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Once behind bars, these security officers now protect Nubian Square

Tori Bedford
Once behind bars, these security officers now protect Nubian Square
Will Dunn established the security team in 2021 when he saw that his community in Nubian Square needed more support. PHOTO: TORI BEDFORD/GBH NEWS

On a Tuesday afternoon in Nubian Square, Will Dunn walks his beat.

The tall, bearded man in sweats and a T-shirt is greeted like a local mayor, waving at drivers who slow down to honk and say hello, wrapping friends in giant bear hugs and cracking jokes. Residents from a senior living facility stop to chat, taking Dunn’s arm to cross the bustling intersection.

Raised in a nearby housing project, Dunn’s community — and his role in it — has changed dramatically since his childhood in Roxbury. As a teenager, Dunn dropped out of school, fell in with a gang and spent years in and out of court on charges of theft and assault. At 16, Dunn served five years in prison, charged as an adult for his part in a 1991 double murder. Now, at 48, he oversees a small team of security guards, all formerly incarcerated people who work to curb the violence they once perpetuated.

“I was part of the problem,” Dunn said. “The police are not going to change the environment, it’s impossible for that to happen. So instead of us complaining about it, we decided to get together and try to do something about it.”

Just over two years ago, he pitched a solution: a private security team employed by a local, community-focused nonprofit, the Nubian Square Foundation. It sits in the middle of three priorities in the region: preventing violence, addressing the opioid crisis and providing work for people who are getting out of prison — who all too often find employers unwilling to hire them.

Chris Womack, a former gang outreach worker and Dunn’s longtime mentor, was brought in to help coordinate the effort. Though Nubian Square had recovered from the height of violence in the 1990s, gang violence, crime and drug trafficking had begun to creep up again. Womack has been involved in combatting violence all that time, once a part of the TenPoint Coalition — a group of Black ministers and community leaders who put pressure on local officials to do more about community violence.

“During the most tumultuous times in the history of Boston, we were the front-line soldiers helping to point people in the right direction,” Womack said. “That level of leadership needs to come to the forefront again.”

Dunn and Womack assembled a team of nine people who had spent time in prison and paid them $20 an hour through the Nubian Square Foundation. Members of the small group stand outside apartment buildings, fostering a sense of community betterment: helping people cross the street, breaking up fights and working with young people to keep them out of trouble.

David Mayo, director of the city’s Office of Returning Citizens, says his office this year provided a $50,000 grant to the Nubian Square Foundation to support the effort.

“One of the things that makes it so valuable is that it’s solely based on credibility,” Mayo said. “They don’t need to walk around with guns, because it’s their community.”

Not wanting to waste money on new uniforms, Womack repurposed shirts from his carpentry apprenticeship program, God’s Soldiers. Every few blocks, guards stand wearing bright yellow polos with “SOLDIERS” written across the back.

Gary Bon, 51, says people in the area know him and the other guards. “It’s like, ‘Oh, that’s Gary, he’s cool.’” PHOTO: TORI BEDFORD/GBH NEWS

Gary Bon, a 51-year-old guard who grew up in the nearby Lenox Street housing development, says he focuses on de-escalation and intervention.

“It helps that we all live in the community,” Bon said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, that’s Gary, he’s cool.’ People who live in this community should help one another, and police should be the last resort.”

Investing in Nubian Square

After decades of disinvestment and marginalization, Nubian Square is seeing major changes as the city invests roughly $13 million to revitalize and develop the area. Womack hopes it can benefit the people who live there, creating wealth in the community without displacing existing residents.

“We don’t want to be gentrified out of a community where your grandmother, your great-grandmother and everybody else was raised,” Womack said. “We need an economic engine in communities of color, a Black Wall Street.”

“People who live in this community should help one another, and police should be the last resort.”

On Sept. 5, Dunn and Womack walked through Nubian Square, checking in with guards along the route accompanied by foundation treasurer Warren Williams. The news was grim and familiar. Kristen Johnson, a tall Black woman who stands guard near Ziegler Street, administered naloxone to a woman experiencing an opioid overdose in a parking lot. A few feet away, Dunn checked on an older man in a wheelchair who injected heroin into his arm under the cover of a beach umbrella.

As Dunn has built up a force of security guards in Nubian Square, city leaders have been focusing on tackling a crisis of homelessness and substance use disorder just blocks away at Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue, known as Mass. and Cass. Womack thinks the extra attention put on the area — and how to compassionately treat the people living there — gave him an opportunity to convince the state about the value of community organizations like the Nubian Square Foundation.

“The issues of drug use and crime have always been there, it just exacerbated the situation,” Womack said. “Mass. and Cass gave us an opening, if you will, to something that’s been needed and been asked about. You said you don’t want to criminalize a whole population. Well, it’s nice if you bring some of that decriminalization right over here to Nubian Square.”

Outside the senior center where Bon was stationed, a man urinated in the bushes while drinking a beer. Dunn and Williams approached the man — a conversation that began with resistance and ended with fist bumps as they parted ways.

The two asked the man what he needed, listened and recommended housing resources. “We didn’t have to throw him in a headlock, we didn’t cuff him behind his back,” Williams said. “We’re keeping their dignity intact.”

As they made their way through the square, people from the neighborhood approached Dunn and his team to talk about potential collaborations and future community work.

Thomas Cromwell, a 36-year-old fitness trainer, said he’s interested in working with Dunn on a gym program to keep kids away from drugs, following his own arrest in a 2020 narcotics sting. Philip Gibson, a self-described “OG” (and a founding member of the R&B group The Drifters), stopped to laud the group on their work keeping watch outside his senior living residence.

Carlton Buford, 49, parked his moped to greet Dunn, his childhood neighbor, and Womack, who visited him during a prison sentence for drug trafficking in the 1990s.

“I was causing chaos and destruction because, at the time, I was in survival mode,” Buford said. “I was upset with the world and myself.”

A man on a moped is stopped on a street corner to talk to a man in all-white. A bus turns the corner behind them.

Buford, who is still on federal probation, says he’s struggling to find employment.

“Some of the things that I want to do and try to do, I can’t do because of my past,” he said. “I think it shouldn’t hold me back from trying to make myself better and create a better future.”

Years later, Womack recruited the initially resistant Buford into his “God’s Posse” program, where rival gang members worked together on community improvement and overcoming differences. When the security service first launched in 2021, Buford was in the initial cohort.

The formerly incarcerated are more than 10 times more likely to experience homelessness than the general public, and half as likely than their peers without a criminal record to receive an interview or job offer, even with identical resumes and qualifications, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

City and state officials have been trying to provide more help. Last month, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and Mayo’s Office of Returning Citizens announced $1.1 million in grant funding for nonprofits working to provide housing and housing support, case management and rental assistance to people recently released from prison and jail.

Mayo says people’s lived experience behind bars makes them uniquely qualified for jobs that require empathy. Their skills come from an intrinsic understanding, having lived through similar experiences.

“Returning citizens are the most resilient people on the face of the Earth. They’ve been down to the dirt, and everyone has kicked them and told them ‘no’ and told them that they’re worthless, yet they stand up, put in the effort, put in a fight and do it over again, carrying their hurt and their pain,” Mayo said. “In all the shame that our community has given them, they still try to go out and be productive and get back to their communities with no help and no support.”

The Nubian Square Foundation sees this lived experience as a benefit, not a problem. For Dunn, his goal is to connect with young men who might find themselves where he was as a teenager and lead them in a new direction.

“Coming back out here and changing my life up, I’m helping the next generation,” he said. “It’s about people’s lives being changed.”

Tori Bedford covers the Boston neighborhoods of Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan for the GBH News Dorchester Bureau.