Innovation Ecosystem

Warning: Ignore at your own risk

A long Twitter thread by Sen. Tiara Mack illuminates details of three legislative bills to rescue and renew Rhode Island, in pursuit of racial, economic and climate justice

Image courtesy of Sen. Mack's website

State Sen. Tiara Mack has put together a series of long Twitter threads describing the details of a package of three bills being introduced in the R.I. General Assembly, focused renewing and rescuing Rhode Island.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 1/25/21
The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted our health, our economy, and our social fabric. A series of three legislative bills, championed by Renew RI, offers a different path forward, captured in a series of Twitter threads by state Sen. Tiara Mack.
What will be the consequences if the leadership of the R.I. General Assembly chooses to ignore the three connected legislative bills? Would the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce be willing to invite Sen. Mack to be a guest as part of one their video conversations? Are ecoRI News, Save the Bay, RINewsToday, or GrowSmart RI willing to republish the Tweet threads by Sen. Mack? Is Lt. Gov. Dan McKee, on the cusp of becoming the next Governor of Rhode Island, willing to sit down and talk with Sen. Mack?
The convergence of a coalition of groups to push for an integrated approach to legislative policy around climate change spells electoral problems for the legislative leaders who ignore what they have to say and attempt to discredit them with tired political clichés about the Green New Deal. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the pendulum is swinging back toward a new kind of citizen activism, focused on racial and health equity.
Between Dr. Megan Ranney, Uprise RI’s Stve Ahlquist, and state Sen. Tiara Mack, a new potent social media platform dedicated to sharing accurate information has the potential to change the political landscape in Rhode Island

PART ONE:

PROVIDENCE – In the midst of a deadly pandemic, social media platforms, particularly Twitter, have become the place where news content is shared widely, with the potential to reach millions instantaneously, both for the public good – and for deliberate misinformation purposes.

Strategies around how to use Twitter for the good of public health abound – witness the growing influence of Dr. Megan Ranney and Dr. Ashish Jha on conversations focused on the coronavirus pandemic, which is an example of the way that the platform can influence policy decisions for the better, in ConvergenceRI’s opinion.

Ranney’s recent thread of 23 tweets, for instance, on COVID-19 vaccinations, answering questions from her friends and family by talking  “out loud,” is a great example of the potential for the Twitter universe to inform the public health conversation, particularly when there has been so much disinformation and misinformation flooding the ethersphere. Ranney’s questions and answers are far superior, for instance, than anything that has yet been offered up by the Rhode Island news media.

Ranney also addressed potential solutions to vaccine distribution problems inherited by President Biden in a recent Boston Globe op-ed, which she summed up in succinct tweet: “We can fix this with: accurate, transparent data on available & distributed doses; attention to equity and fairness during this time of scarcity; [and] creative, quick solutions to last-mile logistics.”

Ranney added, in a separate tweet addressing the problems of misinformation: “And honesty in messaging is the lodestone of it all.”

In goes the good air
ConvergenceRI’s observation is not just based on opinion or conjecture. A new research study, “How Health Care Workers Wield Influence Through Twitter Hashtags: Retrospective Cross-sectional Study of the Gun Violence and COVID-19 Public Health Crises,” published by the Journal of Medical Internet Research, confirmed the positive influence of health care-led hashtags – specifically #ThisIsOurLane about gun violence, and #GetUsPPE – showing the increasing value of such platforms in promoting public health outcomes. [Both hashtags were created in part by Ranney.]

“As social media is increasingly used for news discourse, public education, and grassroots organizing, the public health community can take advantage of social media’s broad reach to amplify truthful, actionable messages around public health issues,” the study concluded. [See link below to study.]

Translated, with clear messaging and medical expertise, Ranney has accomplished what no public relations campaign – or, for that matter, swag – can accomplish in pushing out the message: vaccines work.

[Drs. Ranney and Jha, the dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University, are offering an online course, “Pandemic Problem-Solving: Surviving and thriving in the Age of Pandemics, a six-week course, four hours per week, from Feb. 16 through March 25. The cost of the course is $1.995.]

Out goes the bad air
Now that former President Trump has been banned from Twitter, the level of misinformation about election fraud plunged 73 percent after several social media sites suspended Trump and key allies, according to research conducted by Zignai Labs, the Washington Post reported in a Jan. 16 story by reporters Elizabeth Dwoskin and Craig Timberg. The research findings underscored “the power of tech companies to limit falsehoods, poisoning public debate when they act aggressively,” the reporters wrote.

“The new research by the San Francisco-based analytics firm reported that conversations about election fraud dropped from 2.5 million mentions to 680,000 mentions across several social media sites in the week after Trump was banned from Twitter,” the story reported.

Election disinformation, the story continued, “had for months been a major subject of online information, beginning even before the Nov. 3 election and pushed heavily by Trump and his allies.”

The rapid decrease in misinformation is not surprising, given that the Washington Post Fact Checker’s ongoing database of false or misleading claims found that the total number of lies told by the former President since he assumed office in 2017 had surpassed 30,500. A whole lotta lying has been going on.

Nor surprisingly, another research study, published in Climate Policy, showed that machine-driven bots dominated the online climate discourse, according to a random sample analyzed through the Botometer, a tool created by Indiana University’s Observatory on Social Media, which can determine the likelihood that accounts are being run by machines. The conclusion of the study was that Twitter accounts run by machines are a major source of climate change disinformation. The researchers were not able to determine who deployed the bots, but they suspected the seemingly fake accounts could have been created by “fossil-fuel companies, petro-states or their surrogates.” Is anyone shocked?

Burying the lede
Here in Rhode Island, amidst all the brouhaha about Gov. Gina Raimondo’s refusal to answer questions from the news media, and further new media noise about the plans underway by Lt. Gov. Dan McKee to map out his transition, it would have been easy to miss – or disregard – the fact that plans for a series of integrated legislative bills sponsored by Renew RI, linking housing, food, and clean air and clean water policies, are soon to be introduced in the R.I. General Assembly this session, under a package  called “Rescue RI.”

Except that the content of the bills were detailed in a Twitter thread crafted last week by state Sen. Tiara Mack.

Not surprisingly, major Rhode Island political news pundits, such as Ian Donnis at The Public’s Radio, and WPRI’s Ted Nesi, took no notice of Mack’s Twitter thread in their weekly columns last week, apparently comfortable in staying in their lanes that often reinforce how politics in Rhode Island are defined by repeating what the “haves” have to say.

Mack’s Twitter thread, however, was brilliant, in ConvergenceRI’s opinion, because it conveyed the import of the effort to connect the issues that are often kept in silos – by both legislators and the news media – which has made them easier to be ignored by the legislative leaders in the past. It is all about the convergence, the convergence, the convergence.

When the dream is no longer deferred
The coronavirus pandemic, if nothing else, has taught us what happens when public health investments are deferred – they rot and fester and explode [with apologies to poet Langston Hughes]. Former Sens. Metts and Conley, soundly beaten in the Nov. 3 election, might be called as witnesses to testify about the risks of ignoring or not taking women of color seriously as electoral opponents.

[One further note: Steve Ahlquist at Uprise RI created a Twitter thread identifying a number of legislative bills being put forth by the state’s legislative leadership, the kind of public service journalism that makes his work so indispensable to the public conversation – and, like Ranney, a force for the public good.

But, as Michael Kearny tweeted in response to Ahlquist, which Ahlquist retweeted: “Most of these bills mostly from the #RIPoli establishment seem like fine bills. But in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, impending climate collapse, and rampant racial and economic inequality, we need a bold rescue plan like @Renew_RI.”

Are you listening, Rhode Island?
Here is the first of three sections of the Twitter thread offered on Jan. 19 by Sen. Tiara Mack [@MackDistrict6], promoting a strategy of racial, economic, and climate justice. Republishing them in ConvergenceRI is hopefully a way to broaden their reach and break down the silos around legislative policy decisions.

MACK: All right, y’all, time for a long, multi-thread explanation of the incredible Green New Deal legislation that @Renew_RI is introducing!

The Rescue Rhode Island legislation is composed of three separate bills. One for housing – lead sponsors are @bhenries [Rep. Brianna Henries] and @Mr.Acostruth [Sen. Jonathon Acosta]. One for food – lead sponsors are @LeonelaFelix [Rep. Leonela Felix, Esq.] and @ KendraForRI [Sen. Kendra Anerson]. One for clean air and water – lead sponsors are @DavidMoralesRI [Rep. David Morales] and me!

MACK: Before we get started, quick reminder that climate change is not an isolated problem – it’s inextricably linked to deep systems of racial and economic oppression. That’s why all 3 Rescue RI bills simultaneously promote racial justice, economic justice, and climate justice.

MACK: The policies in these bills were developed over the last 12 months by the Renew New England Alliance Council – a majority BIPOC group composed of frontline communities, labor unions, Indigenous tribes, racial justice organizers, housing justice advocates, and youth climate activists.

MACK: Okay, let’s go through each bill one by one! Buckle up :)

MACK: Let’s start with housing. Even before COVID, over 22% of renter households in our state were severely cost burdened, meaning they paid over 50% of their gross income on rent.

MACK: And now, in the midst of COVID, we’re facing the prospect of an unprecedented eviction crisis.

MACK: A central root cause of Rhode Island’s ongoing housing crisis is simple: we have a severe shortage of homes that are affordable for low-income families.

MACK: Time to fix that. Our housing bill will launch the Housing Jobs Construction Program which will build thousands of high-quality apartments. These apartments will be available to low- and middle-income families, and residents won’t pay more than 20% of their income on rent.

MACK: The apartments will be highly energy efficient, and will be equipped with solar panels. This is important! Housing accounts for 19% of Rhode Island’s greenhouse gas emissions.

MACK: The housing bill will also launch the Solar Jobs Program which will install rooftop solar panels - for free - on 10s of 1000s of homes and apartment buildings, beginning with low-income communities. The energy produced will offset the money customers are charged by National Grid.

MACK: Speaking of utility justice, our bill also includes a Percentage Income Payment Plan which prohibits utilities from charging low-income customers more than 2% of their income on their annual utility bills.

MACK: These programs will create thousands of jobs, all of which will be protected by Project Labor Agreements. The workers will receive good wages, health + dental insurance, and paid sick time off. Fair labor standards will be central to RI’s Green New Deal.

MACK: Finally, the housing bill will strengthen tenants’ rights, ban no-cause evictions, prohibit landlords from discriminating against tenants who receive federal housing assistance, and ramp up tenants’ rights enforcement.

MACK: Okay, that’s the housing bill! Next up, let’s talk about the food bill.

Food insecurity
It may seem like the first thread, explaining the issues of affordable housing beyond the need for a new bond financing affordable housing in the state, was long, detailed, and involved.

But Mack’s thread provides the cogent, succinct arguments so often missing from the news coverage around housing issues in Rhode Island – given how some columnists are crowing about how Rhode Island’s shortage of housing is driving up prices for single-family homes, with Realtors reaping the benefits. Really?

Here is the second Twitter thread by Mack on food in Rhode Island, looking at food policy as something more than Providence and Rhode Island becoming a destination for foodie tourists.

[Of course, there are efforts – mostly under-covered] already underway to connect affordable housing and food, for instance, led by the Sankofa Initiative in the West End, and the work by the R.I. Public Health Institute to address access to fresh fruits and vegetables through Food on the Move, as well as the efforts by the Barrington Farm School and the African Alliance of Rhode Island to spur local food production efforts in a sustainable manner.]

MACK: It turns out that about 90% of the food consumed in New England is grown outside of our region.

MACK: That’s really bad for the climate because we import the overwhelming majority of our food through carbon-intensive supply chains.

MACK: On top of that, most of the food that winds up in RI supermarkets is grown by big ag companies that exploit their workers and use terrible agricultural practices that degrade the environment.

MACK: And, to make matters even worse, this environmentally destructive system doesn’t even do a good job of feeding people. One in four Rhode Islanders are currently food insecure!

MACK: Time to build a better food system! Here’s how. We’ll start by building a network of Community Land Trusts (CLTs) throughout Rhode Island which will grow food for low-income Rhode Islanders.

MACK: These CLTs will be democratically controlled by local, low-income communities. That’s a big deal. Instead of telling low-income communities where to grow food, what kind of food to grow, and how to distribute it, those communities will get to make those decisions themselves.

MACK: By the way, agricultural CLTs are a proven method of reducing food insecurity for low-income communities in RI. Take a look at the incredible work that one of our state partners, the Southside Community Land Trust is doing.

MACK: Will these CLTs protect workers’ rights? Damn right. Everyone employed by one of our CLTs will receive fair wages and good benefits. Worth repeating: High labor standards will be a non-negotiable part of Rhode Island’s Green New Deal.

MACK: Will these CLTs use ecologically sustainable agricultural practices? Yup.

MACK: Our bill will also provide subsidies to local RI farms that adopt, or continue using, regenerative agricultural practices, reducing the use of poisonous chemical pesticides and fertilizers, while simultaneously improving soil health and sequestering carbon in the ground.

MACK: Okay, that’s our food bill. Phew! Now it’s time to talk about our third and final bill. This one is designed to protect clean air and water. We call it the Green Justice Zone Act.

When hope and history rhyme
The phrase, often quoted by President Joe Biden, from Irish poet Seamus Heaney, has a particular resonance for communities in Rhode Island who have borne the brunt of environmental pollution and its relationship to the burden of asthma and other chronic diseases. When the R.I. Department of Education attempts to address the problem of chronic absenteeism in the Providence schools, they need to look no further than the burden of pollution that is the catalyst for asthma, the leading cause of chronic school absenteeism in the state.

Once again, here is Mack’s detailed Twitter thread:

MACK: I know what you’re thinking: “What on earth is a Green Justice Zone?” Good question. It’s a geographic region in which we (1) shut down pollution-intensive industries and (2) provide funding for environmental cleanup projects.

MACK: Here’s the thing. Pollution is not evenly distributed across our state. It’s deliberately channeled into poor communities and Black and brown communities.

MACK: For example, take a look at the Washington Park/Southside Providence area. It’s one of the most heavily polluted parts of our state. Residents of this area are exposed to exceptionally high levels of particulate matter, hazardous waste, and toxic air contaminants.

MACK: Unsurprisingly, this neighborhood has a high proportion of low-income residents and BIPOC residents. Our bill will make this area the first of many Green Justice Zones in RI. It’s a pilot program in our long-term project of protecting frontline communities from pollution.

MACK: And it’s building upon the work that one of our coalition partners, the Racial & Environmental Justice Committee of Providence, has been doing for many years.

MACK: One of the biggest polluters in the soon-to-be Zone is the Shell terminal. Shutting this down would be a very big deal. They store tons of dangerous chemicals.

MACK: Remember Hurricane Harvey? That storm damaged petrochemical facilities in Houston, unleashing floods of hazardous substances into the surrounding community, poisoning thousands of local residents.

MACK: The Shell terminal - and other polluters in the soon-to-be Zone - are poised to create a similar situation in Providence. If we were hit by a hurricane, the storm surge could damage these facilities, sweeping enormous amounts of toxic chemicals into the nearby community.

MACK: As climate change accelerates, and hurricanes and flooding become more intense, waterfront polluters like Shell become exponentially more dangerous to the local community. The Green Justice Zone is a good model to shut these facilities down.

MACK: Another cool thing about this bill: the residents of the Green Justice Zone will get to choose - through a local referendum - which environmental remediation projects to prioritize with the funding they’ll receive.

MACK: Finally, the Green Justice Zone Act will prohibit new pollution intensive industries from being built in any part of the state that’s already overburdened with pollution.

Editor’s Note: A second part to this story, an interview with Sen. Tiara Mack, follows.

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