The Importance of Being Civilized

British historian Arnold Toynbee once wrote that civilization is a movement and not a condition. Sustaining it is an ongoing endeavor.

Israeli-born Teny Gross has acquired this piece of wisdom through hard experience. As a powerful advocate for nonviolence in the city of Providence, R.I., Gross struggles every day to make the city safe by starting with a basic goal: he encourages people to behave civilly toward one another.

He says we can never let up on that goal, as he learned firsthand as a youth worker on the streets of Boston in the 1990s. He met with gang members, churches, civic groups, business leaders, politicians and law enforcement officials to reduce spiraling violence in the city. He witnessed a transformation. As Toynbee might have said, it was a movement.

“For a moment in Boston, we really had people working as one,” Gross says. “It felt great. Everyone was working hard, and I rode home every night thinking, People are sleeping in Boston because of me.” He adds, “You need to feel almost messianic about it.”

It was a difficult state of affairs to sustain, Gross now realizes. Human nature creeps in when the crisis seems to subside. The work becomes professionalized, and those on the front lines are relegated to the sidelines. Organizations begin to fight for turf, publicity or grant funding.

The only way to prevent that type of backsliding, according to Gross, is to “obsessively care every day what happens in the city.”

Since 2001, Gross has been doing just that in Providence, where he is the executive director of the Institute for the Study & Practice of Nonviolence, a unique organization that teaches nonviolence and provides advocacy for at-risk communities. His most critical staffers are “streetworkers,” past offenders who are changing their lives by mentoring young people who seem destined for gang life or worse.

At the Institute, Gross’ staff brings rival gang members, offenders and victims under one roof, engaging in a delicate sort of diplomacy to keep them talking to one another, politely. In a society that relies so heavily on punishment as a deterrent to crime, he insists instead on the importance of treating people decently.

“We need more civilized behavior,” he says. “Many sectors fail to provide a civilized example.

The way some athletes, politicians, business leaders, cops and teachers talk today is amazing. Whether in public service or private business, many of us have a sense of entitlement. How then can we expect our kids to be polite, have a sense of direction? We have to make it cool to be civilized.”

To garner outside support for the Institute, Gross often makes a more practical appeal. He presents business people and politicians with a simple business model: punishment is inefficient and costly. “It’s a contradiction to self-interest,” he says. The easy response to crime is to lock up the troublemakers, but preventing crimes and rehabilitating offenders— what Gross refers to as “recycling human capital”—saves millions of dollars.

The institute’s strategies for nonviolence also include target marketing. When 0.3 percent of the population commits 75 percent of the violence, good business practices call for focusing on that 0.3 percent. The Institute does this with its nonviolence trainers, streetworkers, victim advocates, employment and community advocates, who assume an “intense customer service attitude” toward their client base of at-risk youth. Their aim is to be consistent, reliable, and supportive of potential and former offenders, their families, and their victims.

“You don’t get what you want by forcing your will,” he says. “You cannot talk about kindness. It's got to be demonstrated every day, all the time.”

Streetworkers often put themselves in dangerous situations as part of their commitment to a younger generation trapped in a cycle of violence. They demonstrate their support by showing up in homes, hospitals and court rooms. But sometimes, Gross says, they do their work by walking young people through a more civilized world.

“I take gang members to bookstores. I tell them, ‘I want to show you my crack cocaine. Books are my addiction. Knowledge can be a passion.’ They love the exposure, love the attention. We really try to show them the world is wider. It is our duty as adults. The previous generations showed it to us.”

Occasionally, Gross finds that sustaining a civilized world comes down to “the little gestures,” like a quick text message sent on the spur of the moment as he heads home from work: “Guys, be safe tonight. ”