Rival Boston gangs unified by peace circle work

Sep 11, 2021

As a young Cambodian refugee, whose family had come apart after immigrating to Boston, Saroeum Phoung joined with other teens for protection from the racist gangs roaming the streets.  These kids had anger, PTSD and their families had abandoned them.  They fought the white gangs and robbed other Cambodians.

Phoung had created two gangs by the time he was in his late teens.   They banded together to protect themselves from skinheads and other racist groups.  The gang had replaced his family with a new camaraderie and structure.  A smart kid, he was good at running a gang.

Molly Baldwin, director of a city grant-supported group called “ROCA Chelsea” was asked by the mayor to start a second group in Phoung’s neighborhood. Recognizing that he was the natural leader, she began hounding him.  He graduated from high school two years late, but he did it, and Baldwin was there.

“Gangsters aren’t born.” “Gangsters are made.”

She asked him seriously if he wanted to die.  The question stunned him to tears. That question became the cornerstone of his work.  He realized that the only way to leverage kids out of gangs was to have an adult they trusted take the place of their missing parents.  He went to the streets to become a mentor, getting to know the leaders and eventually coaxing the “influencers” to meet before the often violent Cambodian New Year’s Day celebration.

The six gangsters met in what Phoung calls a “Security Meeting”, asked to set aside their gang colors and become security guards at the event.  The leaders, accepting the responsibility, helped the neighborhood celebration stay safe and successful.

It sounds simple, but it took many days and sometimes years of work for Phoung to coax individuals away from violence.  One person at a time.  It was the beginning of his new life’s work of bringing trust and peace to organizations small and large.

He describes a three-prong fundamental approach to organizational cultural transformation:

  • Relationships and Trust
  • Leadership and Mentorship
  • Aspiration for a Common Cause

“In 2000,” he says, “we brought all the decision makers and influencers and sat them in a circle.  In 6 hours we made major change, stopping conflict on a grand scale.  This was a long-standing conflicted routed in the community for 25 years representing 7 major districts which represents millions of people.  Nobody believed we could stop the violence in the community, but we ended it all.  We did this by defining respect and building trust amongst the gang leaders.”

This is a real-world example that demonstrates demonstrates that any organization can be changed on grand scale.  There are thousands of people participating in a ‘conflict’ way of life.

Conflict doesn’t have to be the thing that destroys, separates, and divides us.  Instead, conflict, tensions and violence can be the very things that bring us together to heal traumas in ways that promote healing, betterment, trust, and community.

Source: The Boston Phoenix, July 6-13, 2000 by Lisa Birk