By Joel Rubin
Languishing in both juvenile and adult Virginia lockups for 25 years, felon Darrell Redmond could not have imagined that this past April 16, he would be the star attraction at a Hampton fund raiser, attended by local mayors, business leaders, social workers, a TV news crew and a couple dozen children, Black like him, and thanks to him, hopefully never to be like him.
His story reads like a movie script (I see Jamie Foxx as Darrell). A poor, pissed-off, problematic kid from Portsmouth, receiving minimal guidance from a drug addicted mother and a blind father, commences a depressing life of delinquency. No rapes or murders but a string of robberies, drug deals, gun charges and other infractions that, he figured, would surely result in an early demise.
At his last stop, the Lunenberg Correctional Center, but now with a GED in hand from the Department of Corrections though distraught over the death of his grandmother and the murder of a beloved first cousin, he joined a prison fellowship. “They taught me to lead in a different way and to make better choices.” Released in 2019, Darrell returned to the scene of many of his crimes, Portsmouth and specifically London Oaks Apartments where he grew up, but this time, he stopped hating the cops and started talking straight with residents, particularly the kids, many of whom were afraid to walk to school and were arming up to defend themselves.
Darrell understood the despair but also the lack of proper home environments, leading to teens learning to settle arguments with weapons, not words. The mental health of his community was awful as was the seeming indifference of the rest of us to what was happening in London Oaks and so many other economically and spiritually impoverished neighborhoods.
Within two months, he had founded a non-profit, “Give Back 2 Da Block,” and was again hitting the streets, connecting with politicians, businesses and even police who saw Darrell, not as a troublemaker, but as an “intervener” who could speak candidly to his people and lower both the vitriol and the body count. Indeed the city awarded him a grant to be a “credible messenger.”
Redmond though went further, organizing after school mentorship programs, distributing turkeys at Thanksgiving and toys at Christmas, taking kids to ballgames and generally being the willing ear at the other end of the line for whoever needed one.
His efforts caught the attention of local reporters, including David Alan at WVEC , Antoinette Delbel at WTKR and Andy Fox at WAVY, who produced compelling TV news stories. Ali Sullivan wrote a profile for the Pilot.
Susan Pilato read it. The award-winning local interior designer (Sandra Bullock would play her in my imagined film) was moved. “I contacted Darrell and said I wanted to help.” But Susan went beyond just stroking a check, introducing him to her circle of friends, setting the stage for that elegant April fund raiser at the old Post Office in downtown Hampton that attracted Portsmouth Mayor Shannon Glover (who is connecting Redmond to resources in his hometown), plus Hampton’s Donnie Tuck and two council members (Hope Barrett and Chris Bowman) as well as Alton Bell, that city’s eloquent and passionate Commonwealth’s Attorney and the evening’s keynote speaker, who would love to work himself out of a job as the elected prosecutor tasked with sending too many mis-directed black males to prison.
Darrell is seemingly everywhere all the time, securing grants and other donations, meeting corporate and government types and attending civic events. He promotes evidence-based practices and is anxious for municipalities to bring in national experts to conduct training. “Intervention works faster than prevention,” he says. Financial help also came from his cousin LaShawn Merritt, an Olympic champion sprinter (Beijing and Rio), and others he’s met who rightly view him as one answer to the prayers of a region desperate for solutions to what ails it, the daily and nightly terror that keeps the authorities and media busy and places like London Oaks dangerous, though its crime numbers have plummeted since Darrell’s engagement.
Until the movie is produced, we here in Hampton Roads have Darrell Redmond to ourselves and boy do we need him. Murder and mayhem, and its attendant victims and perpetrators, plague us. Racism, poverty, lack of values…they are all factors, but without men like Darrell and cheerleaders with checkbooks, volunteer time and connections to decision makers, little changes. Maybe there are more like him wasting away their days behind bars who could, with the right encouragement, turn lives around out here. Until then, let’s be like Susan Pilato and Give Back 2Da Block.
Joel Rubin is president of Rubin Communications Group and a former television journalist. To learn more about Darrell Redmond and his non-profit, visit https://giveback2dablock.com.