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Team Spotlight: Fran Irizarry

For me, nonviolence is no verbal abuse, no physical abuse, no mental abuse. None of that. Just trying to put your best foot forward. I’m a firm believer that you get out what you put out.

How did you start working at the Nonviolence Institute?

When I was younger I was getting in trouble. The outreach workers I knew were Lisa, Bub, and AJ and I knew them from the neighborhood. I ended up in trouble when I was seventeen. I got arrested for a home invasion. I still was technically a juvenile so I went to a trainer school. I received a certification, which means I received adult charges, but I stayed in the juvenile system until I aged out. I just had to get all the certificates and awards and whatever I could so I could say I was rehabilitated and they could let me go home. So while I was doing that, I ended up getting my GED, some college credits, took a OSHA class, barbered, and I ended up taking a nonviolence workshop. I was just taking the class to get more accolades so I could get out of jail but once I started to take the class I was like ‘Oh, this might actually work - I understand this.’

Did you get involved with the Institute right after that first workshop?

I’m 28 now, I started at the Institute when I was 26, and I took my first nonviolence workshop when I was 17. It’s just about planting the seed. I always remembered the nonviolence workshop, even when I was going to jail, but one day it finally clicked.

It’s funny now how, years later, we have the SEED program. I ended up getting out [of jail], was out for a year and half, went back in, was out for a year and a half, went back in again. Around that time, I had my daughter and I knew something had to change. I started to feel like something was missing. I wanted to give back. I wanted to do something and feel good about it.

Was there something in your first nonviolence workshop that stuck with you, that made you think there might be something more to nonviolence?

When you're going in and out of jail, you have nothing but time to sit back and wonder. Obviously I was doing crime, but a lot of that factored into my environment. I didn’t believe I was a criminal. I believed I was doing what I know, with the tools that I had.

[Back in the day] I was more of a reactor. I had to learn in life that you’re not going to get along with everyone. Nonviolence gave me the tools to learn. Now I know that it's not worth going overboard over every [little] thing.

What was the pivotal moment for you that made you want to change?

Growing up, my Dad was constantly getting deported. [That meant] when the bully comes, I had no one to run to. That [absence] programmed me to be hard. I learned [through nonviolence] that [being hard] is not the way and most of the time [when people are violent] they just don’t have the knowledge. They don’t understand that everything isn’t worth throwing away.

When I had my daughter, I was thinking I couldn’t do to my daughter what my Dad did to me. I didn’t believe I was a criminal. I was only doing what I knew at the time. I was fortunate enough to meet the right people. Now, I’m an outreach worker.

What do you find the most rewarding thing about your job?

The kids – seeing them happy. Because there’s a lot of dark things about the job, but seeing the kids happy makes it worth it. Like I said, I’m from the inner city, born and raised in Providence, been to jail, my Dad has been deported my whole life, I’ve lost friends, I’ve done things, I’ve been a victim of violence, I’ve gone through it all. To see the kids, and you look at them, and you think ‘they haven’t gone through anything, they’re just knuckleheads,’ but then on day four or five of the SEED program they start opening up and you’re like, ‘Oh shoot, you don’t know what they’re going through until they say it.'

What were the two most important things that helped you?

I got myself around good people that wanted to see me do good, that won’t put you in bad situations or let you start dappling in stuff that you shouldn't be dappling in.

What do you tell kids who might not be interested in nonviolence?

Celebrities and social media are raising kids and if you look at the stuff they’re putting out there's not much positive. The reality shows they’re watching are nothing but trash talking, fighting, drinking, smoking, and just chaos. None of that is reality. Even with music, the artists aren’t really doing that themself – the labels are just paying them to make that type of music.

There should be people out there to tell these kids what actually matters and what will help them in life. As far as being a young man, biracial in America without a father to lean on, it's tough. There’s a million kids in this community right now going through that. Even worse, some of them might not have any parents that care about them at all. So when you have that, it’s easy to fall into gangs, to fall into violence.

For the most part, [these kids] are just looking for love.

What does nonviolence mean to you now?

For me nonviolence is no verbal, no physical, no mental abuse. None of that. Just trying to put your best foot forward. I’m a firm believer that you get out what you put out.

It comes down to the mental tools you have. What you’re equipped with and your environment. A lot of people aren’t selling drugs because they want to sell drugs, they’re not fighting people because they really want to.

I had to bump my head a few times [before I understood the value of nonviolence]. We all are going to have to experience trials and tribulations. My whole life I had my mother, cousins, uncles, aunts, and friends telling me don’t do this or don’t do that. When I’m sitting in that cell on that bunk, I’m thinking this all could’ve been prevented, had I listened. My mom told me forever that my friends weren't my friends.

I tell the kids – I know you’re not listening to me because I didn’t listen, but I hope you do and if you don’t and something bad happens I hope you think back and remember we’ll always be here for you with open arms.

What’s the most inspiring part of your job?

Honestly what inspires me about the job is that no matter what is going on with the outside world, the brand of the Institute is always welcoming and loving. Once you come through those door, it’s warming in here. This is a safe place and when kids come here they don’t have to worry about the stuff going on out there and they know they’re in good hands and they’re with people who care about them.

What do you think of the phrase: We are all victims of violence and we are all perpetrators of violence?

I don’t think anyone is a bad person, they’re just in bad situations. A lot of this problem, [the problem of violence] is systemic.

Thank you for all you do, Fran!

Additionally, if you'd like to refer a student to our SEED program, a nonviolence-focused job training program with a stipend available for Providence residents, learn more here.

Funding for the SEED program is being provided by the ARPA City of Providence Anti-Violence Investment.

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