After school Wednesday, three students are hanging out outside Gilbert Stuart Middle School in Providence. It's been an hour or so since classes let out for the day, but they're standing around talking to a grown man — a streetworker with the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence, which aims to combat youth violence in the city. Two other streetworkers, Tony Kim and Ali Amoure, pull up to the curb in Kim's car.
"Why aren't you home yet?" Amoure asks one of them, whom he recognizes as a student at Bridgham, another middle school nearby that he watches over daily. He gets no definitive answer.
Tuesday, a student was arrested at Bridgham after trying to attack another student with a broken bottle, Amoure says. Four streetworkers were called to the scene.
The streetworkers and the students talk about who's in what gang. The Bridgham student denies being in one — he says they just think he is because he hangs out with them sometimes — but the streetworkers remain convinced he's a member. The gangs recruit at a young age, Amoure says.
The students tell him about another fight and another arrest today at Bridgham. Amoure is understandably upset. He asks when it happened. It was lunchtime — he was in a meeting then.
Even though they work at it every day, the Institute's streetworkers can't stop every fight.
Struggling for peace
The Institute traces its roots back to 2000, when the South Side murder of Jennifer Rivera moved members of St. Michael's Church to try to stop the violence in their neighborhood. By September of the next year, they had raised enough money to hire Teny Gross, now the Institute's executive director, part-time.
The streetworker program, one of five run by the Institute, started in 2003. Now there are 17 streetworkers in the city, and Gross says they're hiring three more soon.
As the Institute continues to grow, it plans to move to a new location in South Providence, a convent the Institute purchased from the city for $1. The new building will give the organization more space for the services it offers to kids: tutoring, performance space, yoga and access to computers.
Some of the streetworkers are former gang members, and some have been involved in murders. Kim fits both categories. He spent seven years of his life behind bars, convicted of manslaughter.
The streetworkers' goal is to be proactive, Kim says. Once a fight or a shooting actually happens, the work is that much harder.
So they try their best to stop fights before they break out, whether they hear about it ahead of time or physically step in to break things up.
But they also visit victims in the hospital, or talk to those involved in a fight afterward to calm things down. They stop by schools during the day to mediate conflicts between students referred by the principal or a counselor, and they go at dismissal time to watch out for any spontaneous trouble.
Today, Kim expects some.
"Today is a nice day, so most likely something will pop off," he says.
Still, he says, it's important to remember that not all the kids are bad — not even all the kids in gangs. Many of them feel that violence is the only way for them to survive, he says.
"It's a battle for them, all day, every day," Kim says.
First, they have to plan a route to school that won't get them jumped — and once they're at school, they have a new set of dangers to watch out for. They're distracted by the threat of violence, he says — not to mention whatever situations they may face at home — and the teachers come down on them for acting unfocused.
But Kim has one advantage in talking to these troubled teens and pre-teens: He was once in their position himself, both as a Providence student and a gang member.
"They can never tell me that I don't know what they're going through," he says.
Born into violence
Kim has been surrounded by violence since he was in the womb. His mother fled violence in Cambodia in the 1970s, and he was born in a refugee camp. After he came to the United States in 1979, he was "robbed, abused, jumped, beat" by people of all races, he says.
"That's when I started thinking I have to be violent," he says.
He was recruited to PSB, the Providence Street Boys, as a middle schooler at Bridgham. It's an age and an environment when students are susceptible to the idea of joining a gang, he says — when kids are "lost" and trying to decide what group they want to run with.
"That's when you feel like you always have to prove yourself," he says.
He got a reputation as "a bully's bully," he says, turning the bullied into gangsters who could fight back.
But in the end, it wasn't gang-related violence that landed Kim in prison. At 17, he shot the man who raped his sister and was sentenced to prison for 30 years, 20 of which were suspended.
In prison, Kim says, "I found myself."
Though he found out about the Institute after getting out of prison, it took a while before he signed up. Gross, the Institute's director, says he visited him at his auto parts shop to recruit him.
The Institute was having trouble reaching Asian gangs, and Gross had heard of Kim. He found an "introverted" man but a "strategic thinker," he said, the kind he could use on the streets. And he was a hard worker.
"He takes his work very, very seriously, almost to the risk of his own health," Gross says.
In fact, Kim was hospitalized last year after he was stabbed and beaten when he tried to break up a fight at a nightclub, not during his work hours, according to the Providence Journal.
Kim says he can now turn his past experience into a positive thing. Gross calls it a "human capital environmental movement" — recycling people.
"I don't want anybody else to go through what I went through," Kim says.
Against the odds
Now, on a daily basis, Kim finds himself coming into a war. One in which, he notes with understanding, it's always the other side's fault.
The streetworkers aren't just fighting against gangs, Amoure says — they're also fighting against a culture of violence in movies, on TV, in the newspapers.
Two years ago, Kim was working with three students to help them get their GEDs and find jobs. He was following up with them, working to get them something to hold on to so they didn't need to resort to violence.
Then one day he was called to the hospital. The three students had killed somebody, beaten him with a pipe, after they were jumped by cars full of gang members.
Kim has more stories. On the way to Gilbert Stuart Middle School, he points out the spot where his friend was murdered, walking from his house to a corner store on the same block.
"You know these kids — now they're doing life," he says. "You know these kids — now they're dead."
Still, Kim says he thinks he can make an impact, even if it's hard to notice a lack of violence.
"We don't know what we've prevented," he says.
But there are success stories. One involves a student from Kim's alma mater, Bridgham. Kim convinced him to leave the gang he was in. But when the student was "jumped out" by the other gang members, a fight that is part of the process of leaving, he was reported by a teacher. Kim was able to explain the situation to the teacher and principal, and now the student is studying at the University of Rhode Island.
Kim is on call 24/7 and works at least five days a week to stay in the loop with Providence's youth. He drives slowly past Classical High School, nearby Central High and the new Career and Technical Institute. Crowds of students are talking, joking, waiting for buses. A police officer is parked nearby, and though Kim recognizes her, he says he won't call out. He would lose the trust, the reputation he has worked to create with the students.
If the students thought the st
reetworkers were working with police, "we might as well shut the program down," he says.
There are no signs of disturbances as Amoure jumps out of the car to check up with a student he knows. Kim's prediction that the nice weather would lead to fights has, at least so far, not come true.
"Any boring day is a good day," he says.