Happy July 4

ConvergenceRI will be taking a two-week break and resume publication on July 19

Photo by Richard Asinof

The mural painted by Joanna Vespia for The Avenue Concept on the wall of Not Just Snacks building on Hope Street, incorporating the line from the poster by Mad Peck Studios, "But most of us live off Hope."

By Richard Asinof
Posted 6/28/21

PROVIDENCE – ConvergenceRI will be taking a break for the first two weeks in July, in concert with what once was a long observed Rhode Island tradition. The digital news platform will resume publication on Monday, July 19.

The first two weeks in July were once the time when industrial manufacturers shut down, repairing and retooling their boilers, as a Rhode Island labor historian explained it, creating a calendar-driven schedule of vacation for workers. That tradition still holds, if somewhat tenuously, even if the state’s economy has mostly shifted away from its former manufacturing base. Tradition!

The coronavirus pandemic has changed, perhaps forever, what a vacation means and what work means – and the uneasy relationship that flows between them. So much has been disrupted in our lives; we are still in long-term recovery from all of the trauma and loss we have suffered. Before we can move ahead and achieve a new balance in our lives, we must take the time to grieve.

Each year at this time, ConvergenceRI had written a brief interlude to celebrate the time away from the treadmill, a narrative that has kept getting longer and longer. The chorus and chords have remained much the same, even if new verses keep being added to this song of seasonal change.

Here are some of the refrains that have been repeated, year after year:

During the upcoming break, ConvergenceRI plans to sharpen the saw, tending to the garden of new ideas, trying out new recipes, tuning in to new conversations, trying to keep my balance and not stumble while walking and listening to new voices.

• What ConvergenceRI has done, hopefully, in its first eight years of publication, is to create and support an engaged community of readers, where content is shared across networks and platforms, information that is unavailable anywhere else in the Rhode Island.

• ConvergenceRI will continue to promote conversation and convergence, to break down silos, to ask the questions that need to be asked, and to report on the success of engaged communities in Rhode Island. Let us plan to renew our conversation on July 19. Talk to you soon.

A pivot toward hope
This story’s headline has always wished everyone a “Happy July 4,” 
a way of celebrating our nation’s independence from tyranny by kings and queens and the emergence of a new democratic form of government.

Benjamin Franklin, when asked by citizens about the new form of government being created by the 1787 Constitutional Convention, if it would be a republic or a monarchy, replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.” If we can keep it is still the challenge we face.

On Sunday, June 20, we arrived at the solstice when, as a result of the tilt and spin of the Earth, the Northern hemisphere celebrated the longest, lightest day of the year, a chance to embrace a rebirth of wonder and the lushness of our lives together, even in the midst of a pandemic. And, on June 24, the nighttime skies showcased the strawberry full moon, its name originated by Indigenous tribes.

Beyond patriotic parades to march in, there are always a plentitude of positive vibrations to celebrate – all the diverse community voices that are proud, resolute and successful. Just as monarch butterflies and milkweed have evolved into a beneficial, symbiotic relationship, so, too, have good reporting and analysis become the crux of citizens taking action to change the dynamic around political decision-making. Call it a convergence, a breaking down of silos, and a celebration of the emergence of new, diverse voices.

The questions that need to be asked
The questions that need to be asked – a tradition that has been part of every story published in ConvergenceRI since 2013 – serve as a reminder that the facts are nothing without their nuance, and that new narratives are always emerging, challenging the dominant narrative of the status quo.

Here are the questions ConvergenceRI posed in 2020; they still seem relevant to ask again in 2021:

• What kind of economic niche Rhode Island will carve out for itself in the future regional innovation ecosystem remains an open question, worthy of conversation and convergence. What priority will be given to protect and replenish the human enterprise, the workers, as this new engine of economic prosperity evolves? What does it mean to be deemed “an essential worker” and how does that translate into a higher hourly wage?

• Equally important, in health care, in education reform, in climate change, in research and innovation, in how the news is covered, the question is: whose voices will be heard? As much as many of the corporate voices of news media have adopted the branding of their product as “preserving local journalism,” too many important community voices keep getting left out of the conversations.

• When it comes to future statewide health planning or the proposed creation of a new academic medical enterprise that will control 80 percent of all medical facilities in the state, a veritable monopoly, whose voices will be heard? Where do health equity zones and neighborhood health stations fit into the equation? Will nurses and patients have a seat at the decision-making table?

• When it comes to improving education outcomes, how will the efforts to reform the state’s approach include access to safe, affordable, healthy housing as part of the equation? What is the strategy for promoting place-based health? Whose voices will be heard?

• When it comes to the threats from climate change, when will it become part of the future economic development equation to address the stench emanating from Allens Avenue as a toxic hazard? Whose voices will be heard? Will it be community residents living under the under toxic health threats, or the corporate lobbyists with the ear of legislative leaders? In a time of pandemic, will there be an appetite to push ahead with the luxury Fain towers?

For sure, in 2021, cracks have emerged in the status quo. Sen. Josh Miller’s bill to legalize recreational marijuana passed the R.I. Senate, after a decade of persistence. Gun safety laws promoted by R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha are on the verge of enactment by the R.I. General Assembly. The legislature also seems poised to change the laws around some drug possession statutes from felonies to misdemeanors. Even the public restrooms are now open in Kennedy Plaza, even if the initial hours have them closing at 5 p.m. And, there appears to be the willingness to invest in creating a sustainable funding source for affordable housing creation in Rhode Island; the amount is too small, but it is a start.

Worth repeating
Some ideas bear repeating. As ConvergenceRI wrote three years ago: In 1776, news of the Declaration of Independence, which redefined the social contract between the government and the consent of the governed, was first shared in printed broadsides and then read aloud in public gatherings, including to General George Washington’s troops in New York City.

The document was then reprinted in newspapers in the 13 colonies. It was not printed in British newspapers until more than a month later. 

Today, 245 years later, in the digital world we live in, the news is a constantly flowing, instantaneous source of filtered information, entertainment and advertising, far removed from conversations in the public square.

Amidst all the noise, self-evident truths are much harder to identify or to recognize in the slipstream of competing narratives, monetized and weaponized by big corporate money.

 [Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse has been an outspoken advocate in fighting against dark money in our politics.]

Call this holiday an important time for talking, face-to-face, in person, because our nation has reached an inflection point in the battle against authoritarianism.

We all live off hope
Last year, ConvergenceRI closed out this annual summer song with a section entitled, “A sense of value, which began: My apologies if this entry point into my planned two-week break, [one of the smartest things I designed as part of my initial business plan], has gone on far too long and been far too jumbled and rambling.

The last part of this is the hardest to write. As observant readers of ConvergenceRI may note, I have been afflicted by an unknown malady that is eating away at the myelin in my spinal chord in my thoracic region. The good news is that most of the bad things about what it could be have been ruled out – it is not cancer, it is not a brain tumor, it is not MS or Parkinson’s disease, it is not related to previous spine surgeries, and it is not Lyme disease.

The bad news is that I am struggling to be able to walk, which has restricted my mobility. I still can drive. I still have managed to keep my sense of humor as well as to maintain my mental acuity in producing ConvergenceRI. [When asked how I am doing, I respond by saying: I am practicing the rutabaga yoga pose, firmly rooted, breathing in and breathing out.]

Some would consider it a mistake to share such vulnerabilities in public. I see it as a sign of strength, to be honest and direct. Avoiding such conversations and pretending that everything will return to a sense of normalcy is not, in the long run, I believe, helpful.

I read about someone who attempted to run the length of Rhode Island in one day, and I think: climbing up and down three flights of stairs, more than five times in one day, is an amazing feat of endurance for me.

The last year has truly proven to be a feat of endurance – one in which my malady has been diagnosed as auto-immune encephalitis, and for which I have been undergoing infusion treatments to arrest what has been eating away at my spinal cord.

The good news is that the treatments appear to be working: I have regained some stability; there has been a reduction in what has been diagnosed as the culprit; and I have learned to depend on the kindness of neighbors, friends, colleagues and family to move forward, cautiously.

I remain both optimistic and realistic: in six years in office, former Gov. Gina Raimondo refused to do a one-on-one interview with me, despite agreeing to, in person, shaking my hand and looking me in the eye. The communications staff of Gov. Dan McKee has promised to put me on the list of interviews to consider. Stay tuned.

One final anecdote: As I was leaving State House following the weekly news conference held by Gov. Dan McKee and Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos on Tuesday, June 22, the white marble and brick made slick by the heavy rain that had fallen, Bill Bartholomew and Steve Ahlquist took the time to walk with me to my car, much as Steve Klamkin had accompanied me into the State House. I move very slowly, using trekking poles to keep my stability, what I liken to cross-country skiing without the skis.

As I crossed Smith Street, with Bartholomew by my side, a driver in a speeding Dodge Ram pickup slammed on his brakes to avoid hitting me. Upset that I was somehow impeding his progress, the male driver began shouting at me, cursing me out for not using the designated crosswalk. Bartholomew came to my defense, pointing to my disabled condition, to no avail.

The driver’s anger, in retrospect, seemed to capture the moment of where we are in Rhode Island. The pandemic has demonstrated and made more visible the health, racial and social disparities faced by our most vulnerable population – and, in turn, it has made many folks angry and intolerant, it seems, that so many Rhode Islanders are in need of help.

At the news conference, Gov. McKee had responded to my question about the underlying problems with Medicaid and accountable entities, and whether there needed to be an audit of private contractors working for Medicaid, by saying he was unaware of the issues, but to keep him informed as to what was going on.

I responded that Gov. McKee could read my forthcoming article in ConvergenceRI, a bit stung that he seemed to dismiss my question in a patronizing manner – even as the growing scandal at Eleanor Slate Hospital keeps worsening, which, at its heart, is about Medicaid spending.

I may be walking more slowly, I may be struggling to attend such news conferences in person, I may be finding it more difficult to publish ConvergenceRI on a weekly basis. But as Bob Dylan once sang in “Dear Landlord,” I won’t underestimate you if you don’t underestimate me.


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