The offices of L.A. Voice, where Umar Hakim is in residency, are on the third floor of the First Baptist Church of Los Angeles. So when it comes time for Hakim to offer his daily prayers, he finds a quiet room, faces Mecca and turns his thoughts to God.
“Most people don't object to prayer,” he says. “They just object to control.”
Hakim, 41, says that as his faith deepens, so too does his desire to “be disruptive.” Muslims are present in Los Angeles' civic life, he explains, they're just not organized.
Hakim is learning how to change that as a fellow in the Jewish Funds for Justice Community Organizing Residency program, which has embedded him with L.A. Voice, a mostly Catholic, Christian and Jewish interfaith organization. His goal is to help establish similar grassroots organizing within Muslim communities.
Among his projects with L.A. Voice: its campaign for a “Responsible Banking Ordinance” in Los Angeles. The ordinance, introduced by Councilman Richard Alarcón, would mandate that the city invest and contract with financial institutions that have good records of providing loan modifications and small business loans.
For Hakim, the ordinance relates to what is known in the Quran as meeting “neighborly needs.” In the recession, he has seen neighbors lose their homes and businesses. Their most pressing needs, regardless of their faith, are connected to their relationships with banks.
So Hakim has been speaking at City Hall, helping to arrange press conferences, recruiting supporters and blogging about the ordinance. As 2011 ended, L.A. Voice was working with congregations to send holiday greetings to council members, explaining their personal struggles and why responsible banking is important to them.
Even when people don't share the same faith, the need to alleviate poverty is common across L.A., Hakim says. “Outside of your Muslim community, your next-door neighbor is the closest one to you.”
Conversations with Hakim are a surprisingly natural blend of philosophy and Islamic vocabulary, with a dash of computer metaphors, delivered in the cadence of someone who listens to a lot of hip-hop. Everything is about everything. Open-source culture is an online phenomenon and a way of thinking about organizing around social justice. Rap is art, as well as a conduit to politics, community and faith. And faith is not just a connection to God but how Hakim frames his work and life.
Hakim is an adult convert — or, as he explains it, a “revert” to Islam, the religion of many Africans who were brought to America as slaves. Although Hakim practices al-Islam, the broad term for conventional interpretations of the faith, it was the widely read Nation of Islam newspaper Muhammad Speaks that first exposed him to the faith. Growing up Episcopalian in Compton — where he still lives — he remembers his uncle reading the paper to him as a child in the 1970s. He also was inspired by Muslim hip-hop artists: Chuck D and Public Enemy “agitated my whole thinking,” he says.
“The Nation of Islam is always our backdrop. We can't shake that. That's our history, and that's something to be proud of.”
After high school, Hakim (then Hubert L. Reynolds) joined the telecommunications industry — he was a cable guy. On New Year's Eve 1997, servicing one woman's cable, he noticed a family tree of prophets on her wall. Hakim saw Adam, Noah and Abraham, whom he knew of from his church upbringing, along with Mohammed.
Hakim asked the woman if she had any literature about finding discipline in life. She handed him the Quran.
“That was the first full book I'd read since the sixth grade,” Hakim says.
Hakim took shahada, a public declaration of his faith, on July 3, 1998. He left telecommunications in 2002 to start WhoopWoop, a secular, socially conscious new-media company to promote independent artists. The company exists today as Hakim's eccentric blog CreateaVoice.org.
He is working on a new business plan for his company, but Hakim is more inclined to discuss how he has grown his spiritual wealth. (When he says he's the father of three, he pauses to appraise his family life, touches his short beard and notes that he should be married.) In 2003, he began work with the ILM (Intellect Love Mercy) Foundation, where, as associate director, he helps coordinate projects such as Humanitarian Day, an effort to help those in need during the holy month of Ramadan, and speaks to groups about interfaith organizing.
“When you really dig into the grassroots community,” he says, “people do get along.”
Hakim is the kind of person who stops to talk to a down-and-out passenger on the Metro. When he talks about poverty in Los Angeles, he shakes his head at the suffering. But he keeps a broad smile and asks lots of questions, even when he is the one being interviewed. And he leans back, thinking deeply before explaining his beliefs and the progress of the Responsible Banking Ordinance.
Occupy L.A. protesters gave the idea of responsible banking new prominence last fall. In December, the council's Budget and Finance Committee had a long (some would say painful) debate over how a rating system would work. Ultimately, the committee pushed further discussion back to Jan. 23.
L.A. Voice and its partners are pushing for the ordinance to pass committee and make it to the City Council for a vote without further delay. Even if the ordinance does not ultimately mandate the city's actions, just providing census-based data online about banks' activities would be a big step, they say.
“Occupy L.A. has been a blessing,” Hakim says. And, like an open-source software developer, he's interested in “shared power” and believes that ultimately, “God gives credit.”
“At this moment,” he says, “anything is possible.”