Stories from Our Community

Abele Award Winner Finds His Mission Where Two Roads Meet

April 28, 2016

By Adam Beyer

For Sanford MPP student Bahari Harris, having an impact on others’ lives is crucial.

Harris, who is also pursuing an MBA from Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, was named the Julian Abele Student of the Year. The award recognizes students who have excelled in the classroom, in community service and in campus involvement. Together with his prior work as a nonprofit leader, Harris has not struggled to find opportunities to make a difference.

“My career found me,” Harris said. “I just really wanted to be available. I really just wanted to step in where it made sense.”

He is the founding director of Urban Hope, a nonprofit that creates mentoring relationships for youth in Durham’s Walltown neighborhood. The community near East Campus has historically suffered from crime and low graduation rates. After moving into Walltown, Harris sought to connect his livelihood with those living in the community.

“That pothole in the middle of the street is just as much my problem as it is your problem,” Harris said. “That drug-dealer on the corner of the street is just as much my problem as he or she is your problem. I have lived where I work for as many years as I was involved with Urban Hope. The mission of Urban Hope is to create safe places in our neighborhood to grow together into wholeness.”

Recently an interdisciplinary student team worked with Urban Hope to help them measure their impact on the community. Watch here.


The idea for Urban Hope was very much rooted in his faith, Harris said. When he came to Durham in 2002, he worked as a student chaplain for Duke Chapel’s Navigators ministry. He connected students with the community. With help from Walltown Neighborhood Ministries, Walltown Community Association, and the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership, Urban Hope began.

Although Harris said he grew immensely bt serving for 11 years as Urban Hope’s executive director, he wanted the opportunity to gain more hard skills to help him make a larger, more systemic impact.

“When I go and talk to the people who are making the difference on the level I want to make, I find that they don’t understand my background,” he said.

He discovered social impact investing, which requires expertise in finance, philanthropy and policy, and wanted to learn more. Social impact investors support ventures that will produce returns that couple economic benefit with positive environmental or social outcomes. Harris thought his nonprofit experience could add a valuable perspective to the field.

At Sanford, Harris is the graduate advisor to the Sanford Board Leadership Initiative, a student group that places MPP students on the boards of local nonprofits where they work on projects over the course of a year.  Harris’ role—to assist students make a valuable contribution to their boards and to better understand the non-profit environment—is a natural fit for this former non-profit executive.


Beyond his work in Durham, Harris' interests have taken an international direction. As part of his MPP degree, he is also completing the International Development Policy program, which he said was inspired by his wife, who is from Ghana.

“I’m just really interested in how to affect poverty on a global level and not just on the domestic level,” he said, “taking what I’ve done on the grassroots level here working with marginalized, low-wealth people, and then taking that to the next level.”

Harris also participated in the Summer School for Future International Development Professionals in India. The program pairs Duke and Indian students with NGOs for experiential learning. They also take classes at the Indian Institute of Management in Udaipur.

While there, he consulted for a group that assists families in which one member has migrated elsewhere in the country for employment. He learned that the NGO later implemented his suggestion to support the families in creating a kitchen garden cooperative.

“It was so gratifying to know that we made a difference,” he said.

After graduating, Harris will take a two-year rotating position with Bank of America that will allow him to experience several sides of the consumer banking sector. However, it won’t be an easy transition away from Durham.

“This is the only home I’ve ever known outside my mom’s home and college,” he said, noting that he married his wife and bought his first house here. During his time working in Walltown, he has watched the neighborhood change. He’s seen the impact of his organization’s work.

Two students he mentored as fourth and fifth graders now have master’s degrees.  “These young men are now mentoring the next generation of youth in Walltown,” Harris said.

He is still plugged into the Walltown community, serving as a mentor to four men in their mid-20s and 30s.

“The idea for me is, how do I stand at the intersection of the public and private space,” he said. “I do the best where two roads come together, where there are intersections and bridges to be made. I’m just really energized by this type of environment.”

The Julian Abele Awards are named in honor of Abele, an African-American man who designed the architecture for Duke's West Campus. Find out more about Julian Abele and his work.