Even if you hadn’t been to Benny’s in months, the news that it was closing couldn’t help but seem like a sign of the changing times – another nail in the coffin of retail, and, for many, yet another cornerstone of modern civilization that millennials, that reviled generation born between 1979 and 2000, had callously destroyed.
Aiyah Josiah-Faeduwor was ready for the tidal wave of millennial blame. After a news story ran in the Providence Journal explaining that millennials were “divided” on whether to self-flagellate over their role in the Benny’s closure, Aiyah wrote an op-ed for the same publication, pointing to millennials’ “higher debt levels and smaller incomes” than the generations that came before them. “We’re earning 20 percent less than our parents did at our age,” he wrote. “Yet we’re expected to save more industries than we allegedly ‘kill’?”
But he didn’t dwell on the negatives. Aiyah went on to detail how Rhode Island businesses could better engage millennials, including by focusing on socially responsible products and customer experience. “The op-ed response was one of many I considered,” Aiyah explains. “And I think it was the most productive.”
Aiyah wasn’t an accidental recruit into overtime work as the voice of his generation. He is the executive director of the 200-member group Millennial Rhode Island, a position he’s held since last summer in addition to his full-time job at the state’s Department of Labor and Training. A group run by and for millennials, its first and foremost goal, Aiyah says, is to reverse the brain drain.
The organization started in early 2015, with its founders at first intending to start a group for Latinx millennials. They ultimately decided to expand the target group to include all self-described millennials, and the Millennial Professional Group of RI was born. The group was renamed Millennial RI this year in recognition, Aiyah says, of the fact that not every member considers him or herself a professional.
“We had folks showing up who were artists, devout religious individuals coming on the basis of their faith, folks from all types of circles,” Aiyah says of the group’s events. “We started to really say, ‘This is something we should embrace.’”
Aiyah came to Providence from Boston for undergrad at Brown, and during his sophomore year was introduced to Victor Capellan, then deputy superintendent of Central Falls School District. Capellan’s advice to a young student interested in but unfamiliar with the city and its politics: come off College Hill. Capellan introduced Aiyah to then-mayor Angel Taveras, Congressman Cicilline and other elected officials. Aiyah realized, he says, that “this is a place where you can meet and talk to very powerful and influential individuals” – and “as someone who was looking at the policy and politics route, it just made a lot of sense.” He chose to stay in Rhode Island, working in the education and nonprofit sectors. In 2015, he was a founding board member of Millennial RI.
The group spent its first couple of years focusing more on social programming and networking events, throwing happy hours around the city and a “fly sweater party” for the holidays. This year, along with the group’s renaming and Aiyah’s induction as executive director, the group’s focus has pivoted toward fostering relationships with the local business community and building the skills of its membership.
Along with Aiyah’s op-ed, which pushed for ways that businesses could partner with millennials (rather than being killed by them), the group has been working to develop business partnerships designed around discounts and knowledge exchange. This includes partnerships with Social Enterprise Greenhouse (which offers discounts), Teach for America (which makes teachers available for consultation with members who are considering going into education) and Coastway Community Bank (which offers financial workshops and consulting). A membership card is also in the works that will offer discounts to millennials at businesses around the city. The card will “give our members something tangible so that they feel that they’re part of this young professional network and feel that we’re working for them,” says board member Christine DiBiase.
A judicial law clerk, Christine has been on the twelve-member board for just over a year and now serves as the chair of the fundraising committee. Born and raised in Rhode Island, she spent her college and law school years in Boston. “I didn’t know if I ever was going to come back,” she says. But “I realized how much opportunity there really is for Rhode Island,” professionally and culturally. Millennial RI’s mission “to keep young professionals in Rhode Island” inspired her to join the organization.
Over the next year, Christine hopes that the organization will grow into the role of “facilitator between young professionals in Rhode Island and government and businesses,” and as a “resource in every way, for jobs, for social events, people who just want to get out or who are moving here and want to meet people.”
This goal includes the group’s second focus – as Aiyah puts it, to “showcase and develop the millennials that we do have” (who have thus far avoided being drained). To this end the organization has been holding so-called Millennial Mondays – evening talks that double as skills training sessions for prime adult tasks: buying a house, building credit, writing op-eds.
Luis Olmo, a board member since April, was drawn to the group pragmatically, for the networking and skills-building opportunities. An accountant and lifelong Rhode Islander, Luis cofounded a nonprofit called Hungry Fridays, which prepares and distributes lunches to whoever wants them in Kennedy Plaza every Friday. He also serves on the board of the Cape Verdean Progressive Center in East Providence – a family tradition of membership dating back to his great grandfather. Millennial RI has helped to promote Hungry Fridays’ work – an important factor in his involvement, Luis says, given that the organization’s events hadn’t previously included community service. It also helps to show the community that millennials aren’t simply interested in “partying, drinking all the time,” he says.
As the group’s reach broadens, one of the challenges of its work will be to assess the needs of a generation that technically includes both teenagers and adults pushing 40. “We’re still figuring out what millennials want,” Aiyah admits. “A lot of what we even think is important to millennials, whether it’s brunch or being civically engaged, is based off our own networks, public perception and social media. Is this something we think millennials are into, or something we know our members are into?” Surveys conducted through social media and in person (not direct mail – that’s one thing they know all millennials hate) will ideally help with gathering more precise information.
Even as the organization changes to accommodate its members, the central goal has remained constant: reversing the brain drain. In addition to the group’s other projects, this work will include reaching out to current undergrads to remind them of what Rhode Island has to offer and why they should stick around. The group’s messaging has proven effective even for the people who are crafting it. “Through my engagement with Millennial RI,” Aiyah says, “I have found lots of reasons to be here.”