Gang members, survivors work toward peace

As homicides spike upward, members of a Boston community bridge a chasm of violence.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

He is a former gang member, with bullet wounds for scars and a criminal record that follows him wherever he goes.

She is a mother, whose son died in gang crossfire one winter afternoon in 1993 as the 15-year-old headed to a party sponsored by Teens Against Gang Violence.

"I used to want all people like him dead," Tina Chery says, her gaze set on 27-year-old Mario Rodrigues. "I would have pulled the trigger myself."

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Instead, the two have begun working together - she with victims of homicide, he with former and current gang members - to reduce violence by generating dialogue and fostering self-esteem in the community. "Now he is where I find hope," Ms. Chery says.

Their partnership, called the Unity Outreach Group, comes at a time in Boston when the homicide rate is the highest it has been in nearly a decade, with 63 murders reported this year. Police attribute the spike, in part, to gang activity. And from proposing tougher punishments against intimidation to securing more anticrime resources, authorities here have scrambled to stem the wave of violence.

But experts also see a key role for programs that focus on the causes of violence and that enlist the community in healing itself. Efforts such as Unity Outreach Group - part of a burgeoning "restorative justice" movement across the country - may help end cycles of gang violence where tougher punishments alone do not.

Some in the community may have trouble trusting the leadership of offenders, yet they are in a unique position to reach out to their peers and usher in change.

Mr. Rodrigues is, of course, not the first gang member to say, "We have to stop the violence," says Jon Wilson, a victim-offender dialogue facilitator in Maine who has worked with Chery. But his reaching out to a one local resident, whose son was killed by gang violence, is unique. "The bridging of those two human beings across an almost indescribable divide is the heart of what I believe restorative justice is," Mr. Wilson says. "It's that divide, that huge chasm that is so profoundly important."

Growing up on tough streets

Gang activity in Boston was far more terrorizing a decade ago; 152 murders were recorded in 1990. Wednesday, authorities say the groups, which span all ethnicities, are loosely organized by geography - street blocks or housing projects - instead of by hierarchy, like those in Los Angeles or Chicago. But violence here has escalated in recent months. In Dorchester, which has seen much of this year's violence, any number of memorials commemorate the recently murdered.

Rodrigues grew up in Dorchester when the streets were tougher. As a child Rodrigues, who came to the US from Cape Verde, was swarmed by gangs who watched out for one other and their neighborhood. As a child, he says, he fell asleep to the sound of shots in the night. He officially joined a group at age 14.

But any sense of security began to wane as his gang dwindled - from a band of 50 in the early 1990s to just a handful today - as a result of jail sentences, murders, and deportations. And the broader impact on the neighborhood - that people began to flee - didn't go unnoticed by Rodrigues.

"You realize what you are doing," he says, his eyes steady. "You realize people are afraid of us."

Bridging the divide

Last spring Rodrigues first approached Chery, whose Louis D. Brown Peace Institute was named after her son. She tried to ignore him. "I couldn't even take care of [my nonprofit], I did not want to be affiliated with gangs," she thought back then, taking days to to return his call.

But she finally did listen, and eventually came to realize that their relationship was a missing piece of the dialogue in Dorchester. "There are no winners in this community; one group goes to jail, the other to the grave," Chery says.

The group, made up of some 30 former and current gang members, meets about twice a week. The dialogue is meant to turn the focus from shooting, killing, or drug dealing, toward positive action - such as getting into school, forming a youth sports league, building a community center, or starting small businesses.

They discuss their mental health, their rights as former offenders, and learn about job searching, résumé writing, and interviewing. "We have power," Rodrigues says, "but we mess up by using it in a negative way." Violence, he says, "always starts over something dumb, like someone gets robbed or over a girl. Usually the issue is not serious until someone gets murdered."

Chery helps connect the group to lawyers, city officials, or academics. The group says they plan to meet with the Boston police in the future. But it is a grass-roots effort for now. "We are not going to solve a problem we've had for decades," says Chery. "But we are doing something that we have not mastered, and that's listening."

Programs like this are effective, says experts, because "insiders" understand the complexities on the ground. "Mario has a unique role to play, and as a city we have to struggle to figure out how to support it," says Deborah Prothrow-Stith, a community violence expert at Harvard School of Public Health.

That role can also present challenges. Not only might city leadership have trouble trusting their efforts, but they are also trying to reach out to a community that has too often been a victim. "We have to recognize that some in the community [may] feel directly victimized," says Ms. Prothrow-Stith.

Chery agrees, saying some parents that she works with may not accept her association with gangs while others don't even know about it. For Janet Connors, whose son was murdered four years ago, the efforts of the Unity Outreach Group are a step forward. "There are some survivors who can't embrace them in that way," she says. But she can. They are the ones, she says, who know the streets and who the real players are. "They are the ones that are going to make a difference."

Important small steps

The concept of restorative justice - connecting the harmed with their harmers - began to percolate in the US in the 1970s. The movement has grown slowly in relation to violent crime, says Wilson, in part because it is hard for victim-services divisions to be absolutely certain that victims' needs will be honored and protected. Wilson started his pro bono work with Just Alternatives in Maine five years ago.

It is hard to measure the success of such programs, too, but it is the small steps that matter to those involved, even if that means sliding backward first. Indeed, Ernesto Monell Jr., who had the idea of the Unity Outreach Group, was sent back to jail when he was caught with a gun last winter during a routine stop. "But he feels well, that his dream is coming true," says his mother Geneva Monell.

Bridging these divides is what is often left out of traditional response models, says Wilson. "If you try to make [offenders] see the light without him or her hearing what he or she has done, there is not enough light to see," he says.

Despite setbacks Rodrigues remains hopeful. "I do feel guilty for destroying our neighborhood, for causing parents all that pain and grief. But we can turn it around."

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