After spending 15 years in the state’s prison system, Caliph Muab’El now works with Madison’s youth, encouraging them to find their purpose, through a local mentoring program called Breaking Barriers.
Muab’El grew up in Chicago before his family moved to Milwaukee when he was 7-years-old. His family moved several times during their first few years in Wisconsin, causing him to change schools often — a “constant struggle.”
Violence in his home poured over into the schools, and at 12-years-old, Muab’El got involved with gangs.
“We started off stealing cars, and that led to bigger things: selling drugs, and the drugs led to carrying guns and the guns led to using them,” he said.
After shooting a 19-year-old on a city bus, he was waived into adult court and sentenced to 15 years — 10 of those years were in solitary confinement — and experienced a number of “atrocities" while in the prison system, he said.
“To try and find a sense of peace in that whole thing, I had to clearly identify what my purpose was there,” Muab’El said. “Because if you can’t identify your purpose then it’s very difficult to feel the need to exist.”
While in prison, Muab’El said he “brought everyone together,” leading talks and services. He also studied many topics, one of them law, and litigated cases for inmates. Muab’El is a Sufi minister and scholar of Moorish Science as well an imam.
Today, Muab’El is the executive director of Breaking Barriers Mentoring and involved with Madison Organizing in Strength, Equality and Solidarity (MOSES), which is a local affiliate of WISDOM. He also was recently elected as a national representative and liaison for mass incarceration by the African American Leadership Commission for Gamaliel, a training organization for community organizers.
The goal of Breaking Barriers is to “empower youth facing societal barriers by nurturing diverse mentoring relationships.” The organization partners with area schools and other local organizations to create events that broaden young people’s experiences.
Since his release and speaking out against the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, Muab'El said he has experienced push back. His record has followed him as he works in the community and local schools and he said rules have been added to his parole conditions, including notifying his parole officer where he is speaking. He said his parole officer knows of his current and past involvement in schools.
Muab-El is also the co-CEO of Forever We Shine Records, a community-based record level that produces positive music and encourages youth to do the same. Additionally, Muab'El is a leader with Ex-Prisoners Organizing (EXPO), which helps lead WISDOM's campaign to end mass incarceration.
When working with youth, how do you encourage them?
I would ask them, “Do you feel like you’re privileged?” They say no. “Do you feel acknowledged?” They say no. “Do you know anything about your history your culture anything like that?” They say no. And I say "how does that make you feel?” Lost.
A lot of responses are “lost” or “I don’t know”, which is basically lost. And I tell them that there is such a thing called joy. There is such a thing called peace, and there is such a thing called good.
They need a message of hope, love and inspiration. It’s a way of talking without making them feel like you’re the adult and they’re the kid, so they have to listen.
How would you characterize the racial disparities in Madison and Dane County?
We have to acknowledge one main thing and that is, how did we allow (people of color) to become disconnected like that in the first place. Who is responsible for that and who is responsible for the solution?
But we’re not holding communities accountable. There are enough resources within the community to be spread out so that we can reach a rate of equity and equality, and we can get to a point where the community is whole again if we work together. But we have to understand there are going to be challenges and those challenges are going to be stemming from systemic racism.
If you’re not willing to empower these people to liberate themselves then it’s going to continue to be a band aid … It’s not a real solution. The people closest to the problem are the people closest to the solution.
How can the state of racial disparities in Madison and Dane County change?
Nothing is going to change until we examine our values and that’s going to take a long hard look at what aligns with those values and what don’t. And the things that don’t must go, and that’s a courageous step.
My goal is to one, call awareness to all of these things that people don’t want to talk about. Two, make sure that I am creating as many opportunities for our youth as possible. Three, we’ve got to do something about mass incarceration. We have to.
How can the community reach out to formerly incarcerated people?
The same way you would reach out to someone in need. No labels, just say, “Welcome to our community brother or sister, how can we help you in your journey to return?”