Around nine o’clock on a Friday night several weeks ago, Kevin Upshur dined at Center City Philly’s hip seafood joint, Route 6, for the first time. He was the humble guest of the owner, wildly profitable and well-known East Coast restaurateur Stephen Starr. Upshur—40-something, with a boyish gap-toothed smile and gentle demeanor—drove home from the dinner with a heavy belly, and a buoyant enthusiasm about the prospect of a new community project to enrich the lives of inner city African-American youth. “We need to get the kids out to a restaurant like that to eat!” As a man dedicated to uplifting the young people of his community, Upshur knows the value that this social experience—mundane for most—could have for children whose parents never brought them to a nice restaurant growing up. “It’s amazing, you see kids who haven’t really been out to eat,” he explains, “Knowing how to order, all those small things. Those are things that once they get that, they’ll always remember where they got it from.”
Upshur likes to build relationships with entrepreneurs and innovators like Starr, who he met through a local businessman to discuss healthy eating initiatives for urban children. “I surround myself with people who are doing things,” Upshur says, “not just talking about it.” And Upshur himself is without a doubt a doer, not a talker. Five years ago, he founded the Strawberry Mansion Learning Center in the North Philadelphia neighborhood to the east of Fairmount Park.
In 2008, Upshur gathered the resources and courage he needed to transform the corner building he inherited from his mother—formerly a bar for 40 years—into a neighborhood education and resource center. What was once a dingy taproom—a drain on the community’s vitality and near-empty pockets—now serves up support, mentorship and a very different kind of spirit. The corner brick building, peeling with manila paint, is an afterschool safe-haven for kids who might otherwise go home to an empty house or neglectful parents—making them vulnerable to getting involved with the wrong kind of people and inevitably, juvenile street crime. The center is much more than a place to do homework: it’s a harbor light for young minds adrift in a community lackluster in motivation and positivity. In other words, “some hope,” says Upshur, “a roadmap to wherever you want to go.”
You’ll find Upshur at the corner of West Dauphin and North 30th St four days a week, from the afternoon school bell until dinnertime, when he begins his second job at a youth detention center. From 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. he watches teenagers who—often lacking supportive relationships like the ones Upshur strives to form at the community center—have made bad choices and fallen into the system. “A lot of these kids [at the learning center], I hope they don’t show up where I work,” says Upshur. But it’s happened before—and it breaks his heart every time.
But Upshur is the right man for a hard job. He sees what might be thankless, menial work for someone else as an opportunity to build positive relationships with young people feeling marginalized and defeated. He often talks with the teenagers late into the night, a blessing for good kids who’ve made criminal mistakes—in large part due to a punishing lack of guidance and support from positive black male role models (figures that go from hard-to-find to nonexistent once they’re behind bars). Upshur constantly encourages them to read—he recently lent one boy a copy of Malcolm X’s autobiography—and write letters to their parents. He urges them to think about the kind of person they want to be after they get out—and to prepare themselves to work hard to counteract the damning stigma of being labeled a juvenile delinquent. “I just try to encourage them to focus better,” Upshur explains, “and not get too comfortable in a place like this.”
In the little time Upshur does spend on himself, he runs to clear his mind. But even that becomes a community activity when he invites the kids to join him for races, like the Broad Street Run he’s been doing since 1995. Just about the only thing Upshur truly keeps all to himself is his time with God: he focuses himself with prayer.
The West Philly mosques he visits are near the University of Pennsylvania bookstore, the other place Upshur likes to spend those rare pockets of free time. A strong believer in reading to open kids’ minds, Upshur has filled several oversized bookshelves in the community center with everything from business how-to guides to Muhammad Ali biographies. A stack of titles by Russell Simmons (“Man, he’s a cool guy”) sits on the arm of a giant leather sectional donated by Starbucks. The center’s walls are plastered with beautiful reminders of Upshur’s roots: family pictures, posters of African-American greats, historical local newspaper clippings, and images of Africa, including a particularly powerful photograph of barefoot children walking the many miles to school in Mozambique. Appreciating his own origins has empowered Upshur to embrace his heritage, something he tries to share with the kids. “The philosophy is to know where you come from,” Upshur explains, “so you know where you’re going.”
Above all, the man comes from a place of tremendous love—love for the single most powerful figure in his life, his mother Shirley. “Man she was something,” he shakes his head, “She was my everything.” Just before her death in 2006, she entreated her son to do something for the young people of the community. It’s fitting, then, that Shirley Upshur’s smiling likeness hangs on the front of the building—a daily reminder of the woman Upshur has dedicated his life’s work to. Shirley Upshur truly is her son’s moral compass and center of gravity; the person around whom all of his dreams and endeavors revolve. He constantly weaves her into conversation, referencing maxims and recalling memories of her selflessness that inspire him to this day: “She used to say to me, and I didn’t understand it then, ‘A parent should never look better than their kid.’ That stuck with me.”
The drive to provide positive role models and form genuine relationships with the neighborhood children stems from Upshur’s own childhood. He knows how lucky he was to grow up with not only a loving mother, but two involved male figures as well. The influential relationships Upshur had with his biological father and his mother’s boyfriend are to him living proof of the uplifting power of parental support. His mom’s boyfriend and his two adult sons did very well investing in a variety of local businesses—the go-kart outfit was a particularly thrilling venture for the young Kevin. Growing up around successful self-starters sparked the initiative and practical business sense in Upshur that leads him to work with with people like Stephen Starr today. “I had a chance to see that you could create an opportunity for yourself,” he explains. These valuable early experiences also motivate him to give the kids as much exposure to successful self-made men as possible. In a way, this encapsulates Upshur’s rare combination of the traits learnt as a child—compassion from his mother, entrepreneurship and hard work from the father figures in his life—that make him the generous man and ambitious community leader he is today.
In the next couple of years, Upshur plans to take the Strawberry Mansion kids on more fieldtrips to help open their eyes to the world beyond their block—he thinks they’d get a kick out of hearing the opening bell on Wall Street. He is currently in the process of acquiring the adjacent lots, where he’ll install a much-needed park or garden, and maybe build a kitchen for culinary arts classes. Knowing well that he needs some decent finances to make these visions a reality, Upshur is continuously applying to community grants sponsored by foundations and corporations—this fall, he launched an AT&T-sponsored program to prepare high school students for college.
Once he’s built up an expansive, well-structured and fully staffed institution, Upshur looks forward to handing the community center off to the younger generation—and being confident that its important work will continue without his presence. He wants to travel far: to Saudi Arabia for Haj, the Muslim right of passage, and to countries in Africa to experience new cultures. The weeks Upshur spent in Kenya almost two decades ago were some of the best of his life. He dreams of going back—and given his ability to realize improbable ambitions, there is no doubt that he will.
Upshur remains wholly dedicated to what he is doing for now, though. He takes time to savor the singular sense of fulfillment that comes when you know you’re doing what you’re meant to. “This is soothing for my soul,” Upshur says. “Sometimes when I’m getting ready to leave here, I cut the lights out and I sit on the sofa for a minute, and I say, ‘Wow, today was a good day—your mom would be proud of you today. You did good.’”
By Carolyn Todd
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