Teny O. Gross is executive director of the award-winning Institute for the Study & Practice of Nonviolence, a nonprofit that teaches the principles and practices of nonviolence locally, nationally and internationally.
He holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Tufts University in 1994, where he also received an Institute of Global Leadership Alumni Award. He also is earned a Master of Theology degree at Harvard University in 2001.
Gross also was a program coordinator for the Ella J. Baker House Youth Focused Community Initiative and a senior streetworker for the city of Boston.
PBN: Early in your career you were a senior streetworker in Boston. Why after obtaining degrees at Tufts and Harvard did you take this job then, and how did it inform your perspective on nonviolence here when you came here, to Providence?
GROSS: I came to Providence convinced that violence, like cancer, is curable. It is a predictable and curable condition.
As a student in Boston, I was a veteran of the Israeli Defence Forces, and wanted nothing more than to be an Athenian for a few college years in the USA. I couldn’t but be astonished at the levels of violence in an educated city like Boston. In 1990, Boston suffered 152 homicides. Failure forced groups working in silos of police officers, Black Clergy, youth workers like myself, probation officers, and academics to come together. We did not march after acts of violence. Instead we relied on data. Like businessmen, we gathered information on who is actually causing the violence. The problem we determined was caused by only 300 serious gang members, and 900 followers. We went to work and offered them two products: certain and tough prosecution with jail time, or a way out through education and jobs. We are entrepreneurs. Homicides dropped to 31.
This same approach we apply in here in Rhode Island. In Providence we evaluate every three month a list of 50 names most likely to die or kill. With limited resources we remain focused.
What I underestimated is how hard it will be to financially garner support despite evidence and anecdote, to support and focus on those involved in the cycle of violence and victimhood. A failure that is very costly to our society.
That is what we must do, and my singular goal right now is to build a coalition of business, community and political leaders who understand the importance of putting the Nonviolence Institute on permanent and secure financial footing. Providence can become a stronger national leader.
PBN: The Institute for the Study & Practice of Nonviolence was formed in 2000 as the incidence of violent youth deaths increased. Is youth violence still a big component of crime in Rhode Island’s cities today and what is ISPN doing to reduce it?
GROSS: Yes, youth violence is a problem for all of us. And our model can dramatically reduce violence and shootings.
Our approach is to build relationships with those involved in violence. Partner with schools, police and hospitals, and just like a business know who are the 0.3 percent of young people who cause 70 percent of the violence in the city. It is globally recognized as the comprehensive approach for combating urban violence. Cities from Oakland to Buffalo to Newark have asked the Institute to come and teach our model. Our biggest problem is funding. Our model works when it’s fully funded. We are not now.
We have been blessed by the corporate leadership of Lifespan, Hasbro, Citizens, Collette Vacations, Teknor Apex, and others, who understand the link between safe cities and economic development. One homicide is estimated to cost $8.3 million. But we need more companies to step up. Thanks to the leadership of Mayor Angel Taveras and Speaker Fox, the Institute is able to continue and interrupt violence. They found resources in tough economic times.
PBN: What is the most important success achieved in your Nonviolence Streetworkers Program, and what are the tools it uses to combat gang violence?
GROSS: Whether 3 in the afternoon or 3 in the morning, our Streetworkers or our victims services department report to Rhode Island Hospital for shootings or stabbings. We immediately treat the trauma of the victims and their family, provide support to the medical and security staff at the hospital and work to eliminate the immediate impulse for revenge and retaliation. So much of our violence is a cycle of retaliation, and we work to stop that. Just last year our staff responded 400 times to Rhode Island/Hasbro hospitals to address violence at its most urgent moment.
Sitting with shooters is not everyone’s idea of justice. But in a heat of conflict, of what some would call, the heat of battle, getting into the heads of those engaged in violence, is a mother’s best hope of not seeing her son shot.
When two gangs in South Providence produced over two years four shootings per week, we brought the two leaders to a local restaurant. They reminisced about their childhoods and we proceeded to negotiate steps to a ceasefire.
A week later, a gang member who didn’t get the memo, because he just came out of jail, shot the main shooter from the rival gang. It could have been the end of the ceasefire. We doggedly kept at it – and arranged for a shooter to surrender himself. We followed with a jail visit. The ceasefire is holding two years later.
The main tool to stop violence is deploying well-trained and supported former offenders in the role of Street peacemakers, known as Streetworkers. Who best to stop violence than those who perpetuated it and now reject it. Like good businessman, they know their market, and work in that world to “sell” nonviolence to people who are daily involved in violence. It is a hard, dogged fight, and one that for moral and financial reasons we cannot afford to continue and lose.
PBN: The most recent violent incident, the murder of the 12-year-old Cranston girl Aynis Argas at the Hartford Park housing project, led to a nonviolence march that included the mayor. Is raising awareness helping, and what other plans to you have to keep this issue in the public eye?
GROSS: When you have senseless tragedy, when a crowd of women are shot with no relations to a conflict, we as a society cannot hide and say, “It’s gang members killing each other.” Building awareness is always part of the task. Violence begets violence. It creates trauma, and it is very, very financially costly.
Summer jobs help temporarily. Permanent jobs help permanently. We aren’t investing anywhere near enough in either.
If The Institute was a business it would be an insanely cheap solution. I studied economics, and heard that markets are rational. Our national and local policies on crime and violence are often irrational, self-perpetuating, and very costly. Our business leaders need to lead the conversation on combating these policies and investing in models that work.
Since more than 95percent of inmates return to society, we must seriously invest in their successful return so that we don’t pay again for their failure and re-incarceration.
PBN: What is the most important skill you personally bring to the table as executive director when guiding the organization as it works to address and minimize violence on Rhode Island streets?
GROSS: I bring a combination of skills that steer the culture of the institute with foremost emphasis on kindness: a determination that violence is a form of negative relationship, that it is rarely random, and therefore, can be transformed by positive relationships.
I lead with a sense of realistic optimism and empathy. I understand that there are no quick fixes, and that perseverance combined with sound proven strategies will win the day. Mixing common-sense, experience, empathy, intellectual curiosity and obsessive determination to save lives are what I imagine are my qualities on a good day.
I invite all business leaders to come for a tour of the Institute, learn what we do and invest in building a safer Rhode Island. Choose peace.
Teny O. Gross,
Ella J. Baker House Youth Focused Community Initiative,
senior streetworker in Boston,