Providing a Safe Haven from Gang Violence for Immigrant Youth in Lowell, Mass.

    • October 16, 2015

Originally posted: March 20, 2015
Last updated: October 16, 2015

Position at time of the award: Executive director, United Teen Equality Center; Lowell, Mass.

Current position: Same as above

In 2006, RWJF named Gregg Croteau, MSW, LCSW, an RWJF Community Health Leader in recognition of his work with United Teen Equality Center (UTEC), an organization run by and for young people that provides immigrant youth in Lowell, Mass., a safe haven and an alternative to gang involvement.

Through its Streetworker Team, UTEC intervenes in gang conflicts, mediates specific disputes between rival gangs, and coordinates peace summits.

The problem. Gang violence is a critical issue in Lowell, a city of some 100,000 people 35 miles northwest of Boston. In 2002, there were 16 shootings in one five-month period and 12 gang murders. An estimated 1,500 to 2,000 young people are involved in the 25 to 30 active gangs in the city, with the highest incidence of gang violence being between immigrant Latino and Southeast Asian—mostly Cambodian—youth.

Gang violence is rooted in an array of complex forces that threaten the well-being of immigrant youth, including poverty, low educational levels, unemployment, poor health, and linguistic isolation.

Cambodian youth face an additional challenge, as many have mental health problems associated with their parents’ continued post-genocide stress resulting from the Khmer Rouge rule of Cambodia during the mid-1970s. Because of the cultural stigma associated with receiving mental health care, few seek help unless there is a severe crisis.

From the Boston area to Asia and back. Born and raised in the Boston suburb of Revere, Mass., Gregg Croteau knew early on that he wanted to be a social worker. Right after high school, he got a summer job in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston counseling high-school-age youth on work readiness. “It just felt right,” he says. “I could be myself and be learning every day.”

At Wesleyan University, Croteau studied Japanese “just for the challenge of it,” knowing that he would probably find little use for it as a social worker in America. He then got a scholarship to study abroad in Vietnam, where he learned a language spoken by Boston’s large immigrant Vietnamese community.

After finishing the master of social work program at the University of Michigan, Croteau returned to Vietnam to teach pre-modern Vietnamese history to American students in Hanoi.

The UTEC startup and a boost from RWJF. After returning to the States in 2000, Croteau interviewed—with a group of young people—for the executive director job at UTEC. The previous year, Lowell’s youth had finally convinced the city to fund a teen center downtown in the neutral zone between gang turfs. Croteau became UTEC’s first full-time employee. “We had $40,000 from the city, a bunch of ideas, and probably enough funding for six more months,” Croteau recalls.

In 2003, UTEC secured a grant through the RWJF Local Funding Partnerships national program (see the Special Report), after what had to be one of the most unusual application extensions the Foundation has ever given: There had been a shooting in the neighborhood and the UTEC offices were enclosed in yellow police tape. Its workers couldn’t leave to mail in the paperwork and Fedex couldn’t come in to get it.

The $460,000 grant—the most significant investment in the organization up to that point—enabled UTEC to hire two outreach “streetworkers” to work with members of seven of the most active Southeast Asian youth gangs in Lowell. They mediated conflicts between gangs, sponsored events and activities to promote peace, and coordinated with the police and other partners to prevent gang violence.

During the time of the project, from July 2003 through June 2007, the streetworkers helped mediate more than 300 conflicts between gangs and resolved more than 90 percent of them. UTEC held six “peace summits” in which rival gang members signed peace treaties. Some 118 teenagers received mental health counseling, 66 received primary care services, and 78 enrolled in health insurance.

Keys to streetworkers’ successful interventions, Croteau says, are meeting teens “where they are,” connecting them with community services, using every crisis as an opportunity, and intensive follow-up, including home visits, nightly phone calls, and visits to other support people in their lives.

Ricky’s story. Testifying before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in June 2007 on the proposed Gang Abatement and Prevention Act, Croteau spared few words in describing one victim of Lowell’s mean streets.

Ricky, who had spent many years in foster homes but had rejoined his biological family, got involved in a gang called the Moon Light Strangers at age 12. Soon, the gang became his whole life, “the only place where he felt as though he wasn’t questioned, yelled at, or treated with disrespect,” Croteau said in his testimony.

Ricky joined fights against rival gang members, “living in fear, creating new enemies every day.” One day, after school, he found himself in another fight but this one was broken up by a UTEC streetworker, who befriended him, got him to come by the group’s headquarters, and gradually convinced him to leave the gang.

But what Ricky thought would be a departure ritual turned into a horrific beating by fellow gang members. “They dropped him off at the hospital when they thought they heard his neck crack,” Croteau testified, “and he lay in a coma for 10 days.”

UTEC staff members, hearing about the incident, rushed to the hospital to comfort him.

Ricky spent the next three years recuperating from his injuries. UTEC found him employment and got him working for his GED. Today, Ricky often speaks at conferences and events “in the hope of reaching out to parents, police officers, and other youth so that they can best understand how to support teens who may be going through similar issues with gang involvement,” Croteau told the committee.

“He has become a leader for peace by transforming a horrific tragedy into a powerful story of change,” said Croteau.

Becoming a Community Health Leader. Being named an RWJF Community Health Leader in 2006 was “a tremendous gift,” Croteau says. “It meant being a part of a larger network of community health leaders, forming new friendships across the country, and gaining new perspectives on different angles of the work.”

Croteau put the $20,000 personal portion of the award toward a house in Lowell. It was the first house he ever owned and meant he no longer had to commute 40 minutes each way to and from Revere. He used the rest of the award, $105,000, to add personnel in the development and administration areas of UTEC.

The next steps. In the years since receiving the RWJF Community Health Leader Award, “the model has just evolved,” Croteau says. Since 2010, UTEC has been focusing more intensively on young people who already have a history of serious criminal involvement. “You could call them ‘opportunity youth,’” Croteau says, “who have the greatest possible return on investment.”

“The work behind the walls has been a big step forward for us. We’re working with people six months in advance, before they come back into the community,” said Croteau.

Almost all of these youths have no job, no high school diploma or GED and, seemingly, no future prospects. UTEC has formed partnerships with local correctional facilities and “the work behind the walls has been a big step forward for us,” Croteau says. “We’re working with people six months in advance, before they come back into the community.”

These young people are then involved with UTEC for about two and a half years and many work in businesses the agency has started, including food services, a café, and furniture-making shop. One of the programs, mattress recycling, is offered with the help of another RWJF grantee, the St. Vincent de Paul Society. These opportunities to work and create provide young people with a valuable asset: hope.

As Croteau noted in his testimony before the Senate committee, “Not all youth who are gang-involved are doomed to one similar path. Youth who are in gangs also have the capacity to create change, not only in their own lives but in the life of their community. We do know that intervention and prevention strategies can provide the hope that some young people have lost sight of.”

Postscript. In March 2015, Croteau was appointed to the Massachusetts Governor’s Task Force on Economic Opportunity for Populations Facing Chronically High Rates of Unemployment.

RWJF perspective. The Foundation recognized the first 10 RWJF Community Health Leaders in 1993—unsung and inspiring individuals who work in their communities, often among the most disenfranchised populations, to address some of the nation’s most intractable health care problems. The last round of leaders was chosen in the fall of 2012. The program closed at the end of 2014. For more information on the program see the Special Report.