small Business Development Center Advisory Board, the Denver Public Library African American Research Library Advisory Committee, The Denver Foundation “Strengthening Neighborhoods Committee”, the “Facing History and Ourselves” Advisory Board, the Denver Kwanzaa Committee, and he is a member and past Vice President of the North City Park Neighborhood Association.
Brother Jeff received a honorary doctorate in Humanities from the “Denver Institute of Urban Studies” and numerous awards including the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity’s “Citizen of the Year 2000”Award, The Denver Foundation “Judy Kaufman” Award, The Colorado Black Women for Political Action “On the Move” Award, the “Martin Luther King Jr. Distinguished Service Award”, the “Shades of Genius Community Health Leadership Award”, the “ACE AIDS Coalition for Education Award” - among others.