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Answers sought to street violence

About 20 community leaders gathered Friday to begin exploring the idea of organizing a mostly untapped resource in the struggle against street violence: Its former warriors.

Those leaders -- ranging from U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. to clergy and the heads of local youth organizations -- were invited to participate in a round-table discussion with the head of a pioneering organization that helped cut the homicide rate in half in Providence, R.I., between 2002 and 2010.

Teny Oded Gross, executive director of the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence in Providence, was joined by one of the street workers for his organization, Anthony Thigpen, a former gang member, to share the fruits of their success.

Friday's event was organized by the Sister Karen Klimczak Center for Nonviolence as part of its third annual Summit for Nonviolence, and was held in the Teen Center at S.S. Columba-Brigid Catholic Church on Hickory Street.

The Israeli-born Gross speculated at the end of Friday's 2 1/2 -hour session that it was safer to be a uniformed Israeli soldier in Lebanon than it is to be a young African-American male in Buffalo.

"I think some people don't really realize that the murder rate for African-American males in America in the inner city is astounding. We accept things that they wouldn't in other societies," Gross said.

His organization was founded more than a decade ago in Boston by a Georgian nun who, like the late Sister Karen Klimczak, was committed to nonviolence, and was inspired in the wake of the killing of a 15-year-old girl who was murdered the night before she was set to testify in a murder trial. Gross got his start with the organization as a street worker, reaching out to gang members and helping them to mediate disputes.

"I worked for 10 years in the most violent neighborhood in Boston, the ZIP code 02124," he said. "There we had 152 homicides that came down to 31. Then they recruited me to Providence."

Providence, the second-largest city in New England, turned out to be even more challenging, prompting Gross to, as he termed it, "put the Boston model on steroids." Among his recruits was Thigpen, a former gang member only one year out of federal prison.

Gross referred to it as recycling human capital.

"Capitalism is about efficiency. America is actually very wasteful when it comes to human capital. Other advanced societies do not have 50 percent [high school] dropout rates. They do not have the highest amount of people in jail. We do," Gross said.

"So one of the things we can do is banish people and punish them and they continue, not by choice, to be combatants and become very expensive [problems] or you can reintegrate and recycle them into the economy and, from combatants, make them peacemakers," he said.

Thigpen, Gross said, "is a poster child."

"Our institute is full of them. We have four people who have committed homicides on our staff," he continued. "They're incredible poets and peacemakers now. They're saving lives. They save have an extra reason to save lives now, because they have caused pain."

Other components of the program that Gross and Thigpen shared with community leaders included victim services, employment services for youth and young men, and programs to assist juveniles and adults in their re-entry to society following incarceration.