Innovation Ecosystem

A new kind of lively experiment?

Rhode Island Foundation maps out two-month, 20-location statewide focus group to provide an opportunity for Rhode Islanders to have their voices be heard

Photo by Richard Asinof

Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of The Rhode Island Foundation, discussed the launch of the new engagement initiative, TogetherRI.

Photo by Richard Asinof

The volunteer leaders of the successful community effort to preserve the Vendituoli farm as a working farm, at a community pot luck held on Saturday, March 10. From left: Tim Faulkner, reporter with ecoRI News, Liying Peng, a local beekeeper who manages hives at the farm, Candace Clavin, and Dan Penengo, one of the main farmers who teaches at St. Andrews School.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 3/12/18
The Rhode Island Foundation is launching a major engagement campaign called TogetherRI to encourage a sense of Rhode Islanders being heard during a time when many feel that their voices and stories are being ignored. Whether this new kind of lively experiment answers the larger causes of the malaise of being disconnected remains an open question.

What does it mean to belong, to be a member of an engaged community in 2018? When there are competing narratives, how difficult is it to break through the dominant, corporate one to be heard? When a President of the United States talks about wanting to be President for life, counter to everything that has defined American democracy, what is the proper response? Will treatments for anxiety and depression become the next panacea for pharmaceutical companies to exploit, similar to how pain became adopted as a vital sign?

When Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha spoke at Brown University recently, describing what happened in Flint, Mich., and her role as a pediatrician sharing her research documenting the increase in lead poisoning in children, the biggest problems she faced, then, were the denials from state officials, who challenged the validity of her findings. Her story about what happened in Flint was, for her, very much the story of how a local community was denied an ability to govern itself democratically.
The decision to switch the drinking water source was made by a state appointed official as a way to save money; the state environmental and health officials kept denying there was any problem, despite the continuing complaints by residents, who had no voice in decision-making.
Here in Rhode Island, there are two ongoing controversies regarding lead poisoning of children where the elected officials appear to remain above accountability. First, a House legislative study commission on lead in drinking water in Rhode Island has not met in two years, despite being approved in both 2016 and 2017. Why the silence?
Second, a budget proposal for FY 2019 by Gov. Gina Raimondo would waive the lead safety standards for DCYF when placing at-risk children in relatives’ homes, placing some of Rhode Island’s most vulnerable children further at risk, what some have called willful and reckless negligence. Where is the legislative outrage?

PROVIDENCE – Five years after launching “Making It Happen” in 2013, an effort to build a more positive climate for business collaboration in the state, the Rhode Island Foundation is about to launch its next big “engagement” endeavor: TogetherRI.

The initiative is an effort to conduct what amounts to a statewide focus group, administering what businesses often employ as a strategic planning tool: a “strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats,” or SWOT, analysis, for Rhode Island.

“We’ll be looking at questions like: what are the strengths of Rhode Island, and what are the opportunities for Rhode Island,” Steinberg explained. And, a third question will be: what do you think will be the biggest issues in your community.”

The hook is that instead of asking business leaders and elected officials for their opinions, TogetherRI seeks to bring everyday Rhode Islanders to listen to their concerns about the pervasive feeling – some might call it a malaise – that their voices are not being heard, according to Steinberg.

“It is both sides of the coin,” Steinberg continued. “It’s not just the talking, it’s the listening. That’s why it is not called a conversation.”

Beginning on Wednesday evening, March 21, from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at Pilgrim High School in Warwick, and ending on Saturday morning, May 5, from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. at the Elmwood Community Center in Providence, the Rhode Island Foundation hopes to engage with everyday Rhode Islanders to give them an opportunity to have their voices “be heard,” said Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, in a recent interview with ConvergenceRI. [See the link below for a full schedule of the planned sessions.]

Hungry to be heard
Each of the sessions will be professionally facilitated, with participants invited to sit down at tables, each with 10 seats, to eat together a family-style meal, talking with each other, in the kind of conversation that once happened around the family dinner table.

What is said at the community listening sessions will be recorded and analyzed, along with the results of surveys distributed at each of the 20 events, by the Social Science Institute for Research, Education and Policy at the University of Rhode Island. [Data Spark, formerly a project of the Providence Plan and now located at URI as part of the new Social Science Institute, may be expected to help crunch the numbers and translate them into data stories.]

The plan is that at the Rhode Island Foundation’s annual meeting on May 24, the high-level results will be reported out, according to Steinberg.

“There are no pre-conceived ideas,” Steinberg said. “We’re working with URI to compile the information of what we hear at the tables, plus a survey we’ll ask people to fill out on the way out the door.”

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of The Rhode Island Foundation, about the new engagement initiative, TogetherRI.

ConvergenceRI: What was the thinking behind launching TogetherRI?
The impetus behind TogetherRI was the fact that there were so many people saying that their voices were not being heard.

It can be a voice on whatever topic you want; it could be that they don’t have anybody to hold these conversations with.

You and I can be super-connected to relatives that are not living in Rhode Island, because we can text them. And, you and I can belong to an industry association that’s worldwide because you can go online and [connect with them].

[What is missing is] that middle part of [that], who you used talk with, your neighbors, going down to the local stores, the local social fabric and network, the community.

We got into this because we are a community foundation, and [we wanted to look at] our sense of community.

We were hearing that there were not opportunities or venues for people to talk – and listen – to each other. So, with TogetherRI, we’re going to test the idea, if people are going to take advantage of this and use it, too.

We decided to do it as an open-ended discussion, not by topic. There’s a similar concept that has been done by some of our peers, [other community foundations], called “On The Table.”

It’s been done in Chicago, Cleveland and Milwaukee, and the way that they did it was all in one day. So, the conversations were done all over Chicago, and thousands of people in different venues talked with each other.

ConvergenceRI: Why did you decide to hold numerous events?
This is Rhode Island [laughing]. We’re not going to get everyone in one location. We’re going to do 20 locations over six weeks; on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings, with a couple on Saturday mornings.

It is an open invitation; you can sign up if you want to, but you don’t have to. You can go to any one you want, it’s not limited by geography. We did not succumb to doing 39 of them in every city and town, but we’re doing 20 of them, and that covers the state pretty well.

Our role is to provide the opportunity. We have a professional facilitator at each of these; there are tables of 10, with a family-style dinner.

ConvergenceRI: Different, say, from a town meeting, or a publick occurrence?
We specifically did not set it up as a town meeting. Because we don’t want somebody to get up at the microphone and talk for 20 minutes about whatever their favorite complaint and topic is. So, first, people will talk with each other at the tables [over a meal].

It is based on the spirit that we saw when we did “Make It Happen” a few years ago. But that was focused on a more specific area. This is really for the people, if they want to be heard.

We have talked with the top elected officials; they know that we’re going this. We will make public what we hear, unvarnished.

It’s not going to be titled one way or another; we don’t know if the issues or comments we hear in Northern Rhode Island are going to be different that those in South County, or that they are going to be some common themes.

But, we just keep hearing, over and over, and others have validated it, that people think they are not being heard.

We’ve seen that in elections. We saw that in a map of Rhode Island the first day after the 2016 presidential election, with a good slug of it red and blue. If this works, it’s purple.

And, when people exchange ideas on social media, you and I could call each other names; we could be nasty. But, when we sit down, one on one like this, it’s very different.

ConvergenceRI: It will be interesting to see what happens? Is there an opportunity to ask other questions to throw into the mix, such as: where do you feel most comfortable, where do you feel you belong? How do you define your neighborhood? Who do they want to be heard by?
We’re saying: we will make public what is said. Heard by whom? By whoever wants to listen.

ConvergenceRI: People are saying that they are not being heard. And, my initial response, if I were a therapist, would be to ask: who are you not being heard by?
Whether it is elected officials, I don’t know. The people who attend are going to define that. If you live in Burrillville, you can go to the one in Warwick. If you want to go to five of them, you can go to five of them.

It is an experiment, candidly. We do not have a set conclusion on this. We’re taking the risk of putting this out there, publicly. And, seeing what the interest is, fostering the dialogue.

It is somewhat of a [lively] experiment, getting out there, going to where the people are, not asking them to come in [to one gathering place], not asking them solely to go online and do a phone survey.

When they did this [exercise] in Milwaukee, one of the findings was that 90 percent of the people met someone they didn’t know. What does that mean? That 90 percent of the people met somebody they didn’t know.

But, the random collisions, we saw that at Make It Happen, people who didn’t know each other then walked out the door and did something. So, if five people do something, or not, or have an idea, or whatever, we’ll see.

There’s a quote, along the lines of, if you’re sick, it’s not going to be one of your Twitter followers that brings you a meal. If you go away on vacation, and you need your flowers watered, it’s not a Facebook friend who is going to do that; it will be one of your neighbors, who, quite candidly, you may not know.

I have no doubt, that when people sit down together, you’re going to see, this is Rhode Island, you’re going to find more common ground than differences, and even where there are differences, we want civil and civic dialogue.

If I had to describe it in one sentence, civic and civil dialogue, respectfully disagree, respectfully listen, get enthusiastic, get involved, hear some things you haven’t heard before, but have the opportunity to share your story.

Come on, get happy?
In the midst of writing this story, ConvergenceRI attended an event on Saturday evening, March 10, to celebrate what many would call a true community success story: the effort by the Barrington Farm School to raised $225,000 to buy the Vendituoli Farm in order to preserve it as a working farm. The community effort spoke to the value of preserving a different kind of wealth: the heritage of working the land and the connection between growing your own food as part of building a healthier community.

The event was a potluck, soups and salads and breads and desserts, with more than 100 people attending, families of all ages, sorts and sizes. People introduced themselves to each other and talked in earnest as young children raced round and round the tables at the Barrington Congregational Church.

It was everything that TogetherRI aspired to be; perhaps, even more important, those who came were asked, in a low-key fashion, to fill out a survey to share their hopes and desires for what the farm could become in the future.

Driving back home after the event, ConvergenceRI had a number of jumbled thoughts, such as: how had the concept of a potluck changed the way that people interacted with each other? How remarkable was it that a small community group had succeeded in achieving a disruptive enterprise: preserving a working farm against the pressures of real estate investors to build yet another expensive housing development? What were the lessons to be learned from a group of volunteers who had to invent and improvise their own strategies and processes, learning as they went along, rather than following a playbook? And, of course, the question that one of the farmers leading the effort asked the audience: “Are you ready to get your hands dirty?”

ConvergenceRI kept returning to the question asked of Neil Steinberg, related to whom people thought they were not being heard by. Was the malaise truly about not being heard, or was it about feeling left out of the narrative, as if their story did not matter?

Was it a response to the growing consolidation of corporate ownership and messaging from news media platforms to online shopping platforms and the marketing of drugs to manage depression and anxiety?

What were the relationships to the malaise of not being heard, and the consolidation of wealth in the top one percent and the economic devastation of the middle class and its relationship to the epidemic of the diseases of despair?

Did it require a different kind of conversation, a convergence, where what it means to be an engaged community is defined as a matter of healthy equity, and not by what CVS or Amazon or Google want you to consume?

What is the role of government to function as the protector of the public interest and not just corporate welfare?

And, how will these larger causes of the malaise of not being heard may or may not be identified or solved by TogetherRI? Stay tuned.


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