While the races for governor and mayor capture public attention, crucial changes are brewing in Providence City Council: For the first time in history, the governing body is poised to hold a female majority. Three women are set to take over seats previously held by men: Katherine Kerwin for Ward 12, Rachel Miller for Ward 13, and Helen Anthony for Ward 2. In addition to current members Nirva LaFortune, Carmen Castillo, Sabina Matos, Jo-Ann Ryan, and Mary Kay Harris, the face of local government is changing – and likely a lot more than just that.
Since the presidential election in 2016, Providence and cities all over the US have seen a surge in women-led marches and rallies; in 2017, these protests drew crowds of over three million, according to numbers compiled by The Washington Post. This year, across the country, a record number of women are running for office – and winning: Currently, 528 are running or planning to run for House or Senate, and 257 have already advanced in primaries. By comparison, in 2016, only 312 women had filed to run, and only 182 advanced.
Rhode Island is joining the ripple effect.
“This is something that, as a city, we should be really proud of,” says Kerwin. The 21-year-old recently returned to her home city after graduating from University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she was a grassroots organizer for issues like gun violence and student power. She will replace incumbent Terrence Hassett after he failed to qualify for the ballot; she will also be the youngest member of Council. “We’re a city that wants to see progress, that wants to lift up the voices that haven’t always been heard.”
Those voices extend beyond just those of women. The new council will be a diverse group in multiple ways, with new members like Kerwin bringing in the perspective of students and young millennials and Miller representing the LGBTQ community as the first openly queer electee.
“For me and for so many others, the national political landscape of the last few years has weighed heavily, in a personal way,” says Miller. “For people of color, for women, for immigrants and refugees, for members of the LGBTQ community – the policy and dialogue coming out of Washington is personal – it’s a statement against who we are fundamentally, and it has had devastating repercussions.” However, she adds, it is also an opportunity: “There’s work we can do here in our city and neighborhoods that we love, work that we can fully participate in and have an impact on. That’s how the new make-up of the council fits into a broad political movement – many of us are taking on roles that we may not have considered previously because we are called by this political moment to both service and action.”
This kind of action-taking in Providence has been building over recent years with movements like Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March, and most recently, the campaign for the Community Safety Act, which have all seen an outpouring of local participation and support. The shifting balance in the Council is proof of the city’s desire and willingness for change.
“Women have been making a lot of noise recently, and I think that is a statement of our discontent about the current state of our politics and the lack of movement on equity for women and many other groups,” muses LaFortune, a single parent and formerly undocumented immigrant who has been representing Ward 3 since winning last year’s special election to replace Councilman Kevin Jackson. “Women are making it clear that we are no longer going to be silent.” She describes the majority-female City Council as the arrival of a wave, with much more to follow.
Council President David Salvatore agrees that this new female majority is momentous: “It’s an exciting time for Providence. I think any time women are empowered and put in positions of leadership, it sends a strong message to the city and state at large.”
Council members – including Salvatore – are particularly optimistic for what this shift might mean in terms of Council’s agenda. “It’s an opportunity to build on the momentum that’s already been started,” says Salvatore, who helped establish an Equal Pay Task Force in addition to passing an ordinance forbidding companies from asking potential job candidates for their past pay history. He believes that a majority women-led council will advocate for these kinds of important issues.
“Women think about things differently,” Kerwin explains. “We think about issues for all people, but that women are committed to fight for and on.”
Anthony, who has previous experience serving on city councils full of “good ol’ boys,” feels similarly. “Women in general have different skill sets, including the ability to effectively communicate and to build consensus,” she says. “I think we’ll be able to get more done by putting aside politics as usual and work more collaboratively.”
A major indicator of this collaboration came from the private meeting between the councilwomen, organized by LaFortune in September, to form a coalition and discuss priorities for the city.
Miller shares specific hopes for the docket change, including affordable housing, education, and questions of transparency and equity. The latter issues came to a head when City Council voted down an ordinance that required government officials under indictment to resign from leadership positions. “We’ll expand the possibilities of what can happen when women and men work together shoulder-to-shoulder to represent our neighborhoods and to find new solutions to long-standing problems.”
While all of the women seem excited to be members of a history-making council, they are also equally aware of the progress yet to be made. LaFortune explains the double-edged sword of being the “first” of many categories in council, much like this new “first” majority: “[It] only shows how much more work we need to do to have a government that truly reflects the people.”
However, the women on the council, current and incoming, passionately share their advice to women, and any underrepresented individual in politics.
“Start with your hands, with what they’re itching to do, and connect with others who have that same fire in their belly,” Miller encourages. “So that in your actions, whether it’s showing up at a hearing on an issue you care about… or running for office yourself, you’re bringing your community into it and you’re building lasting relationships along the way that can transform the impact of one action into long-term change.”
“Be outspoken and unforgiving in your beliefs, and really call out when there is a call-out deserved… That’s the only way to see change,” adds Kerwin.
From LaFortune: “Do not wait for permission or an invitation... The change we want to see has to start and finish with us.”
With a group of eight strong women at its helm, Providence City Council is sure to implement changes the capital can be proud of.
Says Anthony: “It’s the year of the woman, and we are here to roll up our sleeves and make this city the best it can be.”