The Boston Phoenix
July 6 - 13, 2000


The gang star, continued

by Lisa Birk

That question is now a cornerstone of Phoung's work. Roca's mission is based on an extraordinary premise: that the failure of relationships with important adults -- parents, mainly -- is what makes kids vulnerable to gangs. Therefore, the only way to leverage kids out of gangs is to help them build a successful relationship with another adult.

The "other adult," as Roca defines it, is not a teacher, not a sibling, not a friend, and not exactly a parent, but he's reliably a pain in the ass. This is not the DARE policeman's lecturing-from-the-auditorium-stage model, or even the DSS social worker's drop-by-once-a-week model. It's a 24/7 commitment to a "conversation" that can last years.

"Streetwork is more than just, Hi, how ya doin'?" says Phoung. "What we ask is, Do you want to live or die? Most gang members say, 'I don't think I'm going to live past 18.' Talk to drug dealer or drug users, same thing. So they don't give a damn about life. So we bring it back. Do you want to live or do you want to die? Most people say, 'I wanna live. Who the hell wanna die?'

"So we say, 'Well, if you want to live, having a gun in your house, or being in a gang, that's not the best way to live.' "

Often it takes a year of conversations to pose the question. Then there are years more. Still, the kid may not leave the gang.

"I keep track of all the conversations. Someone says, 'Fuck you, Saroeum.' All right. Fuck you. You don't want to see me. So I will leave them alone. But we always go back. I'll say, 'Last night you looked pretty fucked up. What was going on with you?'

"People say, Why does he keep coming back? Why is he paying attention to me? Nobody respects them. No one gives them love or compassion. We try to bridge that gap."

It takes a long bridge and a strong back to span that gap. "People on the street are so resistant to change, so resistant to hope," says Phoung. "You have to literally pull them out. Molly pulled me out."

These days, when Phoung walks down Shirley Avenue, a nine-block street lined with one- and two-story mom-and-pops, mothers with strollers greet him in Khmer. Shopkeepers nod, and kids vie for his attention. He is a one-man institution in a community where for years there were no institutions.

In many ways Roca is mulching the ground, making it possible for Revere Cambodians to put down roots. To transplant Cambodian New Year's to American soil is to triumph, a quarter-century later, over the Khmer Rouge. It is a symbolic restoration of a people's religion, history, culture, and community. Here in Revere, it is no longer year zero, but 2547: year of the dragon.

Already Phoung has decided that Roca will not be sponsoring trips to Lowell's New Year's celebration. He won't say why, but he will say he won't be responsible for anyone's safety there. As a result, dozens of Revere kids will not go to Lowell. For those young people, Phoung is the "other adult." Around the neighborhood, he is father, employment agency, welfare relief, teacher. A landscaper comes seeking workers. The census holds training sessions at Roca. Homeless men routinely drop in to pick up cans from Roca's recycling bin. Kids come for basketball, AIDS/HIV education, pregnancy prevention, and dinner.

Phoung loves it.

But being the "other adult" for dozens of kids is draining. Phoung works from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Friday -- on ordinary days. And parenting at-risk kids means siphoning energy from his own two boys, aged four and eight. Most days his wife, Elizabeth, a Cambodian refugee herself and a worker at Roca Chelsea, brings the boys by at 5 p.m., and they eat dinner and play at Roca Revere until bedtime.

Phoung left Roca just once in eight years. Burnt out, wondering whether he or anyone made a difference, he left in 1994 to go to college.

Two years later, one of Roca's young men was murdered by another Cambodian. Within hours of Vannaroth Ouk's murder, Phoung was fielding frantic phone calls. All the talk up and down Shirley Avenue was of revenge. People were going to die that night and tomorrow and the next day. Would Phoung please come back, asked Molly -- just as a volunteer.

Secretly Phoung wondered: if he had still been at Roca, would Ouk have died?

So Phoung went back to the streets of Revere. He knocked on doors. He walked the sidewalks and the basketball key, approaching angry knots of young men, and always he asked: "Before you go getting revenge and killing some more people, how you going to pay for this man's funeral?"

To pay for the funeral, he worked them hard. They held car washes. They played three-on-three: whichever team lost put $10 in the can. Four days later, they had raised $5000, enough to bury the young man and give the grieving family a few dollars. Gang warfare never erupted. That was the last gang murder in the Shirley Avenue area. Three weeks later Phoung gave up college, and returned to Roca full-time.

Today, Shirley Avenue is a different place. The basketball court on the corner of Shirley and Walnut -- where Phoung hung as a gangster, where Ouk was murdered -- is gone now. Roca, with the city council's approval, replaced the court with a playground. Gangsters built it.

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Lisa Birk's last article for the Phoenix was on the weird, weird world of home shopping. She can be reached at