Innovation Ecosystem

A conversation with City Councilor Nirva LaFortune

By Richard Asinof

Photo by Archie Johnson

Nirva LaFortune, City Councilwoman representing Ward 3 in Providence.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 3/29/21
An in-depth interview with City Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune, asking questions about what she thinks the priorities should be in investing in the city’s future.
Will other potential candidates considering a run for Mayor of Providence make themselves available to digital news outlets such as ConvergenceRI, ecoRI News, and Uprise RI? Will climate justice around Allens Avenue emerge as key issue in the mayoral race? Will Gov. McKee consider replacing state Education Commissioner Infante-Green when her contract is up? How can the mantra “Think like a patient” be applied to community investments, such as “Think like a resident?”
The biggest difficulties for English language learners in the Providence Public Schools, it seems, is the lack of an appropriate curriculum and the lack of appropriate personal learning digital platforms, according to numerous sources. In some charter schools, there is an apparent lack of accountability in coaching English language learners, with some students left without support, doomed to failure.
The inability to retain experienced, competent teachers for English language learners is a warning sign that despite all the rhetoric, the current state education team is using the push for certification as a way to punish teachers, not to reward them, according to numerous sources. Which news reporters will begin to ask the right questions of Commissioner Infante-Green to hold her more accountable?

PROVIDENCE – One of the losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is the inability to sit down and talk with folks in person, face-to-face, an integral part of my interviewing strategy.

Such interviews often took place in local coffee shops – at Olga’s, until it closed, at Seven Stars, which often proved to be too noisy, as the sound bounced off the metal ceiling, outside at L’Artisan Café in Wayland Square, and also at Plant City, which also proved to have too much ambient noise to make conversations easy to transcribe.

Since July of 2020, following a news conference at Hope High School about the planned takeover of the Providence Public School System, several months before the virus disrupted all our lives, I had attempted to find time to talk with City Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune, a mother with two children who lives in Hope Village and represents Ward 3. Our schedules never seemed to mesh before the pandemic, and afterward, it proved difficult to find the time.

Sometimes, the best strategy is to practice patience and persistence. Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with LaFortune, exploring the changing boundaries of the political landscape in the city of Providence in the midst of the pandemic, as new, diverse voices emerge.

ConvergenceRI: What lessons have we learned from the coronavirus pandemic in Rhode Island?
LaFORTUNE: We’ve learned many lessons and I’m certain in time we will learn many others.

First, among them, we need to achieve more equitable health outcomes for our residents by addressing the disparities in health care and the factors that lead to adverse conditions.

Second, the disparities that impact our most vulnerable community members affect everyone. We as a society are better off when the interconnected needs of everyone are met, such as housing, education, employment and transportation. Clearly, the pandemic exacerbated these disparities; we as a society can no longer ignore them.

Third, we’ve learned the power of communities that come together. People throughout the city and state have engaged in community initiatives to help their neighbors, from delivering meals and picking up prescriptions to making check-in calls to elders and volunteering at testing and vaccination sites.

Lending a hand makes a meaningful impact on those who are helped and those who give help. I believe more people will continue to do so after this pandemic experience.

ConvergenceRI: Moving forward, what are the key issues we must confront around investing in public education in Providence and in Rhode Island?
LaFORTUNE: The first thing we must do is bring all those impacted to the table. This may seem like an obvious answer, yet to date, these groups have not been brought together in an authentic, transparent and equitable way to assist in the creation of a plan.

Teachers, students and family members should be sitting together with public and private partners to create a comprehensive and clear educational plan for the City of Providence.

This plan, with input from these groups, must have long and short-term goals at the state and city levels and have an assessment component to evaluate results and determine what’s working. When expected results are not achieved, we need to make adjustments to stay on course.

The key goals of the plan should include:
• Identifying key needs in the schools

• Maximizing the use of local assets to better support academic initiatives that prepare students for college or/and the workforce; including innovative programs through partnerships with our colleges, universities, and community programs

• Optimizing the use of learning spaces by improving school buildings, and

• Strategically funding resources.

ConvergenceRI: As a Providence City Councilor, what do you see as the most important issues that the City Council needs to grapple with?
LaFORTUNE: There are many important issues. Those considered most important before COVID-19 remain, and in many cases, have been exacerbated by the pandemic. The city has to address the unfunded pension liability, otherwise, it will not have the required funding to make necessary investments.

These investments include capital improvements in city and transportation infrastructure, our schools, our public health needs and other important initiatives that will improve the quality of life for Providence residents.

In 2018, I joined the Pension Working Group, which came up with a plan to begin to address these issues.

We must also address the added challenges to our local economy caused by the pandemic. Many of our local businesses have been forced to make difficult decisions, including layoffs or even shutting their doors. It is critical that we prioritize relief to stabilize our local economy and assist these businesses with the hope they will stay open.

Providence is slated to receive approximately $130 million in new federal relief aid. I will be advocating to use those funds toward our public health and to make real investments to improve our residents’ quality of life, help address disparities and make our city more attractive for future investments.

We all have ideas about the use of these funds, but I believe the voices of our community are critical to making these decisions. That is why I am sending a survey to residents of Providence to ask them how they believe this once-in-a-lifetime infusion of funds should be allocated. I hope your Providence readers will visit my Facebook and Twitter pages to access the survey and provide their thoughts.

ConvergenceRI: As much as the continuing efforts around “Black Lives Matter” have changed the conversation around racial equity, and the hiring of Angela Ankoma at The Rhode Island Foundation to direct new investments in racial equity is a positive development, what kinds of conversations do you believe that Rhode Island needs to have around racial equity in 2021?
LaFORTUNE: The hiring of Angie Ankoma is one positive component of a larger discourse and needed actions to be taken around racial equity in 2021 and beyond. The path to creating a more equitable Rhode Island includes reflection and critical interrogation of our systems and structures, approaches, and practices across all sectors.

We need to also look at who is making the decisions in our institutions – we have to move beyond just diversity and commit to racial equity and justice by working with communities to re-imagine what those institutions should look like. The conversations need to include policies, practices, and culture to design the necessary tools and resources to achieve equity.

ConvergenceRI: As a mother, what have been the most challenging aspects of parenting during the coronavirus pandemic?
LaFORTUNE: The challenges are nothing new to moms and/or caregivers. However, the pandemic has compounded those challenges, and its disruptions further illustrate the long-term impact of gender inequality in the workplace and society.

Like many mothers and other caregivers, I have had to make very difficult choices in order to balance, work, family and life. It has not been easy, and there have been some days where dinner was whatever could be made in 15 minutes or less.

Going forward, I hope for and will advocate for policies at the local and federal level that will ensure workers are guaranteed childcare and flexibility to be able to balance having a job and supporting their families, especially during a time of crisis. We need to build on the paid family leave initiative championed by local leaders and community members.

ConvergenceRI: In public education, do you believe that the R.I. General Assembly should put a pause on new charter schools?
LaFORTUNE: Our public schools, particularly those in some of our urban communities, have been struggling for years. Many factors play a role in the disparities and outcomes of public education.

Although charters can serve as a tool, they are not the solution to the issues that impact learning and teaching. Charter schools have mixed performance; even those that do a good job can only serve a limited number of students, and they don’t always work effectively with local districts.

There is undoubtedly an opportunity for us to take a more strategic and intentional approach to provide students and families with educational options. Still, there need to be clear and transparent standards and accountability for both charters and traditional district schools.

The most important conversation we should be having is about how we can provide our students with an equitable and quality education regardless of what school they attend or where they reside. Our state education system has been failing our students, so we need to consider how we fix it, what type of funding and resources we need to provide that education, and who needs to be at the table to develop a plan.

We can’t just add charters into the mix without a thorough process and a plan outlining the role of each entity and expectations. Given the lack of such a plan, I would support a pause on charters, at least in the short term.

I would like to see RIDE focus on improving outcomes for the vast majority of students who attend traditional public schools in Providence. All that said, those charters already approved by RIDE should be afforded consideration and a fair process.

ConvergenceRI: Would you support a city-wide scaling up of the free community WiFi network in Olneyville built by ONE Neighborhood Builders?
LaFORTUNE: After I heard about the free community Wi-Fi network, I reached out to Jennifer Hawkins [the executive director of ONE Neighborhood Builders, which developed the network], to find out how we, city leaders, can work collaboratively to expand the program to every neighborhood.

The pandemic confirmed we are living in an era where access to the Internet is essential. We saw students unable to get their work done because of either unstable Internet, or none at all.

Older residents and families could not access information needed to schedule COVID testing and now vaccinations, for example. It is an essential utility and should be placed in the same category as electricity and water. Every resident should have Internet access.

I also advocate working with our local providers, those who have supplied Internet in our communities for many years along with company-sponsored programs for lower-income families. We should ask what solutions they may be willing to partner with us on to further increase access to those who cannot afford it but need it now more than ever.

ConvergenceRI: If you could have a one-on-one conversation with Gov. Gina Raimondo, talking about the policy priorities for 2021, what questions would you ask her and what ideas would you be advocating for? [The question was initially asked in December of 2020.]
LaFORTUNE: I assume you’d like me to answer this with Gov. Dan McKee now. I would pose the following questions to Gov. McKee:

• After almost two years of the school takeover in Providence, do you believe the intended results are being achieved and what do you think can be done differently? Would it encourage more families – particularly our middle-class, more affluent communities, and local partners – to invest in our schools if more of our city and state leaders enrolled their children in public schools? Would that fact also increase accountability measures?

The needs for our urban public schools continue to expand and the quality of education and services for our students are concerning, especially those with special needs.

Our schools lack the funding to provide appropriate resources for English language learners and students of marginalized identities, such as an extended school year or days, specialist services, in-classroom aid and social-emotional support services for students and teachers.

• As the governor, what specific investments and changes will you make to truly improve our state education infrastructure?

We know the issues that impact our students’ education and our teachers’ ability to teach. Perhaps we can increase funding for social-emotional support in our schools, allocate funding for after-school programs to ensure every student in every school has access to enrichment and co-curricular opportunities.

Perhaps we should have taken a different strategy in terms of the takeover and move towards a more collaborative approach where there is shared responsibility.

The city needs the state’s support in reform so our schools can provide every student with a quality education. However, there has to be accountability measures in place and support and oversight from the state and the local community.

As stated earlier, I would suggest developing an education commission that includes parents and student representatives, teachers, as well as educational experts. That group could help create a long-term educational plan that includes input from key stakeholders and stick to it.

This pandemic has also illustrated the lack of investment in public and community health infrastructure. What type of investments will be made going forward to improve the quality of health care in our state? How will the Lifespan and Care New England merger play a role, and what type of role will the state play in engaging with the community to ensure accountability and oversight?

The “Superman building” has remained empty for years. During former Gov. Gina Raimondo’s first campaign, she made a commitment to bring that building back to life. I see it as an integral piece in attracting new investment to our capital city and increasing housing opportunities. What have been the challenges besides the cost to rehab the building and how can our city leaders like myself help to fulfill that commitment?

Getting that building back on the tax rolls while increasing housing options and commercial use space in such a centralized location close to transportation can serve as a tool in stabilizing our economic infrastructure.

ConvergenceRI: What books are you currently reading?
LaFORTUNE: I am currently reading three books: Leading from the Outside by Stacy Abrams; At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft [my mental escape], and Dialogues of Plato [I try to read a few pages before going to bed].

ConvergenceRI: What questions haven't I asked, should I have asked, that you would like to talk about?
LaFORTUNE: Thank you, Richard, for all your thoughtful questions and for this opportunity to share my thoughts with your readers. A topic I think we should talk more about is resiliency in Providence.

With climate change here and its impact building in the coming months and years, our city needs to build our resiliency – starting now. We have to take this issue seriously.

Many community groups are working together to help protect our city and advocate for environmental justice. Our response to climate change is an area where the public sector must work hand-in-hand with the community and the private and institutional sectors to create a proactive plan to protect our city and our residents. I look forward to working on this plan.


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