By G. Wayne Miller
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The state’s pronounced racial inequities in education, health, housing and other vital areas are detrimental to every one of Rhode Island’s residents, whether Native American, Asian, Latino, black or white. And until those disparities are ended, all residents will pay a high cost, regardless of the color of their skin or the location of their home.
That was the overall message Thursday from panelists at this year’s Publick Occurrences forum, “Race in Rhode Island: Separate and Unequal,” sponsored by The Providence Journal in partnership with Leadership Rhode Island and Rhode Island College. Nearly 350 people attended in Sapinsley Hall, part of RIC’s Nazarian Center.
“We are all in the same boat together. Either we row together or we sink together,” said Dr. Pablo Rodriguez, president of Women’s Care and chairman of Women & Infants Health Care Alliance. “What we need is a cultural change in our country.”
“Inequity is toxic,” said Dr. Dannie Ritchie, assistant professor of Family Medicine, Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and founder of Community Health Solutions. “We have to act and recognize it impacts all.”
Ritchie and Rodriguez were the panelists asked to address the question: “What are the consequences of inequitable medical care?” Three other panelists spoke to a second question: “What will it take to get a piece of the American Dream?”
More than the resources currently available to many people of color, said Shelby Maldonado, a state representative from Central Falls and the daughter of Guatemalan immigrants. Despite her degree from the University of Rhode Island and holding what she described as “a middle-class job,” she said she continues to “struggle” to make ends meet. Like many others, much of her income goes toward college-loan repayments, an area in need of reform, she said.
“Imagine how it is for someone who doesn’t have a college degree, is earning minimum wage,” Maldonado said.
Veronica Martinez, home ownership coordinator and financial coach with the Providence Housing Authority, outlined some of the programs her agency offers low-income residents who want to buy homes. “Most of our participants are people of color,” she said.
Panelist Loretta Johnson, constituent organizer with the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, told of her own days being homeless and living in public housing. “It is hard, it’s a struggle for people of color,” she said.
But last December, having found the right programs and housing-assistance networks, she was finally able to afford a mortgage on a home.
“We had the best Christmas ever!” she said, adding, to applause: “With faith, goals and determination, anything you want is possible.”
Speaking on the third panel, “Who is responsible for improving student performance?”, Anna Cano Morales, chairwoman of the Central Falls School District Board of Trustees and director of the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University, spoke of successes against what once were characterized as discouraging odds in Central Falls schools. And some of Central Falls' achievements, she said, can be duplicated elsewhere.
“We have declared war on the status quo but we still have so much more to do,” she said. And that must be accomplished in the spirit of Rodriguez’s all-in-the-same boat metaphor, she said.
“Our students are Rhode Islanders,” she said. “If Rhode Island is serious about rebuilding itself as a great, prosperous and positive place to live, it absolutely has to get education right.”
Tinisha Brice, parent of a student at the Nowell Leadership Academy, a public charter high school, spoke of the need for students of all colors to know each other. “It’s very important to have diversity within the school system so your children can relate to someone like them and they can relate to the children,” she said.
At the beginning of the forum, an audience member in a wheelchair loudly protested the presence of a table near the stage in an area he said should have been reserved for people with disabilities; the three people manning forum-related computers on the table, he declared, were exercising a type of “privilege” that was not theirs. He was not satisfied when apprised of another, available, space designated for people with disabilities.
Putting aside his prepared remarks, Ken Wagner, Rhode Island commissioner of elementary and secondary education, used the man’s protest to make a larger point that, he said, applies to education and other inequities.
“I am sensitive to these kinds of issues,” he said. “My mom is in a wheelchair, since I was a young kid, and I was just always very aware of things that other people aren’t necessarily aware of.”
Racism fits that category, he said. “You’ve got to be sensitive. Racism is like a fan that is always on and you don’t realize it until you do realize it and then you can’t ignore it.” Actions must then be taken, he said.
Carol Young, retired deputy executive editor of The Journal, served as moderator of Thursday’s forum. Journal publisher Janet Hasson welcomed the crowd, along with RIC president Nancy Carriuolo and Leadership Rhode Island executive director Mike Ritz, who set a tone for the forum when he cited examples from his own life where “being white has had its privileges.”
The forum was staged as The Journal’s Race in Rhode Island series continues to explore inequities between the state’s whites and its people of color. All of the series’ stories, videos, graphics, data, photographs and more can be found at the series site, www.providencejournal.com/special-reports/race-in-rhode-island
Original Article can be found online at ProJo.com here.