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The peacemakers
Beneath a thin veneer, Providence is a poor, violent city. By going to the toughest neighborhoods, eight street workers are trying to make a difference
by Ian Donnis

IT WAS A PLEASANT Tuesday night in mid-August, and many Americans were just learning about the suicide bombings that claimed 23 lives at the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad and 20 more on a bus in Jerusalem. Closer to home, four men converged at a public housing project in Providence’s Manton section, trying to prevent a drive-by shooting that seemingly came out of nowhere, leaving two men injured, from producing a violent response.

In the instant, the cause for the gunplay was unknown and far less urgent to the neighbors who had been sitting outside on the warm evening, watching their children play, than the scramble for their lives. "I was trying to get through that door," one woman explains, describing her frantic escape to a nearby building. By 9 p.m., about half an hour after the shooting — in which a pistol held sideways, gangster-style, suddenly emerged from a rented car, unleashing fire — people are back chatting on a sidewalk, and an 11-year-old boy with a sizeable Afro is skillfully executing a series of back flips in the street. "That’s why we’ve got to do something for him," says Angelo Adams, citing the youth as an example of the natural talent that too often goes squandered in poor Providence neighborhoods. An inviting nearby playground, which remains inexplicably dark, despite the presence of overhead lighting equipment, echoes the abiding sense of neglect.

Adams, 34, a former resident of the Manton Heights project, has returned to the area in a new role — as one of eight street workers who spend their time in Providence’s most dangerous neighborhoods, emphasizing the futility of violence and offering to serve as a conduit to vital needs like a job or education, especially if troublemakers change their ways. The other part of the message is that if people continue to embrace violence, they will face the consequences.

This approach was a key part of Boston’s remarkable success in reducing youth violence, which exploded in cities nationwide during the crack era, in the ’90s. It helps, too, that Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline has a multi-part anti-violence strategy, including the long-overdue arrival of community policing. But the success of the street workers’ program could also hinge on several uncertainties, like the willingness of the private sector to provide jobs. "When you instill hope in somebody, you better be there to follow up," says Teny Gross, executive director for the South Providence-based Institute for the Study & Practice of Nonviolence, and a former street worker in Boston, who helped to launch the Providence program in early August.

Like Adams and Gross, the others involved in the new program are motivated by a fierce desire to change a world that remains largely invisible to the more fortunate residents of the capital city. Co-coordinator George Lindsay, for example, has seen so many young people die a premature death that he finds himself incapable of going to a funeral for anyone under age 50. And now, after things had been relatively calm around Manton in the weeks before the drive-by shooting on August 19, Adams openly expresses his fear about the gunplay: "With this, it’s just going to go back and forth again."

Beneath the veil of pleasant ambiance that raised the city’s stature over the last decade, Providence is a poor and violent place. Although affluent residents are unlikely to become victims of serious crime, the city experienced 23 homicides in 2002 — down from a recent high of 30 in 2000, yet still a number that places Providence’s homicide rate per 100,000 residents (13.2) between that of Boston (10.2) and Los Angeles (17.2). And while 16.5 percent of all Rhode Island children live in poverty (up from 13.3 percent in 1990), the rate is more than twice that — 46 percent — for children in South Providence, Elmwood, and the West End, according to the advocacy group Rhode Island Kids Count. Meanwhile, despite the jarring effect of shootings like the drive-by in Manton, most Rhode Islanders were probably unaware of it. (Two days later, an inconspicuous four-paragraph brief inside the Providence Journal’s metro section recounted how Jason Perkins, 21, and Brian Wilcox, 19, had been shot in the leg.)

On the night of the drive-by, the immediate task facing the street workers is gaining a handle on the shooting. Gross and two of the workers, A.J. Benton and Brother Ray Smith, join Angelo Adams at the scene after making the trip from South Providence in a van borrowed from the Davey Lopes Recreation Center. During the drive, Benton and Gross steadily work their cell phones, seeking bits of information and keeping contact with other street workers in different corners of the city — at the Chad Brown housing project, on Camp Street in Mount Hope, and Hanover Street in the West End.

The trio in the van might seem like an unlikely crew. Smith, 44, an intense born-again Christian, felt compelled to come to Providence from Chicago five years ago and he was conducting his own form of street ministry before becoming a street worker. Benton, a streetwise twenty-something member of a locally prominent black family, has lost friends to violence. And Gross, 37, is a soft-spoken Israeli native, born to a Serbian Christian mother and a Croatian Jewish father, who found his calling in nonviolence after serving as a sergeant in the Israeli army and coming to Boston to study photography. After coming to Providence two years ago to launch the nonviolence institute — arriving not even two weeks before 9/11 — Gross drives the city’s back streets like an expert and his unquestioned acceptance among the black and Southeast Asian street workers is clear.

At Manton Heights, it doesn’t take long to develop some leads. A decision is made that Adams will remain at the scene, while the others proceed to visit the shooting victims at Roger Williams Hospital. Joined at the hospital by another street worker, a physically imposing man named Bear, several of the workers speak with the injured men in the emergency room, ultimately giving one of them a road home. "This is a young man that Brother Ray talked to a week ago," Gross tells me later. "Nothing happens by miracle speeches. It happens by being there."

As it turns out, the initial theory about who was responsible for the shooting — young men from another part of Providence — is mistaken. Mindful of the street workers’ need for credibility with their target audience, Gross is guarded in discussing the motive for the attack. But after the two injured men and some of the street workers made a cross-town trip, it was learned that the responsible party is actually from out of town. "Without the street workers, it wouldn’t have really been known," Gross says, and were it not for the intervention, misplaced retaliation might have been made, perhaps sparking yet another cycle of violence. The streetwise student of nonviolence takes the victory in stride. "A lot of conflict," says Gross, "is just a result of bad communication."

IN SOME WAYS, the street workers seem to face daunting odds. Guns are easy to find in Providence, shots are fired virtually on a nightly basis (even if no one is hurt), and the conditions that influence violent crime — include poverty and longstanding beefs — aren’t easily remedied. Still, after shadowing the street workers in their rounds on two recent nights, it’s hard not to have a sense that they’ve accomplished a lot in a short period of time. Everywhere they go, it seems, they know the players, the terrain, the history, and what’s at stake.

Dyna Kun, 31, is a case in point. The Cambodian native was once the fearsome leader of a Southeast Asian gang, the Bad Junior Boys, which formed, he says, for self-defense after non-Asians attacked members of his community. But now, after seeing too much pain — including the loss of his god-brother in a double murder on Washington Street in July — Kun has adopted the cause of nonviolence, walking the area around Hanover Street in the West End until the early morning hours if he perceives a hint of trouble. His approach to gang members is simple and direct: "What’s your point — to kill each other? Life in a gang — you either die or get locked up."

Kun was initially disinterested when Gross approached him after his god-brother’s death, throwing away the business card he was offered. With more convincing, though, he began to appreciate the appeal of trying to prevent shootings from occurring, rather than reacting to them after the fact. "The old people are so happy about it," Kun says during a pause from his work on a recent Thursday night. "They don’t want their kid to die."

For people like Kun, being a street worker is almost as much about community empowerment as squelching the level of violence. He mixes talk of interventions with young people with his hope that a recreation center will be established for the Southeast Asian community. Perhaps most importantly, Kun says, there seems to be a strong measure of acceptance among gang members for his message. "They feel the same way," he says, about the futility of violence. "They don’t understand each other. They don’t want to shoot each other," but there haven’t previously been people to serve as intermediaries in getting things talked out.

Similarly, Brother Ray Smith and A.J. Benton were back up in Manton Heights about a week after the drive-by, collecting signatures on a petition to try to get the lights turned on at the darkened playground. Under an agreement reached with Cicilline, City Hall will try to expedite related needs, based on input from the street workers. Available around the clock, the street workers have made a mark within a few short weeks. "They’re spreading the word," Gross says, as we drive away from the West End and toward Camp Street in his white Ford Contour. "People are talking about it in many places. A lot of the groups are saying, ‘Let’s give this a chance.’ "

 

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Issue Date: September 5 - 11, 2003
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