In Your Neighborhood

Taking the pulse of Rhode Islanders

How will what people had to say as part of TogetherRI differ from what gets expressed on talk radio or in the news media?

Photo by Richard Asinof

Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of The Rhode Island Foundation, thanks participants who attended the last session of TogetherRI at the Elmwood Community Center in Providence, telling them it was one of the best sessions.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 5/7/18
The final session of The Rhode Island Foundation’s TogetherRI community engagement exercise was held on May 5 at the Elmwood Community Center in Providence, with more than 120 people in attendance.
What will be the follow-up to the findings from the analysis of what was said by Rhode Islanders at the TogetherRI listening session? Is there a way to factor out those who came with particular agendas to promote? What is the definition of an engaged community when the boundaries of neighborhoods and communities keep changing and eroding? What is the difference between being a participant at a community conversation and being heard on talk radio?
The current spectacle of President Donald Trump and his apparent inability to tell the truth, or more aptly, his propensity to lie and dissemble the truth, regardless of the facts and the evidence, and instead blame the news media for creating fake news, has created a dilemma about how to respond to such unrepentant lies.
Some, such as Amy Siskind, have been keeping a list; news organizations have catalogued the number of falsehoods uttered by Trump, which now number in the thousands.
What is the best response to such behavior? Is it to hold up a mirror, rather than attempting to engage the President and his minions? Is it to strike a cynical pose and shake your head, saying that the American people like to be lied to? Is it to find common cause with others offended by the lies and the prevarications? Is it to register to vote and to vote in the upcoming 2018 elections? Is it to stop covering events at the White House?
At what point do we recognize that people are turning into rhinoceroses, as Eugene Ionesco portrayed in his play, about to go on a rampage?

PROVIDENCE – The final session of an elaborate community engagement initiative by The Rhode Island Foundation, entitled TogetherRI, was held on Saturday morning, May 5, at the Elmwood Community Center, drawing more than 120 participants to talk with each other and share their ideas and concerns about Rhode Island.

As Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of The Rhode Island Foundation explained the concept behind the two-month, 20-event, listening palooza, in an interview with ConvergenceRI, “The impetus behind TogetherRI was the fact that there were so many people saying that their voices were not being heard.” [See link below to the ConvergenceRI story, “A new kind of lively experiment.”

The plan is that an analysis of the high-level results of what was said at the community listening sessions will be presented at The Rhode Island Foundation’s annual meeting on May 24.

Running like clockwork, the facilitated meeting at the Elmwood Community Center began at 9 a.m. and ended at 10:30 a.m., with tables of 10 communing over a catered breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns, fruit salad, muffins and French toast.

At the table where ConvergenceRI sat, ate, talked and mostly listened, there was great a diversity in age, careers, background and experience – including an independent candidate for Governor, Luis-Daniel Muniz; Peter Wells, the editor of The Providence American; Thelma Suchite, the Youth Success Case manager for the Community Action Partnership of Providence; and Hector Felix, community outreach coordinator for the Opportunities Industrialization Center of Rhode Island.

The conversation over breakfast, meant to replicate the kind of face-to-face conversation that once took place at a family meal, was friendly, engaging, and inquisitive – although it was not clear if anyone would reach out following the breakfast engagement, though business cards were exchanged.

Not surprisingly, diversity was talked about as one of the strengths of Rhode Island, a sentiment echoed by many of the folks reporting about the discussion at their tables.

The smallness of Rhode Island, creating a capability to collaborate, was also seen as an asset. The state’s higher educational system was praised by a number of people at the table as a gateway to economic opportunity.

So, too, was the connection to the ocean and Narragansett Bay – although whether or not it was being protected well enough was open to some debate at the table.

Staying at the table conversation, the challenges identified were the lack of affordable housing, the high cost of health care, the lack of public transportation, and differences in economic opportunity depending on where you lived.

More observations
Perhaps because it was the last session of TogetherRI, there seemed to be a fair number of people attending who, for lack of a better description, already had numerous platforms to make their ideas and voices heard in their professional lives. For whatever reason, many of these folks became the ones who were reporting out on the discussions at the table – a dynamic that left ConvergenceRI puzzled about potential agendas at play, or whether they were simply less shy about seizing the opportunity with the microphone.

[As much as the organizers let attendees know that there were news media in attendance, the session was designed to provide anonymity to participants, unless they were properly notified by the news media. ConvergenceRI has decided to respect that confidentiality.]

Among the folks reporting out from their tables were well-known public figures holding positions of influence and power as statewide leaders in policy, education, economic development and housing. The question is: did they attempt to skew the conversations to their own agendas?

Final observations
What was happening out the street in the neighborhood surrounding the Elmwood Community Center was as fascinating as what occurred inside the building during the TogetherRI session. Neighbors were busy repairing concrete steps at a home across the street; vegetable plants [peas or beans] in raised beds adjacent the community center appeared to take on a life of their own; and the streets were filled with pedestrian traffic and conversations. Call it what author Dan Jenkins once described as: life its ownself.


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