Progressing Providence: Racial Justice in the City

Organizations reflect on the fight for racial justice in funding, education, and neighborhoods

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“This reminds me of the ‘60s,” begins Ray Rickman as he reflects on 2020, comparing it to the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. Rickman, a seasoned activist with a history rooted in local politics, runs Stages of Freedom – a nonprofit organization and museum dedicated to promoting African American history – alongside co-founder Robb Dimmick. What Rickman says rings true; this year has been fraught with civil unrest. Stories of discrimination, police brutality, and the subsequent protests and riots in response have permeated the American psyche. But this isn’t just a hot topic emerging for one very unconventional year; it’s an ongoing battle that started long before George Floyd’s death made headlines in May.

“We’ve been doing our work for close to 40 years, and Stages of Freedom for five,” says Dimmick. “Everything we do is towards recognizing Black history is a shared history – white people cannot separate themselves.” Programming centers around celebrating and recognizing the power of Black life in Rhode Island. They host tea parties for young Black girls at Lippitt Mansion, where they wouldn’t have been allowed until the ‘80s. They teach Black children how to swim, in an effort to end a major health disparity. Then there’s the “behind the curtain” work, explains Rickman, like connecting with the Rhode Island Foundation, which recently announced an $8.5 million fund for community investment in diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“That’s the kind of thing we need more of,” Rickman says. He points to the advertisements major corporations have released in support of Black Lives Matter and insists that, beyond rhetoric, big companies need to offer new programming, efforts, and money. “I think every single entity – media, corporations, public schools, foundations – all of them need to stop and create an audit right now,” says Rickman. “Ask, how white is our staff? Who do we give our money to? Do we spend any money with anyone Black or brown?” The effort, he says, needs to go beyond hanging a BLM sign in the window: “If you are doing something, do more, and if you are doing nothing, do something.”

That “something” starts with awareness that racism exists not just within individuals but institutions. “There is no educational justice without racial justice,” is the collective statement made by executive director Chanda Womack and anti-racist educators Ngan Nguyen and O’Sha Williams. The trio is part of ARISE, an organization that works to prepare, promote, and empower Southeast Asian students in Rhode Island through policy and programming. “By acknowledging that we exist in a racialized society, then evaluating how that impacts the quality and efficacy of our education systems, we will be able to more appropriately assure every learner, every youth, and every community that their unique needs matter.”

ARISE has made waves in Providence with several initiatives, including the Providence Alliance for School Safety (formed in connection with PrYSM and Providence Student Union) to campaign for police-free schools and expanded mental health resources; OurSchoolsPVD alliance in response to the state takeover, demanding students be at the table when it comes to decision-making; and a Student-Centered Ethnic Studies course, which is offered in three different high schools.

“We equip ARISE youth with the tools to navigate existing institutions as well as provide them with the political education to change systems that do not serve them as whole people,” say Womack, Nguyen, and Williams.

Our education system, however, is just one of many City structures that is being reexamined. “Do our groups reflect the neighborhoods we’re claiming to serve and represent?” asks Dwayne Keys, who heads the South Providence Neighborhood Association. “We saw the racial disparity even before 2020.” He notes that the SPNA is the only neighborhood group led by a person of color and under 40, despite the fact much of Providence is BIPOC  (Black, Indigenous and People of Color). “We wanted to be intentional about activities that reflected the City’s population,” he says. “We ask the neighbors what they really want to focus on, and that’s how we lead.”

As a result, the SPNA’s docket is rich with initiatives related to issues affecting their neighborhood: racial disparities in historic preservation, participation in the Health Equity Zone, and redevelopment of the Barbara Jordan II apartments, an affordable housing complex vacant since being deemed uninhabitable in 2017. Keys and the SPNA have also been crucial in discussions over tax inequality, when last year properties were assessed and those located in the predominantly wealthy, white neighborhoods decreased in value (and thus property tax) while those in the remainder of the city increased significantly. “It didn’t seem fair,” says Keys, who is part of the City’s commission to study a progressive, tiered system of property tax. He brought up the question of how property values are assessed. “When we’re talking about racism and anti-racism,” he says, “we have to take a look at all of our systems.”

With 2020 coming to a close, following a landmark election and the pandemic still in full swing, the pursuit of racial justice might feel more overwhelming than ever. There have been small victories, sure, like the successful motion to remove “Providence Plantations” from the state name and the Mayor’s Plan for Reparations. Yet, there are countless opportunities to engage in the good fight. Keys urges people to first ask their BIPOC neighbors what they feel needs to be done, by whom, and how. Rickman and Dimmick at Stages of Freedom ask that individuals and corporations make intentional use of their funds. ARISE leaders outline ways to get involved through following, sharing, volunteering, and amplifying educational justice work. And beyond these three, there are dozens of meaningful groups to join or support in Providence.

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” says Keys. “You may find that there are things about the city and about yourself that you may not be proud of, that you may find have been racist, but find ways to forgive yourself, understand what it is that was the harm done, and then commit to and act on changing that.”

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