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Formerly incarcerated activist fights to give people a chance to change

Dorsey Nunn, who became an activist behind bars, still fights to help those inside and out get a fair shake

Dorsey Nunn is in his element.

Stout and self-effacing with an all-in belly laugh, the co-founder of All of Us or None, a grass-roots advocacy group of formerly incarcerated people, leans low over a pink Barbie bicycle and wheels it into the community center.

Nearby, a bucket brigade of weathered men helps unload the bounty from a faded moving truck.

There is the towering former Black Panther Party member who guided Nunn's political education in the prison yard more than three decades back.

There is the childhood acquaintance and longtime addict whom Nunn never gave up on. Clean for eight years now, he was coaxed into a new life by the rehab center that Nunn also co-founded — just after kicking his own crack habit a quarter-century ago.

Then there are the other All of Us or None volunteers here to give away bikes, many embracing the chance to do what they were unable to do for their own kids while serving time.

Looming largest are the absent — the locked-up parents of the young faces awaiting Christmas gifts.

Nunn is with his people, the reason he became an activist behind bars and is vowing to restore "full civil and human rights" to the millions of Americans who were once incarcerated, while speaking out for those still behind bars.

Now, in a year filled with personal losses, Nunn — who is executive director of the San Francisco-based Legal Services for Prisoners With Children — has found himself on the mainstream stage, at national conferences and high-level meetings at the White House and U.S. Department of Justice.

"Who's missing?" bellows Nunn, 63, as he calls the Achondo family down from the bleachers.

Princess, age 9, shouts back: "My dad, Chris!"

When Nunn sends Princess and her brothers off to choose their bicycles, volunteers make sure to tell them the presents are from their father, serving time in a Central Valley prison. The goal: to carve a space for parents to step into their children's lives once they get out.

First, he whispers in her ear: "You know, I was missing for 13 years."

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A decade ago, All of Us or None scored its first victory when Nunn and dozens of others filled the chambers of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to demand that the box on city employment applications that asks about felony convictions be removed and the question saved for later in the hiring process.

San Francisco's successful "ban the box" ordinance was the first in the nation, cementing the city's ultra-left reputation and changing Nunn's life.

He now had a voice in a debate upon which public safety and billions of taxpayer dollars hinged — one that ignites emotions over such primal questions as retribution versus redemption.

The California District Attorneys Assn. was among opponents of statewide ban-the-box legislation in 2013, saying "all this bill will do is ensure that local agencies waste public time and resources" screening applicants who "will almost certainly be rejected" once their criminal histories are known.

But the statewide ban also passed, and Nunn is now regularly consulted by national civil rights groups and policymakers. Ban-the-box legislation has been passed in 96 cities and counties and in 13 states led by Republicans and Democrats alike, according to the National Employment Law Project. (Applications for jobs where criminal history is relevant — such as child care or law enforcement — are exempted.)

The voices of those who know the criminal-justice system from the inside have been "absolutely essential," said Michelle Rodriguez, a senior staff attorney with the employment law project.

The movement dates to March 2003, when Nunn helped convene a crowd of about 40 formerly incarcerated men and women at Oakland's Center for Third World Development.

They spoke for many: 70 million Americans have an arrest or conviction record, and 725,000 are released yearly from prison to communities where laws, regulations and private sector practices curtail their access to employment, housing, education and even the vote.

"All we wanted was to have a job, be skilled, be trained and be ethical," recalled Susan Burton, 63, executive director of Los Angeles-based A New Way of Life, which provides housing to formerly incarcerated women and oversees a Southland All of Us or None chapter.

Priorities were listed on butcher paper: jobs, housing, family reunification. "Ban the box" came first.

The group would take its name from a Bertolt Brecht poem.

Slave, who is it who shall free you?/Those in deepest darkness lying,/Comrade, these alone shall see you,/They alone can hear you crying./Comrade only slaves can free you./Everything or nothing. All of us or none.

Thanks in part to All of Us or None's amateur lobbyists, bills recently signed into law in Sacramento forbid the shackling of pregnant women, remove the prohibition on food stamps for California recipients with drug felonies, and ban the box from all state and local government applications. San Francisco extended ban-the-box practices to private employers and affordable housing, and efforts are underway to expand the ban in Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Former Democratic Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, who carried the ban-the-box ordinance as a San Francisco supervisor, calls Nunn a "warrior."

"I think Dorsey and his folks have figured out the system and, to their credit, they still go up against it," Ammiano said. "Without them, there will be no change."

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Nunn grew up in East Palo Alto when newly arriving African American residents were frequently met with hostility. White flight followed.

Drug use in his teen years mixed with feelings of "extreme indignation over racism." At 19, he was convicted of murder for a liquor store robbery that ended in the shooting death of the proprietor; Nunn was never alleged to be the triggerman. He was sentenced in 1972, three years after his arrest, to life in prison with possible parole.

Nunn was first sent to Deuel Vocational Institution, an intake facility in Tracy where he recalls reuniting with eight players from his Little League team — all but "the little white guy, Dave."

Initially "just a guy content to do his time" at San Quentin, Nunn soon embraced prison yard classes organized by the Black Panthers and Black Liberation Army, said Arthur League, 65, a former Panther leader who was among the founders of All of Us or None and now serves on the board of Nunn's nonprofit.

By the time Nunn got out in 1981, "he realized that people locked up had a lot of ability to transform and be transformed," League said. "The experience set in his mind that they not only could change but do change and, given basic human support, would change."

Nunn had fathered two children by age 17 — and credits his reform to his desire to parent them. Once out of prison, they reconnected, and he began working for the San Quentin-based Prison Law Office. But addiction overwhelmed him. After pleading no contest to assault in 1990 for firing a gun outside a liquor store, Nunn got into treatment and stayed clean.

He was hosting a radio show about the criminal justice system when he invited Ellen Barry, who founded the nonprofit he now leads, as a guest. She was suing to improve services for incarcerated pregnant women.

"I talked about OB-GYN care, and he thought it was a prison gang, so there was a learning curve," recalled Barry, who won a MacArthur Foundation grant for her work. But in Nunn, Barry saw "a deep raw honesty about both his own experience in his life and his very strong feelings about racial and social justice."

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Last March, Nunn wrote to President Obama and Atty. Gen. Eric Holder proposing "a national strategy session hosted by formerly incarcerated people."

"Imagine if in the middle of the historic farmworkers fight, our national leaders had only addressed bar association and middle-class students about farmworker issues," he wrote.

By October, he was face to face with the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council's Office of Urban Affairs. A month later, with a separate group of advocates — all formerly incarcerated — he addressed staff of the Federal Interagency Reentry Council at the U.S. Department of Justice.

Burton was there, as was Glenn E. Martin, whose New York-based JustLeadershipUSA aims to cut the prison population in half by 2030. Others came from Louisiana, Alabama and North Carolina.

"We walked into the room our full selves," Nunn said.

Amy Solomon, a Justice Department official who chairs the reentry council's staff group, said that as a result of the meeting, the Bureau of Justice Assistance will add a "Second Chance fellow" — a formerly incarcerated person with policy experience — to its visiting fellow program.

All of Us or None has now joined with the National Employment Law Project and PICO National Network to petition for a ban-the-box policy covering federal agencies and contractors, and last weekend — the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement's "Bloody Sunday" march — after a 2,400-mile van ride, he and a group of All of Us or None members from the Bay Area joined others on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Ala., to protest on behalf of voting rights for the imprisoned and formerly incarcerated.

Personally, it has been a tough year. Nunn lost the last of his seven brothers, and in December his daughter died at age 45 of complications from sickle cell anemia. She lived with her husband and two daughters in a Contra Costa County suburb and had been pressing him in conversations to wholly embrace his granddaughters even though their lifestyles — filled with ballet and acting classes in a largely white community — felt foreign to him.

"Even though my daughter said, 'Dad, you're clearly middle class at this point,' that's not how I see myself," Nunn said.

Indeed, he is most comfortable with the Nunn of the bike giveaway.

"How many of y'all have stolen a bike?" he called out to volunteers after acknowledging that he had swiped his first just across town decades ago.

A number of hands went up.

"Well," he said, "now's your chance to give one back."

lee.romney@latimes.com

Twitter: @leeromney

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