People making a difference: Teny Gross
The best way to curb gang violence, says this Providence, R.I., mediator, is to offer help from street workers who've been there themselves.
Early March brought a harsh week of loss in Providence, R.I. Three people died in gun violence: a 20-year-old man, found in an apartment near the city's Smith Hill neighborhood; a 17-year-old boy, shot at a party; and a 19-year-old Laotian man, by suicide. They were survived by family and friends, all in mourning – and with the younger among them quite possibly enraged to the point of wanting revenge.Skip to next paragraph
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For Teny Gross, who works to reduce youth violence in Providence with his staff of street workers (ex-offenders trained in violence intervention), this was just another week. He spent hours consoling the families. More urgently, he assessed the likelihood of retaliation by friends of the victims.
"Violence ripples," says Mr. Gross, who heads the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence (ISPN) in Providence, a city of 175,000. By hiring ex-offenders, Gross trusts these former criminals to speak from their own experiences and convince young people not to answer the loss of their friends with more shootings and bloodshed.
The job is exhausting, bringing deep immersions into other people's grief. The 17-year-old's killing was suspected to be gang-related, and Gross worried that enemies of a gang in the city's Laotian community might mock the suicide on the Internet, forcing the gang to react. On the phone with the 20-year-old victim's mother, Gross gently offered help with funeral arrangements and asked about the young man's friends. "Let's remember that these guys are hurting, too," he told her, "and we need to make sure they don't do anything rash."
Through interventions in emergency rooms, neighborhoods, and housing projects, ISPN street workers have taken a prominent place in the story of declining violent crime in Providence. Though gangs maintain a presence in the city's Asian, Latino, and African-American communities, murders have dropped from 23 in 2002 to as low as 11 in 2006 and 13 last year.
The street workers are key contributors to the reduction of violence, community leaders say. "They are really our closest partners," says Chief Col. Dean Esserman of the Providence police. "After an incident, I used to say 'OK, let's make sure we notify the street workers.' Now, part of the report from officers is, 'We've already notified the street workers.' "
Gross himself has gained praise for his ability to advocate nonviolent solutions and for putting a spotlight on urban homicide.
"Teny understands African-American culture, Hispanic culture, and police culture better than most Americans do," and he's passionate about his cause, says David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
Poverty and a lack of youth services drive urban youths – mostly minorities – to crime, Gross says. "Most of the kids we work with are products of their environments," he says. "I believe people can change."