By Princess Safiya Byers Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service Published Feb 16, 2023 at 4:01 PM

In late 2019, Shawn Payne lost his job as a limo and coach bus driver.

And when the pandemic hit in early 2020, he found it even more difficult to find new work and keep up with bills. 

He ended up on the brink of homelessness. 

But despite all of those setbacks, he wanted to do something meaningful. 

“I was spending a lot of time at the mosque whilst I looked for work, and I knew they were doing charities, so I just told the director to call me if he ever needed help, and he did,” Payne said. 

He volunteered for months, helping with the security for the Milwaukee Islamic Dawah Center’s food pantry until he was offered a job.

He “was going to lose his housing yet still found time to volunteer at the food pantry and that stuck with me,” said Joanne Lipo Zovic, a mediator with Mediate Milwaukee, which helps settle disputes between tenants and landlords, who helped Payne. “He is an incredible human.”

Now he’s the logistics specialist, truck driver and outreach resource coordinator for Milwaukee Islamic Dawah Center, doing work that he’s passionate about.

“It’s really a dream job because as a Muslim, feeding the hungry is one of the best things you can do, so, I’m getting paid to do something I love,” he said. 

Payne, who already had his commercial driver’s license from his time as a limo driver, is the only one who can drive the center’s refrigerated truck to pick up fresh produce and food. 

Through that job, Payne has loved connecting with Kofi Ali, the manager at the MA’RUF Center for Youth Innovation on the Northwest Side. The Muslim nonprofit works to improve the lives of marginalized and disenfranchised residents.

Ali also serves as the program manager at the Ibrahim House, a re-entry facility for those who have been incarcerated. The program offers education, training and personal support, and Payne has joined Ali in his work there as well. 

“Shawn is just a good team player, so it works out,” Ali said. “He knows how to do his job but also steps back and lets others do what they do.” 

At the Ibrahim House, Payne works with people to ensure they make it to their classes so they get to the next step.

"I have to give back"

For him, this work is personal. 

Payne went to prison when he was 18 and said it’s where he found Islam.

“According to Islam, one of the biggest charities you can do is be responsible for your community,” Payne said. “As someone who took so much from my community, I have to give back.”

Payne’s mother, Diana Griffin, has seen her son transform.

“In the past, I wasn’t sure things would go this way,” she said. “I’m proud of what he’s doing trying to make a difference in the community.” 

Outside of work, Payne spends time with his two daughters and enjoys playing chess and pingpong. 

He said, if his life has taught him anything, it’s patience. 

“To grow, you have to forgive yourself and be patient,” he said. “And in forgiving yourself, you will forgive others.”