Article by Debbie Vu
“Pull up behind that white Jaguar,” my StepUp colleague, Baqir Mujahid, directed me.
We had just arrived at Love & Respect to speak with the Executive Director and founder, Dennis Garrett. Later, Garrett would tell me that the white Jaguar was a symbol of how far he'd come on a long journey that includes a colorful past. A mentor who once drove a jag told him that if he worked hard he could purchase a car like that. Years later, he was able to accomplish that goal and it serves as a symbol of his hard work.
Success for Love & Respect comes from creating a safe haven and transitional housing for men struggling with unhealthy life choices, such as addiction and criminal charges. So after everything that has happened and after every door that has closed, life led Garrett to this moment in his life where he is making a significant difference in the larger Durham community.
My colleague, Mujahid, has a long-standing history with Garrett. After Mujahid was released from incarceration, he was inspired by what he saw Garrett doing with Love & Respect. Both men wanted the same things for the community: economic opportunity for all and a chance for a someone’s past not to define their future.
“We [Mujahid and I] have seen each other go from taking the pistol to taking a notebook and briefcase,” Garrett remarked.
Today, Love & Respect offers free space for StepUp’s biweekly workshops. It’s becoming a symbiotic relationship. Garrett provides refuge for men struggling to turn their lives around from battling drug addiction to experiencing discrimination due to a criminal background; then he suggests StepUp to the men who are looking to start fresh with a new job and, more importantly, a new career.
Garret appreciates that StepUp is a safe space for those with barriers to employment, whether that barrier is a gap in employment history or a criminal background.
“What I like about StepUp is the desire and willingness to go into the eye of the storm,” Garrett said. “Love & Respect was in the drug-infested, prostitute, gang ring center when we first started. But for StepUp to come into the same community says a lot to the integrity of the program.”
Garrett does outreach for his organization and crime and gang intervention in other parts of town or “the eye of the storm” as he calls it. He goes into these areas with long gold chains around his neck. That’s his necktie, he said. Approaching youth in this way proves to be effective.
He said, “My job is to get those boys to StepUp so [the staff] can give them the message and have the opportunity to talk to them. But if we don’t get them there, they won’t be able to hear nothing—but gunshots.”
Mujahid’s caseload includes several of the justice-involved referrals from Love & Respect. Mujahid said that helping them find jobs helps to reduce crime. But for Mujahid, when he helps justice-involved people, it’s, “one less life taken away, one less home broken into.”
Before Love & Respect set its roots on Angier Ave, Garrett was incarcerated. He had a double life sentence hanging over his head and didn’t think he’d ever see the streets again.
Garrett points to his participation in a program called “Think Smart,” now called “Scared Straight,” as a turning point for him. Although his only intention to join was to get reprieve from the cellblock, it would turn into an opportunity to walk down a different path. In a chance encounter, a senator made a visit when Garrett was interacting with a youth. The senator could see Garrett changing this particular young man’s life and later told Garrett that if he took his experiences and turned them into assets then he could help a lot of people. Soon after, he became an honorary peer counselor in the prison. Thanks to the help of the senator, Garrett was also allowed to leave the prison to attend classes at the local community college.
Similar to the program that impacted Garrett’s life, Love & Respect provides a place for people to start over again. It slowly introduces the recovery dynamics of the 12-step program because, as Garrett said, “You can’t walk in the woods for 20 miles and expect to walk out in five.”
It’s a slow process, Garrett explains, but it’s a remarkable transformation. He can attest to this from his own experience.
“I’m in this because I want my son to be able to go outside and play. I don’t want my daughter to go through what I had to go through. I want my son and my daughter to wake up with a mother and father in the household. I did that [wake up with a mom and dad] too, but my father taught me how to load a gun and my father taught me how to bag up an ounce of cocaine. He didn’t teach me to be bad; he taught me what his daddy taught him.”
And he’s breaking the pattern, one person at a time.