EAST PALO ALTO, Calif. — For years, Dorsey Nunn informally compiled the grievances of other former prisoners denied housing, frozen out of job interviews or abruptly fired years after they had done their time.
But when his wife, also formerly incarcerated, was rejected no-questions-asked as a volunteer in one of this crime-pocked city's neediest elementary schools, he decided he'd had enough. How, Nunn asked, could he and millions of other felons contribute to society if society no longer wanted them?
From his frustration came All of Us or None, an organization of the formerly incarcerated now pressing for change in the Bay Area, Southern California and beyond.
"You shouldn't be able to stand on our neck forever," said Nunn, 54, a stocky man with manic energy and a belly laugh equal parts bitter and naive. "People are programmed to see us as the boogeyman, and they're throwing away a lot of good people."
Imprisoned for a 1971 robbery that ended with his accomplice killing a man, Nunn clawed his way to respectability after his release.
Today, the group he co-founded adds a voice that has been oddly absent in a critical national debate, as policymakers and legislators on both sides of the aisle ponder the challenges of former inmates' reentry into society.
All of Us or None is helping eligible former offenders in the Bay Area clear their criminal records -- giving them a better shot at stable employment.
There's also the campaign to prod cities and counties to remove a question about convictions from initial job application forms. (The group just won its biggest victory when San Francisco became the first city in California to agree.) And there is the push for voting rights for county jail inmates from San Francisco to San Bernardino.
Meanwhile, members have set out to help their own, donating bikes to kids of the incarcerated and welcoming new parolees into their homes. (They also found private lodging for Hurricane Katrina evacuees with criminal records that prevented them from securing long-term public help.)
"We demand to move forward," said David Lewis, who co-founded an East Palo Alto drug and alcohol recovery center with Nunn that is helping All of Us or None in its effort. "No one needs to speak for us anymore. We can speak for ourselves."
About 650,000 inmates will return home this year from state and federal prisons, according to the Prisoner Reentry Institute at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Nationwide there are an estimated 13 million adults who have served time. In California, one in five adults has a criminal record on file.
President Bush underscored the need to reassimilate the formerly incarcerated in his 2004 State of the Union address, calling for $300 million in spending on reentry initiatives.
The bipartisan "Second Chance Act" pending in Congress bolsters such efforts and would require states to analyze the laws that create "collateral consequences" -- barriers to employment, student loans and public housing -- long after sentences have been served.
Laws limiting the rights of felons and governing which offenses may be expunged vary widely from state to state.
Mayors and state legislatures, including California's, are increasingly tackling the possibility of changes in this arena, hoping that greater opportunities will reduce recidivism. By all accounts, pressing the issue requires a politically volatile balancing of individual and societal rights.
Although recidivism rates are high, Nunn and others attribute that largely to persistent discrimination and lack of opportunity that channel offenders back into crime. Victims' rights groups and employer organizations counter that the law-abiding have a right to full disclosure, even if that means the debts of felons are never fully paid.
"Would you want a rapist working as a janitor at a woman's dress store? You need to be aware," said Harriet Salarno, president of Crime Victims United of California. "Why are we protecting them and not protecting ourselves?"
Nunn bristles at such comments, comparing his group's uphill climb to the mountain scaled by the likes of civil rights greats Rosa Parks and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Currently, he says, people raised in pockets of crime and addiction are denied the chance at productive futures long after they have paid for their mistakes.
Nunn grew up in East Palo Alto, a low-income and predominantly African American community surrounded by Silicon Valley affluence.
Like many in the city -- who speak of "catching a case" as one might catch a cold -- Nunn had entered prison by 19. There, he trained as a paralegal and was paroled nearly 12 years later.
What moved him most was the fate of children with parents behind bars. In time he became program director of the San Francisco-based Legal Services for Prisoners With Children, managing a hefty annual budget. His input was welcomed by policymakers, but he said his was a token voice. That, he decided, had to change.