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Boston's Newest Street Workers Have Old Cred

In fading light at a Mattapan playground near the intersection of Norfolk Street and Blue Hill Avenue, 20 street workers circle up for a prayer.

"Lord, we trust Lord that you will bless us from the top of our head to the soles of our feet. Lord that when we open our mouths to open our mouths to speak to the youth we'll speak life into them, O Lord."

They don’t look or act like social workers or ministers. Some have scars and you sense the hard edges of ex-cons. They laugh and joke, but can quickly shift to somber intensity. They’re dressed in Timberland boots and team jackets. Like pro athletes who’ve hit their late 30s, they’ve been in the game — and they look it now that they’re out.

Gang violence continues to plague some neighborhoods of Boston. Half of the homicide victims this year were younger than 25 years old. Eleven were teenagers.

In an effort to reach out to gang members, the Boston Foundation has created a new type of "street workers" program — sending 20 former gang members out to discourage violence.

Rusti Pendleton greets everyone with a smile and a handshake. Like the rest of his crew, he doesn’t run, he walks. It's his territory.

"Our community is aware of all of us and the reputation we hold," Pendleton says. "Now we're on the other side of the fence."

On the streets, the young players call Pendleton OG, as in old gangster. He’s 43, and he and his fellow street workers make up an unusual kind of Delta Force. While the city of Boston puts its own street workers through criminal background checks known as CORI, this program, called Street Safe, has deliberately chosen street workers because they were once criminals.

"We went and got the best of the best. Didn’t let CORI hold us back," says Street Safe director Robert Lewis. "So they came in with street cred, they came in with big reputations, they came in as independent cowboys."

The Boston Foundation created this program as part of a new effort to push crime in Boston down to the level of 10 years ago. Recent statistics show a 20 percent decline in homicides in Boston, compared to a year ago. That's not even close to what it was a decade ago.

To pull a kid off the streets, the street workers need to offer him practical assistance, such as school or jobs. Street Safe street workers have become social service workers. They are trained in something called motivational interviewing.

The new street cred of these old gangsters is that they are solid citizens now, with families and honest jobs. They’re hoping to get gang-bangers to think: “If that old gangster can change, maybe I can, too."

But a street worker from the 1990s — when the murder rate in Boston plummeted from 152 to only 31 — has a warning about short-term success.

"We performed some amazing work, but at the end of the day, you need an army," Teny Gross says. "And that army never showed up,"

"We shot down the quarterback of violence, but education hasn’t gotten better," he says. "We haven’t hired more kids. They are not more educated. We weren’t building any resilience to violence. And it erupted on us again."

This program aired on November 27, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

David Boeri Twitter Senior Reporter
Now retired, David Boeri was a senior reporter at WBUR.

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