In Your Neighborhood

What makes Rhode Island an island of hope?

The Women’s History Month Celebration at Slater Mill sparkles with stories that connect across generations

By Toby Simon
Posted 3/13/17
The celebration of women’s history at the Slater Mill in Pawtucket becomes a celebration of what makes America great, and what makes Rhode Island an island of hope.
Why is the story of a young Cape Verdean immigrant who works her way up to become president of the company where she began as a part-time worker missing from the business vernacular of innovation, manufacturing and success? How does the story of Iris Haik connect with other women from Pawtucket who have emerged as leaders in their respective professions? Is there an opportunity for the Cape Verdean community to emerge as a new kind of engaged community in Rhode Island politics? How is the story of women’s efforts to organize in the workplace in the 1820s in Pawtucket taught in high school history courses in Rhode Island?
When Dr. Mindy Fullilove spoke last week at the Brown School of Public Health, she was asked what the best strategy was to fight what she termed the destructive forces of de-industrialization. Her response: Fullilove challenged the students to engage in what she called secondary prevention – what in public health refers to efforts to stop or slow the progression of disease. To do that, Fullilove said students need to get out of the classroom and engage with the community, to go to meetings, to talk with their neighbors.

PROVIDENCE – “Immigrants; we get the job done.” At every performance of the Broadway hit, Hamilton, this line draws enormous applause from the audience. It is an affirmation of what most of us know to be true.

And, we don’t have to travel very far in our state to witness this validation.

Recently, I attended the third annual Women’s History Month Celebration in Pawtucket, at Slater Mill. This year’s event honored trailblazing women in business and labor. [Sandra Cano, councilor-at-large for the city of Pawtucket, and Kimberly Grant of the Pawtucket School Committee are the movers and shakers behind this event.]

The event began with a wonderful talk by the executive director of Slater Mill, Lori Urso, who provided a history of women’s involvement in the early days of several New England mills.

Next to Urso stood Claudia Velasquez who translated her comments in Spanish so that all the attendees could appreciate her remarks and the important history women played in the Industrial Revolution.

In addition to the visiting dignitaries, this year’s celebration honored Rosalia DaRosa, the president of North East Knitting, Inc. in Pawtucket. The person doing the honors, introducing the standing-room-only crowd to DaRosa, was a high-school senior at the Jacqueline M. Walsh High School for the Arts in Pawtucket.

A young woman to remember
Her name is Iris Haik, and I suggest you remember her name. This is a young woman who is clearly going places – starting in the fall at Stanford University – and after, to a career perhaps in international business. [I also hope she considers running for office.]

R.I. Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea spoke to Haik after the program, expressing what many of us felt: “I hear many, many talks by lots of people of different ages, but I’ve never heard anyone as engaging and impressive as you. Give me a call and let’s get together.”

Haik delighted the audience with her remarks and anecdotes about DaRosa. At one point, she mentioned that among the several jobs DaRosa had when she first came to the U.S. at age 19, was at Rocky Point – a place, Haik admitted to the crowd, which was before her time.

DaRosa’s story
DaRosa was one of 12 children living with her family on the small island of Brava, Cape Verde. To help support her family she did volunteer work with an Italian missionary group on the island.

Soon after DaRosa turned 14, an opportunity arose for her to work at the missionary in Rome. Off she went to Italy, not speaking the language and being separated from her close-knit family.

Five years later her father immigrated to Pawtucket; the family followed, including DaRosa. Her success story as an immigrant is one we’ve often heard before – but usually it involves the success of a man.

From part-time worker to president
As a newly arrived 19-year-old, DaRosa worked three jobs to help support her family. Eventually, she narrowed that to one job, at a knitted elastics company. DaRosa gradually worked her way up in the business, until she became the president of company.

Established in 1986, North East Knitting, a high-quality elastics and webbing company, employs a team of professionals with more than 30 years of expertise in manufacturing and the development of narrow fabrics.

This includes: high quality knitted elastics, woven elastics, nylon webbing, and non-elastic tapes. They are also a supplier of many specialty elastic products used in the apparel and medical markets.

Her voice, her story
I spoke with DaRosa after the celebrations ended. She talked about her father who came to the U.S. as a 60-year-old immigrant to start anew and how hard he worked to get here. She has remained in Pawtucket since her arrival 30 years ago. She spoke about her family’s steady presence in the Cape Verdean community of Pawtucket.

Some 80 percent of her employees at North East Knitting are from Cape Verde. DaRosa told me that all of her employees are here legally, but she still has someone who comes to the factory on a regular basis to help the employees with their papers, to ensure that no problems will arise from missed deadlines or incomplete forms. DaRosa talked about how hard everyone had to work to get to the United States as well as how long the process takes.

Rosalia DaRosa gives me hope for our future. And high school senior Iris Haik makes me even more hopeful. I asked Haik if she’s ever thought of a career in politics, to which she enthusiastically replied: “Yes, I have.”

I also asked her if she had a comment on the current political situation. She nodded and said she wanted to make sure if she was being quoted, that it was a good quote. Her optimism is refreshing: “I think in all times of strife, people have somehow figured out how to be united. My goal is to support my fellow women in all that we do and to know that I’m not going to be cowed by this current administration.”

An island of hope
During these unsettling uncertain times, my husband Peter and I have been advised to seek “islands of hope.” So we do. Today’s event felt like another island because the gathering at Slater Mill felt hopeful to me.

It was a reminder of what democracy looks like. It’s what multiculturalism and inclusion look like. It was also a reminder of what our state has always been about: a haven for religious tolerance with a long history as a resettlement community for immigrants from many parts of the globe. As far as I’m concerned, this is what makes America great.

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