Innovation Ecosystem

Diversity that inspires change

Talking one-on-one with Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera, as she wrestles with whether or not to run for Congress, focused on a platform championing diversity

Photo by Richard Asinof

Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera, in her second-floor office at Central Falls City Hall.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 2/27/23
A candid conversation with Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera about the challenges facing her city, how best to change perceptions about Central Falls, and her considerations about whether or not she will run for Congress.
How does being a single mom change the equation when running for Congress in Rhode Island? Is Rhode Island ready to promote and celebrate its growing diversity as a positive economic and political force? Would the Rhode Island Foundation or the CEO-led Partnership for Rhode Island be willing to invest in funding a series of billboards promoting Central Falls as a city that is the home of “diversity that inspires?” Despite all the talk about housing as part of the charm offensive, will RI Housing come through with the money to support the affordable housing project at the former Central Falls police station?
For communities where many residents may not be able to afford owning a car, is there a way for an innovative transportation coop to be developed to support workers going to and from places of employment? In parts of San Francisco, for instance, such as Noe Valley, tech firms regularly pay for buses to transport workers to and from jobs in neighboring Palo Alto and other nearby tech-centric communities? In the same way that factories once sponsored factory-owned housing for workers, why not develop a series of managed fleets to support workers traveling to and from hospitals, nursing homes, colleges, and manufacturing plants?
In Western Massachusetts, as part of the five-college community, bus transportation is regularly provided between Amherst, Smith, Mt. Holyoke, and Hampshire colleges and the University of Massachusetts. Imagine if similar bus services would be created for transportation between colleges across Rhode Island. Or, investing in a transportation program connecting daycare facilities serving employees who live in Central Falls and work elsewhere?
Being a single parent always puts enormous pressure to create nutritious meals when schedules are difficult to maintain, particularly for those single parents with school-age children, with competing bus schedules in the mornings and afternoons, and after-school activities. It was great to hear that Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor traveled to Central Falls to meet with Mayor Rivera last week. I wonder if there is an opportunity to invite the Governor and his advisors and his cabinet to convene regularly at eateries in Central Falls or Pawtucket or Cranston, not fancy restaurants, where the agenda for the meeting is set by someone who is a single parent, on a strict schedule. Just saying.

CENTRAL FALLS – The pursuit of an interview with Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera had begun nearly four months ago, after Mayor Rivera had participated in a Nov. 4, 2022, forum, “Closing the Digital Divide,” focused on the state’s broadband strategies. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story “A new theory of connectivity gains traction in RI.”]

So it was pure serendipity that the interview occurred last week, just when Mayor Rivera found herself as one of the key spokes on the hub of two breaking news stories:

• Mayor Rivera is a potential Democratic candidate to run for Congress in the race to replace Congressman David Cicilline, who announced his intention to leave office in order to take on his new role as president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation.

• Mayor Rivera is a prominent stakeholder advocating for the need to build more affordable housing in her city, as the new Rhode Island Housing Secretary, Stefan Pryor, launched what ConvergenceRI has dubbed his “charm offensive” to recapture the dominant narrative around housing. Pryor conducted a personal visit to consult with Mayor River in Central Falls on Wednesday evening, the night before ConvergenceRI’s interview on Thursday morning.

From her small, second-floor office in the Central Falls City Hall, made dog-friendly to welcome the arrival of her newest family member, a puppy named Liberty Justice, Mayor Maria Rivera spoke candidly about her deliberations on deciding whether or not to run for Congress.

“I am considering running,” Mayor Rivera told ConvergenceRI, saying that the conversations were very preliminary. “This is a conversation that has to happen with my family. I am a single mom. My children are my priority.” And, she continued, saying that just as her children know that they have her full  support, “I need to make sure that I have their support, their full support.”

At the same time, Mayor Rivera continued, “I want to make sure that these projects in Central Falls happen. I am happy where I am. I love what is happening in Central Falls. People are seeing that there is movement here. People are interested in coming to Central Falls. There is a lot happening here. We are getting a new community center. We are getting a new high school. We are getting new affordable housing built.”

Mayor Rivera proudly took ownership of the ongoing changes in her city, saying: “These are my projects, the things I said I wanted to do when I came [into office as mayor in 2021], and they are happening.”

Mayor Rivera then posed the questions she faces out loud, sharing them with ConvergenceRI: “So, do I leave it all behind me? And leave? Or, do I stay here and continue my work? This is my home. This is my community. I love my community. And, I love the work I have done here.”

Then, as if she were having an internal debate with herself, Mayor Rivera talked about the strengths she perceives she would bring to a Congressional campaign. “But, at the same time, I am a person who brings people together. I know how to work with people to get things done. And, I think that would be a huge advantage.”

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera, on the cusp of deciding whether or not to run for Congress, a single mom who has become a champion for changing the way that business gets done in the state’s smallest city, bringing to the forefront a new kind of political sensibility to a city that has, in the past, often been overwhelmed by crushing economic forces outside of the mayor’s control.

ConvergenceRI: As Mayor, your work has often focused on community and engagement. Can you talk about how you see community and why it is important to you?
MAYOR RIVERA: This is where I live. I live here. Part of it is making sure that people feel safe. Making sure that we are attracting [new businesses].

My last campaign was conducted in the middle of a pandemic. People were dying. We had children in homes who didn’t have [access to] medical [care] who were suffering. Their parents didn’t know what to do. They couldn’t get medical [services].

I am never going to forget those calls, with people saying, “Someone passed away in their house, with children there.”

[One of] my big concerns is mental health. There are so many different factors here that we have to talk about: Housing is a huge factor; so is the homeless population.

I don’t have a homeless population that sleeps outside. I have a homeless population with people who are living in the same apartment, two or three families living in the same apartment, which is a health crisis.

Because we were asking people to do something they couldn’t do, we were asking people to isolate. How can you ask a household with eight people, 10 people, to isolate, when they are living in one apartment, because they are family? Because they can’t afford it? Because their rents are so crazy.

ConvergenceRI: Your passion is transparent…
MAYOR RIVERA: … I will never forget. I received this phone call from someone: [Two children], eight and seven years old, found their uncle dead in the bathroom, due to COVID. The families were terrified. What’s going to happen to these kids, with their mental health?

These kids needed to be seen by someone, they needed services, because it is something that is going to impact them for the rest of their lives.

ConvergenceRI: There is work underway to resurrect what used to be a community center in Central Falls. Is that correct?

ConvergenceRI: Way back when, and I am showing my age here, in 1992, when I worked for United Way as communications director, one of the first events that I coordinated was for a summer initiative that the United Way was funding along with the Rhode Island Foundation, to support summer programming for kids. We held the kick-off event at the old Central Falls Community Center. How do you see the new community center helping to rebuild the city’s sense of community?
MAYOR RIVERA: When I think about all the things that a community center [can be], there is a swimming pool, there is a basketball court, they can have after-school programs. When I think about a community center, I am also thinking about bringing back a community center that is going to have a health component.

ConvergenceRI: Do you have a location for the community center?
MAYOR RIVERA: It will be [in the DeNevers Building at 702 Broad St.], across the street from Navigant. We just purchased the property in October [of 2022]. We have an architect, who is designing the building, with four floors. The first floor is going to be strictly for wellness – including mental health services.

We have to be realistic. We live in a community where there is a lot of fear. There are people who don’t speak English; there are people who don’t know how to use computers; there are people who need guidance; they need services.

One of the first things I did when I came into office as Mayor was to start the Office of Constituent Services here. It was really important to have a space where citizens could come – and where we could connect the people with those resources.

It was really important to have a space where citizens could come, and we could connect them with those resources, with housing, with health, with rent relief, with utilities. Sojourner House [an agency that works on preventing domestic violence] comes here once a month.

So, residents could come here for services. All of these services will move into the new community center.

ConvergenceRI: Can you talk about your strategies for building community connections, to give people a positive sense of themselves and the community, such as Salsa Night [a free dance party held on the last Friday of every month, May through September]?
MAYOR RIVERA: It is my responsibility to help bring people together. When COVID happened, I was in the streets. I had to do what I had to do. I was there. People need to know that as a leader of the community, they can trust me to help them. That’s not going to happen if they don’t see me out there. I was there. People need to know that as the leader of this community, they can trust me to help them. That’s not going to happen if they don’t see me out there.

ConvergenceRI: What additional resources would you like to have? From what I have observed, you have been able to leverage new resources, such as the Papitto Opportunity Connection. Also, you have been able to work closely with the Congressional delegation.

I was impressed at a recent meeting at which Sen. Jack Reed came over and talked specifically with you – that you had created a sense of respect, that people knew that there was a way to make you a partner in decision-making. You bring with you a different perspective – and that it requires a different approach on their part to respect you and to respect your office. Is that a fair way to describe the sense of respect?
MAYOR RIVERA: Yes. You have to work on those relationships, and to create a sense of trust with me. They have to believe that I do care about the community, because I truly care about the people of Central Falls.

ConvergenceRI: Switching gears, I saw a photo of you and your dog at the State House. What is your dog’s name?
MAYOR RIVERA: Liberty Justice Rivera.

ConvergenceRI: A lot of the focus of programming for Central Falls has focused on children, and school children.
MAYOR RIVERA: We just hired a school coordinator to see what kinds of programs we can bring into Central Falls to offer to the kids. The challenge is money. Such programs could have a huge impact in this community. Unfortunately, I don’t run the school district. It’s a little bit of a challenge. I can say that I have been very active with the educational leaders, trying to figure out what we can do, because there are a lot of different factors. There is the health factor; there is the mental health factor.

We are getting a new high school, but, at the same time, what are we doing to help our students succeed? Because a new building is not the definition of success for our children.

So, one conversation that is happening is: what do we need to do to help our children succeed? We have to have activities to keep them busy. We are renovating most of our city parks.

ConvergenceRI: If you had a billboard that you could put up, what would it say?
MAYOR RIVERA: It would be my new branding: “Diversity that inspires.”

Because I would love to have that on a billboard: Diversity that inspires.

It would be amazing to feature video from Salsa Night, with the slogan, “diversity that inspires.” We’re proud of what is happening in Central Falls. We are proud about what we have to offer.

ConvergenceRI: What would it cost to put up such a billboard?
MAYOR RIVERA: I don’t know. I can’t even think about that, because we don’t have any money for that.

ConvergenceRI: How difficult is it to manage expectations, given all the urgent needs of the community, and how long it takes to get some projects, like housing, off the ground? Everyone wants things to happen right away.
MAYOR RIVERA: It all comes down to money. I am constantly having conversations with CommerceRI and the Governor’s office. And Housing, because housing is such a huge problem.

Housing is probably the number-one conversation happening. People need housing. When I first came into office, I held a housing summit. And, I approached owners of some land, asking: What are you doing with it? I need to know that you are doing something with your property, because if you are not doing anything with it, I need it for housing, which is how we acquired the two pieces of property.

Jennifer [Hawkins of ONE Neighborhood Builders] and I had been talking for like 18 months. We were finally able to acquire the two pieces of property from the people who owned them. There’s an application that she submitted to Rhode Island Housing for funding, which hopefully she will find out in March or April if she can get the funding. so we can start working on these projects.

It takes time. But what that means is that it often comes down to money. If I had the money, we don’t have to wait two years, because it all comes down to funding. It has been very frustrating, because the need is there.

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