Street workers get second chance, opportunity to reduce youth violence

Providence, RI – Most of the kids Bryant talks to have his cell phone number. He knows who their friends are, if they get into fights, and when they're in danger. And he's happiest when they're doing well in school.

Bryant doesn't work for the school system. He's not a parole officer. He's a senior street worker with the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence. And his job is to bring peace to Providence's streets.

Like many American cities, Providence is struggling with too much youth violence. Last year was one of the city's worst since 2000 - with 24 murders and 87 shootings - with much of the violence committed by young people, against young people.

As Bryant drives around the neighborhood in South Providence, he talks about all that he does: He breaks up fights. He helps drop-outs find jobs and get their GEDs. He gives advice to older kids who've been in and out of jail. He says being available to solve lots of small problems can head off the big ones.

"Because it starts off simple," Bryant says. "If the problem's not taken care of right then and there, it has a tendency to grow, grow and grow, to the point where, you know, somebody's getting shot."

Like all of the street workers at the Institute, Bryant knows the rhythm of life here on the streets of Providence because he's lived it himself.

"I was a knuckle head when I was growing up and I got incarcerated," he said. "And while I was incarcerated my brother was murdered. I came out, I was angry. I wanted to do something to somebody who did something to my brother."

Fortunately, that didn't happen. Instead, one of Bryant's friends urged him to get in touch with Teny Gross, the Institute's executive director, who was just starting the street worker program. His friend told Bryant he would fit right in.

"He kept talking to me," Bryant said. "I was drinking and drugging, because that was my baby brother. He said Listen man, you go on and get yourself together. Come on back, we're trying to start this program, but I need you to be on your game because I know how you are when you're straight.'"

Carlos Bryant did get himself together, met Teny Gross and has been working with the Institute ever since.

Teny Gross says he chooses his street workers carefully -- like Patriots coach Bill Belichick building a football team.

"You look for some street workers on the team to really be very aggressive," Gross said, "to be able to hang on the toughest streets with the toughest players. Then you look for some street workers that are more like teddy bears, who have this warm smile that can melt very tough situations. Or can make cops in a tense situation feel friendly."

Street workers have regular contact with the police. When it comes to reaching kids caught in the violence, Teny Gross calls the Institute the carrot and the police department the stick. The police share crime information with the street workers, but the street workers don't share back. What they hear from young people is kept confidential. Michael Wheeler, the head of the Providence Police Gang Unit, says it's a tricky relationship that requires street workers and cops to trust each other.

"Remember, some of his guys are career criminals who spent many years in prison," Wheeler says. "So their guys have to go through that same growing pain."

The 14 street workers have long hours, and answer phone calls from young people whether they're officially on the clock or not.

At a recent meeting, all 14 of them sit in a circle and share stories about the young people they're working with. They only have time to talk about the most pressing cases, and everyone has a handful. Rasheed Goode goes through his list:

"Another hot topic, she's actually an honor role student but she got caught with box cutters," Goode says. "She told me the reason she carries box cutters is because she gets scared riding the bus at night. A lot of girls be looking at her funny she said."

Another kid was caught breaking into houses on the East Side. A young woman is being threatened by a gang. Two crews of kids are planning to fight this weekend. And the stories keep coming. But the conversation goes off track and an argument erupts between two street workers over an inappropriate comment.

But by the end of the night, they've apologized for their behavior.

Senior street worker Sareth Kim, whose nickname is Tony, says he expects disagreements like this every once in a while.

"Everyday we deal with a lot of lot of bull crap, you know?" he says. "We absorb a lot of that and we don't know where to vent that out to. Sometimes, take it out on each other a little bit."

Kim says he works with 12 to 15 gangs. Each one can have as many as 80 members. Add that to all the other individuals he works with and it makes for long, stressful days. But Tony Kim says it's worth it when he helps change someone's life for the better. That's what he did for a young man whose name is Ray Min.

"The first time I met a street worker, the first person I met was Tony," Min says. "He stops, introduces himself, meets us, tries to get comfortable with us. And it worked. You say the right things at the right time, you can make anybody like you!"

Ray Min was in and out of trouble for years. Then he was arrested for robbery and landed in prison for a year and a half.

"It's not a nice place to be, you feel like an animal in there," he says. "They tell you when to sleep, when to eat...It's like being a dog. It's horrible."

When Ray Min came out of jail, Tony Kim and the entire Institute supported him. He straightened out, quit smoking and got a job. Now he's studying business at the Community College of Rhode Island. He gives a lot of credit to Tony Kim, who he says became like a brother - supporting him, taking him out to eat, even teaching him how to fish.

"I guess sometimes your original family isn't enough," Min says. "Not every kid is born into a family that supports them. You know, so you kind of sit there and need that extra support. And without them, you wouldn't have it. And you just keep going downhill. It's like you were born and you were set up to fail."

Ray Min says if his business studies don't work out, he wants to be a street worker - and pass onto others the kind of help that saved him.