Who to Watch 2020

Meet the movers, shakers, and change-makers with big plans for the city

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2020 is shaping up to be a pivotal year in Providence.
The state is now running the city’s public schools. Property tax bills may be going up – along with a giant new skyscraper. There will be a census that may result in Rhode Island losing a congressional seat. So as we always do in January, we’re taking a look at the movers, shakers, and change-makers with the potential to make an impact in the coming year. These are the people and organizations to keep your eye on in 2020, and what they do will be worth watching.

Join us for a celebration at Skyline on January 16 to honor Providence Monthly's Who to Watch – purchase tickets and RSVP here.

Watch Angela Ankoma Find New Solutions to Big Challenges...

Watch Angela Ankoma Find New Solutions to Big Challenges...

The United Way of Rhode Island (UWRI) is one of the gravitational centers of the state’s robust nonprofit sector, so when it makes internal changes, the effects ripple outwards. With new President and CEO Cortney Nicolato taking the reins in 2018 and a new strategic plan nearing completion, the organization is poised to increase its impact.

One of the lieutenants Nicolato will rely on to do the heavy lifting is Angela Bannerman Ankoma. As Executive Vice President and Director of Community Investment, she oversees an extensive portfolio that includes grant-making, public policy, government relations, research and evaluation, and 2-1-1. Just keeping up with the existing programs would make her influential (as would her community work with West Elmwood Housing, where she served as president and co-founded the Sankofa Initiative, an award-winning food-access project), but Ankoma isn’t one to simply maintain the status quo.

In 2020, she will oversee the Nonprofit Innovation Lab, a new collaboration between UWRI and Social Enterprise Greenhouse (SEG). “The Nonprofit Innovation Lab is designed to spark innovation and accelerate the development of new solutions that will enable organizations to expand their ability to create social impact in Rhode Island,” she explains.

Accelerator programs and “bootcamps” are all the rage in the start-up world, like MassChallenge, 10,000 Small Businesses, and SEG’s own Accelerator; this is the same concept applied to nonprofits. Ten nonprofit leaders will come with their best ideas to address pressing social issues and receive mentoring, resources, funding, and networking opportunities to make them happen. The goal is to create self-sustaining solutions that enable organizations to expand their reach by applying an entrepreneurial approach.

The program launches this month and runs through June, when five finalists will pitch their innovation plans for the chance to win up to $50,000 in funding.

Ankoma is excited about taking on a new challenge. “I like that we are supporting nonprofits to develop novel solutions to social problems that are more effective, efficient, sustainable, and just than current solutions,” she says.

Watch Kim Anderson Get More People to Eat Their Vegetables...

Watch Kim Anderson Get More People to Eat Their Vegetables...

According to a 2016 Harris Poll for The Vegetarian Resource Group, 37 percent of Americans regularly order vegetarian meals when dining out, even if they’re not strictly vegetarian. “That’s a huge market,” exclaims Kim Anderson, co-founder and creator of vegan food hall Plant City.

Perhaps that’s why such a seemingly risky proposition produced immediate success. Other food hall projects have stalled out in Providence. Other restaurants have failed in the historic Mile and a Quarter building on South Water Street. And none of them were exclusively pushing vegan food. From a chef who’s 3,000 miles away.

“There was no way to know it would be successful,” Anderson explains, “but having Chef Matthew Kenney’s terrific restaurant concepts certainly helped.” It did – to the tune of 240,000 guests over Plant City’s first six months, the majority of whom, Anderson says, were not vegan or vegetarian.

Kenney is a California-based, plant-forward restaurateur who operates in 18 cities on four continents. Anderson is a serial entrepreneur who gravitates toward businesses with social conscience. She co-founded Ava Anderson Non-Toxic, an eco-friendly cosmetics company. She’s on the board of Social Enterprise Greenhouse. She’s also a co-founder of EverHope Capital, a venture capital fund investing in plant-based food companies.

For her next trick, she partnered with Kenney to create the food hall Providence didn’t know it was ready for, boasting four restaurants, a coffee shop, a market, and a community event space.

“Our sole mission is to serve creative, beautiful, delicious food in a fun and interesting experiential environment, sharing what a healthy, sustainable food system for the world can look like,” Anderson says.

Not content to simply prove what’s possible with plant-based food in Providence, she’s already looking ahead. “We are so pleased that community awareness and conversation around this issue is growing rapidly, adding to the numbers of plant-forward eaters in our state,” Anderson says. “It would be wonderful to build other Plant Cities to exponentially scale the impact.”

Watch ARISE Challenge the Status Quo...

Watch ARISE Challenge the Status Quo...

ARISE was already establishing itself as a force for youth advocacy in a city that’s rich with it (see also: Youth in Action, Young Voices, Providence Student Union, PrYSM, etc.) – and then the state announced it was taking over Providence’s schools.

“I am no longer afraid of speaking out and loudly voicing my concerns,” says Salimatou Kaba, one of ARISE’s Youth Leaders and a senior at Times2 Academy. “I hope by the end of this, adults are listening and being more open-minded to youth voices because this is our reality.”

The organization was founded in 2017 to advocate for the Southeast Asian community. It quickly took on smart fights that drew national attention, and scored victories. Because of their activism, Rhode Island became only the third state to pass the All Students Count Act, which ensures that demographic data used to make policy decisions more accurately reflect the struggles of Cambodians, Hmong, Laotians, and Vietnamese, among the most economically disadvantaged communities in the country. Huffington Post wrote about it.

ARISE also partnered with Alvarez High School to develop a credit-bearing Student-Centered Ethnic Studies curriculum. The Providence Journal covered it.

Some of its Youth Leaders serve as named plaintiffs in an ongoing lawsuit against the State of Rhode Island over the lack of civics education in public schools, one that’s due in court as this is going to press. Read about it in The Atlantic.

As the state takes the reins in Providence, ARISE is ready to make sure youth voices are not just heard, but listened to. Youth Leaders are already working alongside PSU and PrYSM on a campaign for police-free schools, and they’re trying to make the Ethnic Studies curriculum available to more students, not by calling for more funding, but by advocating for more culturally appropriate professional development opportunities for teachers.

“We will be immersed in everything,” says founding Executive Director Chanda Womack. “Our goal is to work in authentic partnership with the school district, which means challenging the status quo and mediocre practices that have maintained the racial inequities and opportunity gaps that plague our school systems.”

Watch Jeannine Dingus-Eason Develop the Next Generation of Teachers...

Watch Jeannine Dingus-Eason Develop the Next Generation of Teachers...

Jeannine Dingus-Eason arrived in Providence in July, preceded by two reports that positioned her to have an immediate impact on the city’s schools. The first, issued by the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) in 2017, found major deficiencies in Rhode Island College’s Feinstein School of Education and Human Development (FSEHD). The second was the blistering Johns Hopkins report on Providence Public Schools in June.

Those two moments of reckoning have created a moment of opportunity for the new dean of the school that trains more local teachers than any institution in the state. (Full disclosure: this writer is an employee of Rhode Island College.)

Dingus-Eason’s first order of business was the launch of a new curriculum at FSEHD that has been in development since the RIDE review. It is both on the cutting edge of teacher education and designed to meet the specific needs of the state. Students will get classroom experience sooner – as early as freshman year – and graduate endorsed for either special education or English language learning, two of the most in-demand skill sets for schools statewide.

FSEHD will also directly address one of the specific challenges highlighted in the Johns Hopkins report: the lack of teachers of color in a district where 91 percent of students are non-white. “Research notes how teachers of color serve to motivate and yield positive learning outcomes for students of color,” Dingus-Eason explains. FSEHD received a grant from the Rhode Island Foundation to “develop a four-year plan to recruit, retain, and graduate” more teachers of color and multilingual educators, and hopes to use Mt. Pleasant High School’s Teacher Academy as a feeder.

Dingus-Eason – formerly of St. John Fisher College in her hometown of Rochester, New York – comes to Rhode Island College at a moment when it’s expected to help solve one of the city’s most intractable challenges, but she believes the community is ready to work together. “In my meetings with Providence area leaders, I have expressed that now is the time for collective impact and a systemic approach to problem solving,” she says. “2020 is a transformational time. Let’s do this!”

Watch John Goncalves Bring Neighborhoods Together...

Watch John Goncalves Bring Neighborhoods Together...

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello effectively pulled the plug on a Providence City Council proposal to create a two-tiered property tax structure last summer, but one could argue that Fox Point resident John Goncalves did just as much to stop it. As a children’s book author, teacher, and Diversity Coordinator at the Wheeler School, he might seem an unlikely candidate to derail a plan that had the support of both the City Council President and Finance Chair, but Goncalves knows the power the city’s residents can wield when they act collectively.

“Meaningful impact and pivotal changes always begin bottom-up at the grassroots, not with top-down policies,” he says. “When engaged community members and citizens work together, we can accomplish extraordinary things.”

Providence has 25 official neighborhoods, 15 city council wards, and 19 separate neighborhood associations. As the co-founder and lead organizer of the Providence Coalition of Neighborhood Associations (PCNA), Goncalves is working to point those 19 associations in the same direction and leverage their collective power for the benefit of the whole city. The fight over the tax issue proved that it can be done.

As a board member for not only his own Fox Point Neighborhood Association but also the Downtown and Wayland Square associations, Goncalves is deeply involved at the grassroots level and respected across the city – which made him a natural choice to lead this coalition. City leaders have recognized it too: after the tax proposal stalled in the legislature, the City Council asked him to serve on a special commission to study the property tax structure.

It’s not just taxes that the PCNA will be focused on in 2020. Goncalves sees plenty of common ground across the city, and opportunities for neighborhoods to work together.

“If we can galvanize, not polarize, around our common goals, we can amplify community voices and address some of the looming issues and the underlying political, racial, economic, social, and systemic inequities in our city,” he says. “Together, there is a lot that we can accomplish, especially with our strength in numbers and collective influence.”

Watch Erlin Rogel & Nicole Verdi Rise in Local Politics...

Watch Erlin Rogel & Nicole Verdi Rise in Local Politics...

2022 could be an awkward year in the Rogel-Verdi household. That’s when their respective bosses – Providence City Council President Sabina Matos and Governor Raimondo’s Chief of Staff Brett Smiley* – are expected to be among the top contenders for Mayor of Providence. Of course, by then it wouldn’t be surprising if one or both halves of Providence’s Millennial political power couple are on the ballot in their own right.

At the beginning of 2019, Rogel and Verdi, both native Rhode Islanders and Roger Williams Law School grads, were working as a teacher in Providence Public Schools and lawyer at Adler Pollock & Sheehan respectively. By mid-summer they ascended near the upper reaches of the org charts at City Hall and the State House.

They got there by paying their dues in local politics. Verdi was practically born into public service, the daughter of the Deputy Chief of Providence Police. She serves on the City Plan Commission and worked as counsel for the Rhode Island State Investment Commission. Rogel, meanwhile, has served behind the scenes on political campaigns – including Buddy Cianci’s in 2014 – and is a member of the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee; he’s also a co-founder of Millennial RI, the networking group for Rhode Islanders of a certain age.

With their newfound proximity to power, both plan to use these opportunities to serve the place they call home. “I feel a sense of duty to make the most of my time in this position,” says Verdi. “I’m going to do everything I can to move the state forward and improve the lives of my fellow Rhode Islanders.”

“I get to play a big role behind the scenes on numerous policy initiatives and community projects,” says Rogel. “I’m excited to get to work on all of it. By the end of 2020 I hope I’ve made a difference for other Prov babies just like me.”

While they won’t try to predict the future (“I tend to not plan the next chapter and let fate lead the way,” Rogel says), both mentioned the possibility of running for office in the not-too-distant future. Neither would have to look very far to find a good campaign manager.

*Editor’s note: As this was going to press it was announced that Brett Smiley will become the Acting Director of the Department of Administration and Senior Advisor David Ortiz will take over as Chief of Staff.

Watch TAPA Become an Arts Hub Downtown...

Watch TAPA Become an Arts Hub Downtown...

“Arts are a community necessity,” says Trinity Academy of the Performing Arts Head of School Liz Richards-Hegnauer. “We are committed to being a true community space for artmaking.”

In late November, the arts-integrated public charter school cut the ribbon on its new home in the former Cherry & Webb building downtown, TAPA’s fourth move in 10 years – none by choice. It was founded in 2010, serving 34 seventh-grade students in the Trinity United Methodist Church building in South Providence. After two more stints as a tenant, the school now owns 275 Westminster Street and has big plans.

“It is bold to move buildings in November of a school year, but it was 100 percent the correct move,” says Assistant Head of School Andy MacMannis. “Our students and alumni deserve a permanent school building that can be their second home.”

The move will not only benefit TAPA’s 220 students, grades seven through 12; the vision is an arts hub for the whole community. “We will provide classes, programming, and performance and rehearsal space for use by community groups for low or no cost,” says Richards-Hegnauer.

For example, over the winter TAPA will partner with FirstWorks to host statewide, arts-integrated professional development for teachers and with RISCA to provide a venue for the GiveMe5 Student Film Lab. And TAPA students, who already help organize PRONK, the annual street band festival, and programming for PVDFest, will now have facilities and resources to enhance their community impact. “I see TAPA as a central place for the artistic community as a whole: a place for artists to work directly with students on projects that benefit the city,” says MacMannis.

“The arts are the third biggest economic driver in Rhode Island, and yet are still not looked at as being a career path,” explains Richards-Hegnauer. “We are working to ensure that people see what our students do as not only being culturally impactful, but also economically impactful. I believe that 2020 will be the year TAPA students are truly recognized as the stars that they are.”

Watch Rebecca Webber & Danny Warshay Spark Entrepreneurship...

Watch Rebecca Webber & Danny Warshay Spark Entrepreneurship...

 

In cities with thriving startup-driven economies – Cambridge, Austin, San Diego – economic activity tends to cluster around entrepreneurship hubs and innovation centers. For example, the Cambridge Innovation Center, which launched in 1999, was a major reason why Kendall Square earned a reputation as “the most innovative square mile on the planet.”

In August, the Providence outpost of the Cambridge Innovation Center (or CIC Providence), the centerpiece of the new 195 Innovation District, opened its doors, providing a full suite of spaces and services for startups. A few months earlier, across town on College Hill, the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship at Brown University moved into its new home at the corner of Thayer Street and Euclid Avenue, a place purpose-built for launching student ventures.

Together, the two institutions represent a major step forward for entrepreneurship in the Creative Capital.

Rebecca Webber, General Manager of CIC Providence, and Danny Warshay, Executive Director of the Nelson Center, share a common goal: to create thriving, entrepreneur-driven communities around these new additions to the Providence skyline.

“Opening CIC Providence represents a culmination, but it’s also a starting point,” explains Webber. “We hope to inform larger conversations about access, community development, and opportunity by igniting economic activity and driving collaboration.”

Warshay sees Brown’s new hub as an opportunity to activate more than just College Hill. “We deliberately open our doors to the broader Rhode Island communities and partner with entrepreneurship-focused organizations,” he says. “One of the valuable outcomes of our programming is that some of the startup ventures stay in Rhode Island and contribute to its economy.”

In the coming year, Warshay will publish a book on his signature Entrepreneurial Process, on which he already teaches a course at Brown, and the Nelson Center’s Young Entrepreneurs of Providence program will send student leaders out to mentor local high school students with an interest in entrepreneurship. 

At CIC, Webber will be hosting the 2020 Design Catalyst (a partnership between DESIGNxRI, the Department of Labor and Training, and the City of Providence) and trying to nurture new companies. 

“I hope CIC is seen as an important part of the community, a welcoming place for people to grow their ideas,” she says. “Much like the pedestrian bridge that connects our neighborhood to the East Side, I hope we connect a robust community of innovators, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders.”

Watch What Cheer Writers Club Create a Literary Community...

Watch What Cheer Writers Club Create a Literary Community...

First Providence, then the world (or at least the rest of Rhode Island): It could be the name of a graphic novel, or it could describe the second-year ambitions of What Cheer Writers Club, a community of local writers, podcasters, and content creators.

In a little over a year, an idea that began as “Coworking for Introverts” became a thriving society of more than 300 members. The club as a physical place encompasses more than 2,500 square feet of coworking space, meeting rooms, classrooms, and a podcasting studio in downtown Providence. As a community, it spans events, workshops, professional services, publications, readings, two newsletters, and, of course, a podcast.

“We serve as a centralized community connecting content creators, fans, and literary organizations statewide,” explains co-founder and General Manager Jillian Winters. “The club’s mission is to elevate the content arts in our state by providing a space where creators can focus on projects undisturbed, and also feel supported and known within a community of fellow creatives.”

The club has galvanized a network of writers and podcasters that was legion, but disparate and unconnected. It celebrated its first anniversary in November and after a banner inaugural year, they’re thinking even bigger for 2020. That includes growing to more than 500 members, adding staff and extended hours, and expanding the club’s reach beyond its walls.

“The club’s mission is to serve content creators across Rhode Island, not just at our location in downtown Providence,” says Winters. “We plan to take programming on the road in 2020 to bring services and resources to new audiences.”

This includes, for example, partnering with Rhode Island Latino Arts and Rhode Island Black Storytellers to bring the club’s signature Podcasting 101 class to diverse communities.

“There is potential for everyone to grow and reach new audiences through cross-promotion, mutual support, sharing of resources, etc.,” says Program Manager Jodie Vinson. “What Cheer Writers Club hopes to foster this spirit of creative collaboration as we create a sustainable literary community, and, ultimately, raise the literary profile of our state.”

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