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Difference Maker

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.

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Tall and thin, Gross is married with two children. He is a tireless reader. His hard-to-pin-down accent befits his often dangerous journey to Providence. Born in Israel, he was a 1st sergeant in the Israeli army, patrolling the West Bank in the late 1980s. Arriving in Massachusetts in 1989, he studied at Tufts University and became a street worker after witnessing the gun violence in Boston's minority neighborhoods.

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Gross earned a master's degree from Harvard Divinity School and moved to Rhode Island in 2001 to become ISPN's first employee. Since 2001, ISPN has grown to 26 people with an annual budget of $1.3 million, while Gross has taught nonviolent intervention in Northern Ireland and lectured in Guatemala. He will travel to Brazil later this year.

The street worker program, employing 12 people, offers intervention after shootings, advocates for youths in court, and refers them to services throughout the city.

The street workers also use their own stories as cautionary tales. "Street workers don't get to do the work they do without passing through some pretty remarkable personal hells," Professor Kennedy says.

The program can claim some individual successes. One former ISPN street worker has gone on to graduate from Rhode Island's state corrections academy.

Tony Kim, a senior street worker, vouched for a high-schooler who was in danger of being expelled from school after a teacher mistook the student's gang-exiting beating as participation in a brawl. The student is now on his way to college, Mr. Kim says.

"I've had some bad experiences, but I've also had success stories as a street worker," Kim says. His family fled genocide in Cambodia before he was born. He was caught up in gang violence in Providence, and has himself served a four-year sentence for manslaughter. Last May, Kim was attacked when he tried to break up a brawl at a nightclub. The assailants used knives and a baseball bat.

Police called Gross with the news. "I rushed to the hospital, thinking 'Am I getting [my street workers] killed?' " Gross says.

The incident made clear the risks for street workers.

Nonetheless, Gross hopes to see a street worker program in every US city. He's already helped spread ISPN-like programs to nearby New Bedford, Mass., and New Haven, Conn.

And he has made a fearless promise: Though he is a resident alien, he says he will sue the US government if the national homicide rate is not cut in half by 2019.

“Nonviolence is the most patriotic work I can follow,” Gross says. “The violence is stoppable, though few believe it. I do – firmly.”