Do you wanna go to jail or do you wanna go home?
It's a heavy refrain for a man who prefers to smile rather than dwell. But it's the phrase that still rings in Dwayne Dunbar's head every day, as an ex-felon offering young adults in Linden access to organized, community support he never had growing up.
Dunbar has seen it all - from his days in the streets defying authority to the 13 1/2 years he lost to the cinderblock walls of his prison cell to the commanding cheers he leads via megaphone in the parking lot across from the Northern Lights Shopping Center.
"Put down the guns!" Dunbar shouts. "Pick up -"
" - LOVE!" the crowd roars back at him.
A Clinton Township firetruck led Dunbar and a brigade of more than 40 community organizers and supporters door-to-door through a North Linden neighborhood this past Monday to offer resources ranging from voter registration forms to Narcan.
The community walks throughout Linden, which take place twice a month, are part of a larger effort to end gun violence in Columbus that was founded by Dunbar's mentor, Derrick Russell.
As the former gang leader of the Short North Posse, having a weapon and being surrounded by gun violence was second nature for Russell. But since getting out of prison 15 years ago, he has dedicated his life to rebuilding the Linden community through his nonprofit Listen Good Youth with a specific focus on gun violence.
"We stress collaboration," Russell said. "I founded the group, but I don't make it up on my own, and I don't run it on my own."
Pied pipers of community action
Three years ago, Russell started the first anti-gun violence walk. The initiative - and Russell's turn from convict to community advocate - piqued Dunbar's interest.
"I watched Derrick from a distance," he said. "I admired him and wanted to be like him."
The 37-year-old finished serving a sentence for aggravated robbery - the second of two convictions that put Dunbar in prison for years - and was released in March 2019.
Growing up was difficult at best. Dunbar's dad was shot and killed when his son was only 2-years-old.
"Naturally I grew up without any males. I just wouldn't let any males around me," he said. "When I grew up, I didn't have any backbone, structure and when I ran into adversity or any hurdles I always ran."
By the time he was 18, Dunbar caught his first felony and wound up in prison for four years. It took him another felony and nine more years of prison to turn his life around.
As the founder of I.N.T.L. to International, a nonprofit group dedicated to assisting the incarcerated and providing youth programming to the Linden community, Dunbar has tried his best to emulate Russell's example.
"I.N.T.L. stands for 'It's never too late,'" he explained. "It's not only a motto, but it's a culture. It's a way of life, and we're introducing it to brothers and sisters who are still locked up."
It's also in the message his megaphone carried through a tree-lined Kenlawn Street during the recent walk as representatives from Columbus Public Health, Ohio State University's addiction services and Mothers of Murdered Columbus Children passed out fentanyl test strips, flyers for free counseling, and even stuffed animals.
"We don't have to come together at funerals," Dunbar said, his voice echoing through the streets. "We don't have to come together when someone gets shot. We're together now!"
Boots on the ground: Marching through Linden
Growth and development of kids' human potential is at the heart of these community walks, Dunbar said.
That's part of why it's so meaningful to see officers from the Clinton Township Police Department, which borders Linden, and people like Clinton Township Fire Chief Brian Fraley at the most recent walk, he explained.
"When I was breaking the law, I knew of Clinton Township as the police known for no-nonsense," Dunbar said. "The idea that they're here, supporting the community, building relationships is huge."
Fraley, a 1989 Linden-McKinley graduate, has been with the Clinton Township Fire Department for 33 years and served as its chief for the past nine. Over the last several years the department has made a concerted effort to broaden its community outreach by hosting a free produce market twice a month. It's also received permission from the city's health department to hold a gun buy-back event to be scheduled later this fall.
Fraley agrees that a lot of Columbus has a warped perception of Linden.
"There is a crime element," he acknowledged. "But this is a close-knit community. Since we've started our programming, we know more people by their first names than we ever did."
Latisha Martin, a mother of five who lives in North Linden, laughed in bemused wonder as the coalition of organizers - which also included toddlers armed with binkies and stuffed unicorns and a squad of teenagers carrying "We Are Linden" signs - marched through the streets on Sept. 19.
"I just heard the megaphone and was like, 'What's going on?'" the 28-year-old said. "But it feels good, especially when you have kids. It feels hopeful."
A coalition of Linden organizers
What does it mean to be from Linden? For K.J. Williams, that's an easy answer.
Sporting a pair of baby blue Beats headphones that hugged his temples and a bright orange T-shirt with the words "End Gun Violence" emblazoned across his back, the 15-year-old explained that being from Linden doesn't set you on a preordained life of violence.
"It's about love, enjoyment," he said. "We don't have to go down that path."
Williams is a youth ambassador for We Are Linden, another piece of the community action puzzle that hosts the neighborhood's annual block party. Ralph Carter, another mentor and brother figure to Dunbar, founded the We Are Linden movement and the eventual nonprofit group it became in 2018.
'Linden Pride':Columbus nonprofit group hosts annual block party, celebrates neighborhood
"We're here to help blow Derrick and Dwayne up," Carter said. "We want to champion what they're doing."
Dunbar believesthe path he and others followed from ex-felon to community advocate is vital.
"Those hardened criminals that have been able to make the switch and do a total 360 offer these most notable services like peer mentoring and counseling," he said.
As an alcohol and drug counselor at the Pickaway Correctional Institution on the way to earning his license as a chemical dependency counseling assistant, Dunbar credits so much of his own recovery to counseling. And in moments of weakness, he humbles himself with a familiar question.
"I always remind myself daily: Do you wanna go to jail or do you wanna go home?" he said.
It's easy for Dunbar to dismiss his past. He was a young man upset with the world who made reckless, selfish choices, he said. Having learned from his experience and the feeling of defeat that comes from prison life, he believes it's important for people reentering society to know there is a place for them.
"There's a wholesome life out here," he said.
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Céilí Doyle is a Report for America corps member and covers rural issues in Ohio for The Dispatch. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one. Please consider making a tax-deductible gift at https://bit.ly/3fNsGaZ.
This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Community organizers lead anti-gun violence marches in Linden