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.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
Teny Gross speaks with teenagers in the South Providence community during "Rec Night", an event every Monday night where kids can come for basketball and break dance tournaments to stay off the streets.

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.

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."

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.

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.”

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