Innovation Ecosystem/Opinion

A dream no longer deferred

The election and inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris represents a sea change in electoral, racial, and gender politics

Image courtesy of An Eyewitness History of the Civil Rights Movement by Sanford Wexler

Rosa Parks is fingerprinted after her arrest on Dec. 1, 1955,for violating the Montgomery city ordinance segregating the races.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 1/18/21
Amid the chaos and violence at the end of the Trump administration, the promise of a better America under the incoming Biden-Harris administration is a hopeful sign of rebirth of democracy, even as the threat of fascism looms.
What priorities will be given under the new McKee administration to further the protection and clean up of Narragansett Bay? Will the R.I. General Assembly have the gumption to examine the money that was spent on high-priced corporate consultants by the Raimondo administration? When will the analysis by OHIC identifying prescription drugs as the major cause of increasing health care costs receive more coverage in the news media? What is the status of childhood lead screening in Rhode Island, which had dramatically fallen off during the start of the pandemic?
Reading aloud in a virtual learning classroom has taken on new meaning, and provided new opportunities for exploration. Inaugurations have often featured poets – President Kennedy included Robert Frost, and President Clinton chose Maya Angelou.
I wonder if there is a curriculum in Rhode Island that features the work of Walt Whitman, Pablo Neruda, Langston Hughes, Adrienne Rich, Seamus Heaney, Sylvia Plath, Robert Bly, and Gary Snyder, encouraging their works to be read aloud and shared by students across their Zoom platforms, with their words spoken in the students’ voices.
Particularly for English language learners, such a curriculum would be a way to engage with words in a new way, capturing the rhythms of the spoken word.

PROVIDENCE – On Wednesday, Jan. 20, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will be sworn in, in a ceremony celebrating the peaceful transition of political power that has marked the innovative democratic experiment of the American republic for more than 200 years.

For the first time in history, the U.S. will have a woman serving as Vice President – a person of color, the daughter of immigrants, a former Senator and state Attorney General from California, a remarkable moment in a nation where the majority racial definition of “white” for its children will soon become a minority demographic segment of the population, a dream no longer deferred.

The “big lie” told by outgoing President Trump was that he had won the 2020 Presidential election but it had been stolen from him [it wasn’t], because of alleged massive voter fraud [for which there was not a scintilla of evidence to support such claims], and his blatant racist attempt to place the blame for that alleged fraud on voters in predominantly Black cities and counties in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

The armed thugs who broke into the U.S. Capitol, urged on by President Trump to “stop the steal,” were a modern-day reincarnation of the brown shirts from Nazi Germany, who unabashedly voiced their virulent anti-Semitism and racism and white supremacy. In their ranks were numerous former law enforcement and former military members, a worrisome trend that needs to be addressed. Some members of Congress allegedly helped the thugs, leading tours of the Capitol the day before the uprising.

The potential threat for future violence still looms large, just as the potential for further disruption by outgoing President Trump in his final hours in office remains a terrible possibiity, given his penchant for cruelty.

A dream no longer deferred
In many ways, it seems very apt that the nation celebrated the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., two days before the inauguration, honoring the life of the civil rights leader who was assassinated in April of 1968 in Memphis, Tenn., where he had traveled to support the strike by sanitation workers in that city, with the striking protesters holding up signs, saying: “I am a man.”

Five decades after his death, the legacy of King can be found in the growing political voice of a changing America, where the current pastor at his former church, the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the Rev. Ralph Warnock, is now the newly elected Senator representing the state of Georgia.

The dream articulated by King in his “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in August of 1963, it seems, has now become a reality. At the urging of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who called out loudly behind him on stage, saying: “Tell them about your dream,” King put aside his prepared text and began preaching his dream of freedom.

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons for former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood…”

Here in Rhode Island, the shift in political consciousness around race, ethnicity and gender has been reflected in the new wave of elected members to the R.I. General Assembly, representing an emerging voice challenging the status quo.

Equally profound has been the sea change at the Rhode Island Foundation, the community foundation with its $1 billion in assets, when it hired Angela Ankoma to serve as Vice President, in charge of directing equity investments.

What the eyes don’t see
The inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris and the celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday intersect with another important yet under-reported story: charges have been brought against former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and eight of his cronies in the man-made, lead-poisoning water disaster in Flint, Mich.

As recounted in a recent AP story: In 2014, a Snyder-appointed emergency manager for Flint, Darnell Earley, who had been tasked with running the financially struggling, majority Black city, made a decision, based on allegedly saving money, to use the Flint River for water while a pipeline from Lake Huron was under construction.

The corrosive water, however, had not been treated properly, a misstep that freed lead from old plumbing and into residents’ homes. Despite desperate pleas from residents holding jugs of discolored, skunky water, the Snyder administration, especially drinking water regulators, took no significant action until a doctor [Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha] publicly reported elevated lead levels in children about 18 months later.

Underneath the lead-poisoning saga is another pernicious story: how the Michigan state government decided to create a system of government that disenfranchised large Black population centers in the state, taking away the ability of residents to make decisions about their own communities through elections. Voting matters.

Innovation ecosystem at work
One of the ongoing lessons of the coronavirus pandemic has been the way it has exposed the profound racial inequities in Rhode Island – and also the ways in which communities have responded to the challenges.

The work by ONE Neighborhood Builders to construct a wire mesh WIFI system, enabling residents of Olneyville to connect for free to the Internet as a key survival tool during the pandemic, is an example of bottom-up innovation, meeting the needs of residents, different from the top-down corporate vision of many innovation economy plans.

The work by pediatrician Dr. Beata Nelken in Central Falls, to become a community-responsive testing site, is another example of how bottom-up innovation can create innovation solutions in the midst of a health crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic also exposed the need in Rhode Island to build out the public health infrastructure, not just to the existing health care delivery system, dominated by health systems. Unfortunately, proposed plans to include a new public health laboratory were dropped from the proposed statewide bonds to be voted on in March.

There is also the investment that community health centers such as Providence Community Health Centers are making in building new facilities in Olneyville, one of the hardest hit communities in Rhode Island from the coronavirus pandemic.

Historical, optimistic  footnote
Forty-four years ago, in 1977, I covered the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter, in a story headlined, “I heard America singing,” invoking a phrase from Walt Whitman, talking about Aretha Franklin singing “God Bless America.”

It was a much different rendition of the anthem than the one I heard some 18 months earlier, in May of 1975, booming from the loudspeaker mounted on a pickup truck in Center City in Philadelphia, a recording of Kate Smith, promoting the successful re-election of Mayor Frank Rizzo.

I wrote: “When Aretha Franklin sang “God Bless America,” this reporter felt he could join her in singing, and perhaps be made to believe again in the unfulfilled promises of this country’s dreams.

“The cynical and the intellectual may disparage such dreams as 18th-century idealism, but those myths of freedom and equality are what little threads we have to live by,and they are not so bad. So this reporter discovered he could sing, in public, perhaps off-key, with a throaty “God Bless America.” I heard America singing.


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