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The Universal Plan: Universal Companies, Philadelphia, PA

Amin Nathari

Within walking distance from the famed Avenue of the Arts, the heart of downtown Philadelphia , signs of urban blight and decay are evident. Just blocks from multi-million dollar hotels and entertainment venues are dilapidated houses and vacant lots--landmarks of urban areas in many major cities. In the heart of this blighted area lies one of the most comprehensive community development and revitalization initiatives existing in America today: Universal Companies.

The Mission

The mission statement of Universal Companies reads: Universal Companies is in the business of helping people. Our mission is to create educational, cultural and entrepreneurial opportunities that will stimulate the development of wealth within historically disenfranchised communities. To accomplish this, Universal Companies focuses on the identification and removal of systemic barriers to wealth creation within urban settings. This is what we call the “Universal Plan”.

The Vision

Universal's vision statement reads: The vision for Universal Companies is to create a community redevelopment model, which rebuilds the infrastructure in the Greater South Philadelphia area by developing and implementing a comprehensive and holistic approach to community development that includes real estate and economic development, small business creation, k- 12 and adult education, social services, medical services and technology. The Universal motto is: promoting opportunities for positive community change.

Organization

Although in just ten years, Universal Companies has become one of the largest, most successful community revitalization efforts in the city of Philadelphia , it is also one of the best-kept secrets in Muslim America. Universal Companies--led and founded by a highly committed, dedicated and skilled core group of Muslims--is the vision of its founder and chairman Luqman Abdul-Haqq. Abdul-Haqq, also known as Kenneth Gamble, is a world-renowned lyricist, composer, producer and architect of what is commonly referred to as “the Sound of Philadelphia (TSOP)”. His wife, Faatimah Abdul-Haqq, a savvy and successful businessperson in her own right, is the co-founder of Universal Companies. President and CEO, Abdur-Rahim Islam, a tireless, focused leader of more than 150 professionals--a harmonious blend of both Muslims and non-Muslims—working under the banner of Universal Companies in various areas, such as: real estate development, education, and workforce and economic development. Shahied Dawan serves as Executive Vice-President and Chief Financial Officer (CFO), and is responsible for the fiscal management of all Universal's initiatives.

History

Working under a dedicated team of administrators, all members of the Universal “family” play important roles and serve important functions in various areas, and in the overall success of Universal Companies. However, to fully understand the significance of Universal Companies initiative, you must begin with a discussion of how it all began. You must be begin with Luqman Abdul-Haqq, affectionately known in the wider community as “Kenny” who, although Amir of the Philadelphia-based United Muslim Movement, is referred to in the Muslim community simply as “Brother Luqman”.

The following quote, the Chairman's Message from the Universal Companies At-A-Glance Fact Sheet, sets the foundation for understanding the man and the mission. “We cannot control the color of our skin, the family we are born to, or our nationality. We cannot control life nor can we control death. This is why we focus on the things that we can control: quality of life, ignorance, and poverty. These are the things that impact our lives. Universal Companies has developed its mission around finding solutions to the problems that continue to devastate our neighborhoods, our communities, our communities, our cities, and our country”.

Brother Luqman accepted Islam in 1975 , at the height of his success in the recording industry. Even before his acceptance of Islam, one could hear the influences of Islam in the songs that he wrote; songs dealing with themes such as brotherhood, unity, family development, social consciousness, and community responsibility. In 1977 , Philadelphia International Records, a recording label owned by Luqman and his partner Leon Huff, joined with another recording company and launched an urban beautification program. Together, they spearheaded the recording of a single called “Let's Clean Up the Ghetto”, the proceeds of which were used to finance clean up and beautification projects in urban areas.

The following year, Luqman began his mission of rebuilding South Philadelphia by purchasing abandoned, dilapidated buildings. He often tells the story of driving through his old neighborhood as he traveled to and from his home in the posh Gladwyne suburbs. He would look at the blight and disrepair that dominated the landscape and say to himself, “I can buy up all these old buildings and rebuild this neighborhood myself”. Over a fifteen-year period, he would acquire more than 150 parcels of property that included vacant lots and abandoned buildings.

Then in 1990 , in a move that demonstrates the level of sacrifice that can only be made by those with a deep and unwavering commitment, Luqman and his wife Faatimah moved from their spacious home in the suburbs, back to “the hood” in south Philadelphia. It is there that he took a hands-on approach to rebuilding his old neighborhood—a neighborhood that in addition to being a blighted landscape had become a crime ridden, drug and prostitution infested area.

Universal Companies Development

Brother Luqman began planting the seeds of what would become the Universal Plan by completing, at significant personal expense, complete renovations to more than ten properties, including his childhood home. Then, he began seeking consultation from the community for the purpose of developing a comprehensive community development plan. In October 1993 , Universal Community Homes was officially formed. In the ten-year period since it's inception, Universal Companies has made monumental strides. The revitalization process is concentrated within the South Central Philadelphia area, with the hope of building a workable model that can be replicated throughout the nation. This model is a comprehensive “holistic” model that not only rebuilds the physical environment, but also, more importantly, rebuilds confidence, hope and the spirit of its people.

Universal Companies has become an accomplished real estate developer of mixed income housing, multiple use facilities, and multiple financing source developments. Since it's founding, Universal Companies has developed more than 250 housing units (rental and homeownership) and 200,000 square feet of commercial space at a total development cost of approximately $ 90 million, with more than one billion dollars in real estate development projects in its pipeline.

Although Universal Community Homes was the initial entity of focus project, the need for a comprehensive approach was evident. Luqman know that you can't just fix and build houses and transform a community, that there are other challenges and factors that must be overcome as well. Universal Companies is a group of organizations that provide a wide range of comprehensive services designed to rebuild urban America . The range of programs and services include real estate development, construction, property management, vocational skill training, adult basic education, job preparation and placement, career one stop, case management, technology networking and management, business training, business service technical assistance, business office support, capital lending, elementary education, and after school programs.

  • Universal Companies “Family” Divisions
  • Real Estate and Economic Development
  • Small Business Division
  • Financial Services Division
  • Workforce Division
  • Health and Social services Division
  • Technology Division
  • Education Division
  • Youth Services Division

Accomplishments

The major accomplishments of Universal Companies over the last ten years include:

  • Universal Companies is one of the largest providers of affordable housing in the city of Philadelphia , with more than 350 units developed and over 400 more in production over the next 3 - 5 years.
  • Universal Companies owns and operates a full-service construction company and property management company.
  • Universal Companies operates a grade k- 8 public school system serving more than 2,000 children, which includes a grade k- 8 charter school, a grade 6 - 8 charter school, and private management of a grade k- 5 public school and grade 6 - 8 public school.
  • Universal Companies operates a 27,000 square foot Workforce Development Center --the largest in the state--connecting job seekers with employers serving more than 2,000 job seekers annually.
  • Universal operates a Business Support Center that has helped to start more than 50 businesses and serves more than 300 small entrepreneurs annually.
  • Universal operates a full-treatment medical center that provides medical services and treatments in specialized areas such as: dentistry, gynecology, pediatrics and podiatry. The center also provides mental health placement and services and a full-service outpatient drug and alcohol detoxification and treatment program. This center services more than 1 , 000 residents annually.
  • Universal owns and operates several retail stores, including the successful Universal Mini-Market, with a second market currently under construction.
  • Universal owns and operates a Community Investment Fund, which focuses on funding small businesses and local entrepreneurial initiatives.
  • Universal operates an innovative and successful Technology Center .

Funding

In addition to the considerable personal investment on the part of Luqman Abdul-Haqq in developing the foundation, many initiatives Universal Companies operate with a substantial amount of public funds and outside support. One of the challenges ahead is change the balance of outside support versus self-generated funds of revenue. Abdur-Rahim Islam states “We want to change things around so that 75 % of our income comes from fees and 25 % comes from public and grant sources, and we expect to do that over the next five years.” The mission of Universal is so vast and comprehensive that Brother Luqman often remarks that we won't see the completed results in our lifetimes. He states: “We have a 50 - 100 year time horizon. That's how long it's going to take to get our communities right.”

The Model

One has to visit what is commonly referred to as “the Universal campus” to fully appreciate and understand the impact that Universal Companies has on the community it serves. Aside from the signs with the black, red and white Universal logo visible everywhere, people in the community can attest to the overall improvement of the quality of life. To see Brother Luqman take the time to stop and engage everyone, from the common person seemingly undergoing some misfortune, to the array of public officials that he consistently meets with is truly an example of Islamic da'wah at an unprecedented level. To witness the drive, focus and professionalism of Brother Abdur-Rahim is to witness what the work ethic of the Muslim should be. In candid discussion with many Universal staffers, some of whom could easily work for the best companies in corporate America , they cite the mission of Universal and the example of it's leadership as pivotal factors in their decisions to join the Universal team.

By the Blessing and Mercy of Allah (SWT), the efforts of Universal Companies serve as a national model for what can be done with commitment, compassion, focus and careful planning and execution. Just another proof positive of the words of the Qur'an where Allah (SWT) states: Let there arise from among you a small group of people, inviting to all that is good. They enjoin the good, and forbid the evil, and it is they who attain success”. ( 3 : 104 )

United Muslim Movement

As if the work of Universal is not arduous enough, there is yet another aspect of community development that emanates from South Philadelphia . On the “Islamic side”, the complimentary entity to Universal Companies is the United Muslim Movement. Brother Luqman serves as the Amir of this organization, and is equally as passionate and committed to its success as he is to the Universal Companies initiatives. On many occasions he has remarked to this writer “We are not just here for Universal, we are down here for Islam”. United Muslim Movement, commonly referred to as UMM, has defined itself as an organization “dedicated to establishing the religion of Islam with the clear representation of the Qur'an and the Sunnah (tradition) of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWS). UMM has developed plans to address the many issues facing the Muslim Community. Our goal is to build both a strong Islamic educational system and a Central masjid in the city of Philadelphia . UMM is a strong organization responding to the social, economic, political, educational and religious needs facing our communities.”

The motto of the United Muslim Movement is ‘progress through organization”, and UMM certainly exemplifies that philosophy. It is comprised of an intricate system of four main committees, Islamic Standing, Communications, Fundraising and Membership, with a number of subcommittees under each of these areas. These committees are manned and “womaned” by a committed and dedicated group of volunteers. UMM views these committees as an essential function for the development and implementation of solutions to the many challenges and problems facing our community. The belief of UMM is that through the committee structure, a grassroots effort can grow and develop to assist the entire Muslim community in providing much-needed programs and services.

Although there is a mosque, the United Muslim Masjid, located on the same block of the Universal Corporate Center, from which many of the UMM programs originate, there is a unique distinction to be made: one does not have to be a “member” or regularly frequent the United Muslim Masjid to become a member of the United Muslim Movement. In realizing that the Muslim Community of Philadelphia needs to solidify itself as a unified body, the membership criteria of the organization is broad enough to accommodate every Muslim. To borrow from a well-known advertisement, membership does have its privileges. Aside from the day-to-day activities and programs connected with the masjid, membership entitles you to substantial discounts on the Madrassah--both the summer and the weekend programs—as well, other valuable community services.

Most importantly, membership in United Muslim Movement represents a major opportunity to help organize and mobilize one of America 's largest concentrations of Muslims in a geographical area, the estimated more than 250,000 Muslims in the Philadelphia and Delaware Valley area. With the many initiatives of Universal, particularly the housing component, which is open and accessible to all, Muslims can begin to develop a viable and productive community life that addresses all aspects of societal living. The possibilities are truly endless, and much can be achieved in the area of community and economic development from a broad Islamic perspective.

Our collective situation in America today mandates that we begin to investigate and draw from the best practices of models such as Universal and United Muslim Movement. One might argue that the very survival of future generations of Muslims and Islam in America may well hinge upon how we organize, strategize and mobilize to address the challenges that face us. MANA, as a movement and organization with an indigenous-based agenda, is committed to working with organizations such as these, and helping to echo the call for the development of viable, healthy and balanced Islamic communities. On a personal note, this writer is thankful to Allah (SWT) and honored to be a working part of all three organizations mentioned.

We ask Allah (SWT) to increase the good efforts of Universal Companies, United Muslim Movement, MANA, and others committed to helping our people, our communities and society-at-large.

(For more information, visit the Universal Companies website at http://www.universalcompanies.org and the United Muslim Movement website at http://www.unitedmuslimmovement.org.)

When My servants ask thee concerning Me, I am indeed close (to them): I listen to the prayer of every suppliant when he calleth on Me: Let them also, with a will, Listen to My call, and believe in Me: That they may walk in the right way.

Quran: 2:186
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