*This article was published on the EPA Today website as well as the printed newspaper in February 2016.*
A little over two decades ago the City of East Palo Alto was notoriously named the murder capital of the country—a label that has continued to haunt the community. Since then, the percentage of crimes in East Palo Alto has plummeted and although many people are to credit for the vast improvement, one organization stands out for many: Free at Last.
“We started in a warehouse,” said Vicki Smothers, while discussing Free at Last’s early beginnings. Smothers is the president and co-founder of Free at Last, which is a non-profit organization that offers treatment, intervention, and prevention services to help reduce substance abuse.
During the 1990s when drugs, violence, and HIV seemed to be destroying the community, David Lewis, an ex-convict and recovering heroin addict, along with Smothers and several others, founded the program. “Most of us were addicts who just couldn’t take it anymore,” she said.
The program proved to be so successful that on January 29, 2016, it celebrated its twenty-second anniversary. During the celebration, the organization gave its prestigious David Lewis award to community activist, Dorsey Nunn. Vice Mayor Larry Moody and former Mayor Lisa Gauthier attended the celebration.
“We have always heard people say, ‘Well we have to go somewhere else to get clean. You can’t get clean in East Palo Alto.’ That’s not true,” said Reverend Frazier, who was the guest speaker at the event. “This [program] is an important part of East Palo Alto and don’t let anybody let you feel like it isn’t.”
The audience responded with, “Yes,” and That’s right,” as they nodded in agreement.
“I wouldn’t trade it in for a million dollars to be honest with you,” said Smothers of her experience. Then she announced “some exciting news.” Smothers said, “Something wonderful has happened in the last month or so. Not only is Dorsey Nunn receiving the David Lewis award, I am welcoming him back to the board of directors.”
Nunn was commended for his loyalty to the program and his commitment to helping the community. Nunn grew up in East Palo Alto and faced difficulties that were similar to Lewis’. He was incarcerated at the age of 19 for a robbery that resulted in the shooting of one person. Once Nunn was released 9 years later, he faced a new obstacle: drug addiction.
As one of Free at Last’s co-founders, Nunn became an important activist after getting clean. He became executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, an organization that helps incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people transform their lives. He also co-founded All of Us or None, an organization that helps the incarcerated and the formerly incarcerated fight against the discrimination they face because of their conviction history.
Nunn coined the “ban the box” phrase and initiated the campaign, which fought to eliminate from job, loan, housing and other service applications the check box that accompanies the question, “Have you been convicted by a court?”
“I’m really honored to accept this award,” Nunn said.” Lately I’ve been getting a lot of awards. Last week, I was in D.C. receiving the [Justice Freedom and Peace] award from the AFL – CIO. It was $300 a plate. They sent a limousine to pick me up,” he said. “But none are as meaningful as this award…Not only was I a co-founder with David Lewis, David Lewis was my friend.”
“You never left us,” said Smothers about Nunn, “Dave has been gone for 5 years and there has never been one time that I’ve called Dorsey and he said, ‘Vicki I can’t do nothing, I can’t help you.’”