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A hearty salute to all our street outreach workers

 The definition of a first responder is a person whose job entails being the first on the scene of an emergency, such as a firefighter, policeman, emergency medical technician (EMT).

There is, though, another first responder we don’t readily think of: the street outreach worker. They are first responders to the daily emergencies of gang violence in our streets and to the shootings and stabbings that so often involve the youth in our cities where death happens one at a time and not in terrible bunches like at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.  

But the cumulative numbers who die, and the heart-break that accompanies their demise, is a huge issue, fueled as they are by lack of opportunity at school, at home, or for getting a job. For all that, there is one great area of opportunity for these young people: getting a gun.

When a shooting or stabbing happens and a youth goes to the hospital, a second stage of trauma is treated by street outreach workers. They engage with the victim and his family to reach the victim’s gang associates who are quick to plan revenge violence as a response to what has happened. This leads to intensive efforts by workers to visit these associates to try to dissuade them from retaliation while at the same time coordinating with law enforcement on where their presence would be of the most help.

Teny Gros runs one of the model street outreach worker programs in the nation in Providence. It’s aptly called the Institute for Non Violence, but it’s not about academic study; it’s about a street outreach workers program in the neighborhoods, schools, prisons, and, when needed, at the hospitals. In reflecting on the part of their work that happens at hospitals after shootings, Gros said that “the doctors and nurses operate in this sterile environment to heal people while we operate in the unsterile, contaminated environment of streets where violence and despair are too prevalent.”

In Massachusetts, there are street outreach workers programs in Boston, Lynn, Salem, Lowell, Lawrence, Brockton, New Bedford, Fall River, Worcester, Springfield, and Holyoke. Most are small initiatives. Their state funding comes from the Safe and Successful Youth Initiative and the Shannon Anti-Gang Violence Grant Program, which in recent years has seen budget cuts on the order of 50 percent to 60 percent. Unless the state can come up with additional tax revenues, these programs won’t be there, nor will their first responders.

As a community organizer over several decades, I’ve grown to greatly appreciate and understand the important role street outreach workers play in lessening violence and enabling youth to become productive citizens. I’ve learned from Emmett Folgert at Dorchester Youth Collaborative, Larry Mayes, who had worked at the Ten Point Coalition, and Gregg Croteau at United Teen Equality Center.

To prevent youth violence, we need better educational outcomes, more youth jobs, more teen programs, and more law enforcement presence. But street outreach workers are the oil that makes such initiatives work better as they look to form trusting relationships with proven risk youth. It’s all about increasing the number of caring adults in the lives of our young people and then connecting them to steps forward like returning to school or a GED program or getting a job.

Recently 130 of these unheralded first responders, these street outreach workers from across New England, gathered for a day of reflection and reckoning.  Conan Harris, of the street outreach worker program entitled SafeStreets Boston, said, “this is rewarding work, but can I deal with my heart being broken? This is a painful job. I still have the voices on my answering machine of youth who were killed. I won’t let them go.” Harris is one of the hope-givers for our most at risk youth.

He and all our first responders need our appreciation, our respect, and our support through our taxes as the serve all of us every day.

Lew Finfer is a Dorchester resident.