Innovation Ecosystem

Speaking up, speaking out to honor, amplify the voices of victims

A new narrative provides lessons in survival

Photo by Richard Asinof

Attorney General Peter Neronha speaks at a gathering to honor victims of crime.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 4/29/24
A gathering to honor survivors and victims of violent crimes and interpersonal violence amplifies the voices that need to be heard and listened to.
What is the best way to amplify the voices of those who have been victimized by interpersonal violence in a way that is healing and uplifting? How can those responsible for environmental crimes be held accountable for their actions? When will Mayor Brett Smiley respond to ConvergenceRI’s invitation to take a tour of Allen’s Avenue? Will Brown University be willing to invite author Beth Macy to speak about harm reduction, in partnership with CODAC?
The ongoing treaty negotiations now taking place around how to regulate plastics in the future offer an opportunity to talk about the way that plastics were injected into our lives as an advertising strategy by plastics manufacturers to promote a throw away world of convenience. Writer Rebecca Altman has provided a steady stream of social media posts documenting the nefarious advertising campaigns deployed to sway public opinion around the convenience of plastics. She also has put forth the evidence of the toxicity of plastics as an ever-growing health hazard. The lack of coverage by Rhode Island news media is disappointing.

PROVIDENCE – At first it might seem to be a bit unrelated. But the overarching question I kept asking myself while attending an event last week which honored crime victims was this: Where does Allens Avenue begin?

As many city residents may know, Allens Avenue is an industrial boulevard running parallel to the port of Providence, bordering upper Narragansett Bay. Most of us have experienced Allens Avenue as something we see in the distance as we drive past it traveling in our cars, north and south, along Route 95. 

The horizon of Allens Avenue is filled with gas tanks, billboards, and wind turbines – and a big curve in the highway as well as a “big blue bug,” a termite.

Allens Avenue is home to a notorious unlicensed metal recycling facility as well as numerous strip clubs. The city’s two biggest exports, a pediatrician once wryly observed, were scrap metal and syphilis.

A recent fire at the metal recycling facility sent dark billowing clouds of toxic smoke into the city’s skies, making all of the city's residents its victims.

“They ought to have an alarm system so if this happens again people are automatically aware that there's an emergency,” said community activist Linda Perri at a recent gathering, as reported by the indefatigable Steve Ahlquist. “A lot of people didn't know what was going on. You had to turn on the news. Channel 12 was showing pictures of these hundred-foot plumes of smoke. I live close to it and the smell just hits you. It was awful.”

Depending on which way the wind was blowing, Perri continued, “You get it. It came west, directly into our neighborhood. And to that point, every time there's a little puff from the Shell Oil tanks or even things you don't smell, there's a cumulative effect. We live near a port. We are not unlike Louisiana, Florida, or California. We live near a port and we are getting it 24/7.”

Perri made the poignant case that all of the residents of Providence were victims. “We might not smell it, but we're getting it. So, we need to clean it up. I feel like it’s a ‘Norma Rae’ moment [a 1979 movie starring Sally Field as a textile worker who became involved in union activities because of health and safety dangers at the factory where she worked]. We need to clean it up. If we don't want to be part of the solution, then shame on us because we're just going to get sick.”

So, where does Allens Avenue begin? Is it at the first left-hand turn after the natural gas-powered electricity generating station on Point Street at Davol Square? Is it at the city’s self-proclaimed innovation hub at 225 Dyer St., the Brown Medical School, and South Street Landing, the former power plant that now serves as a nursing education center?

And, where does it end? Is it at the headquarters of Save The Bay and the Johnson & Wales University campus, marked by the wind turbines at Fields Point and sewage treatment facilities?

How do we measure the psychic distance between Memorial Park at South Main Street, the site of a ceremony honoring victims of violent crime in Rhode Island? It may be a mere three football fields away from Allens Avenue, but it encompasses a narrative filled with four centuries of American industrial enterprise – slavery, fossil fuels, interstate highways, sewage, and jewelry [the street signs still say “Jewelry District”] – much of it filled with the dark underbelly of greed.

“There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves,” author Toni Morrison wrote, describing the missing narrative around slavery. “There is no suitable memorial, or plaque, or wreath, or wall, or park, or skyscraper lobby,” Morrison continued. “There’s no 300-foot tower; there’s no small bench by the road. There is not even a tree scored, an initial that I can visit or you can visit in Charleston or Savannah or New York or Providence or better still on the banks of the Mississippi.”

Perhaps there is a need to create a small bench next to the pedestrian bridge in Providence, a place where it can be proclaimed, “Here is where Allens Avenue begins,” creating a new narrative about connectedness, where victims can always be unafraid to speak out and tell their stories of survival, as a way to heal our community.

Are we not all victims?  
The gathering held on Wednesday afternoon, April 24, at Memorial Park along South Main Street to commemorate National Crime Victims’ Week, featured R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha, R.I. Treasurer James Diossa, Providence Police Colonel Oscar L. Perez, Jr., U.S. Attorney Zachary Cunha, and Candace Johndrow, Vice President of the Hope Division at Family Service of Rhode Island. Numerous heroes were recognized for their courage and advocacy on behalf of victims and survivors of violent crime and interpersonal violence.

Some 60 people had gathered for the awards ceremony, despite the threatening dark skies. And, right on cue, in a moment of serendipity, the sunny side of the street prevailed. What moments before had been the scene of a cloudburst turned into a sky filled with blue and bright sunshine.

The overarching question that was asked at the ceremony, attached to the podium as signage – and an integral part of a week of national advocacy surrounding victims of crime, was this: “How would you help?” in providing options, services, and hope for crime survivors.

“Ensuring accessible support and services for victims of crime is not just a moral imperative, but a cornerstone of a just society,” said Candace Johndrow, vice president of FSRI’s Hope Division.

“It is always so humbling, for me, personally, to gather here with you each year to remember what is, fundamentally, one of the most important reasons why all of us here, whatever our roles, do the work that we do: to stand up for, to speak up for, to support and to seek justice for the victims of crime, whose grace and fortitude are an example to us all,” said U.S. Attorney Zachary Cunha. Not just when we pause and gather here to remember and commemorate them, but every day because they remind us of what is truly important.

Laura Dussault, a volunteer with SOAR, Sisters Overcoming Abusive Relationships, was one of six people to receive an award for her efforts to help survivors. “We all need to help survivors of violence,” Dussault said. “We can listen and believe. We can fund programs. We can pass legislation for affordable housing and health and wellness programs.”

Law enforcement advocate Renee Castelli, survivor and advocate Rebecca White, caseworker Christie Robbins and Warwick Sgt. Matt Moretti were also honored at the ceremony.

For Cheryl Patenaude, who received a lifetime achievement award after four decades of advocacy on behalf of victims, the answer was clear: “I have been privileged to serve to help those who have been victimized,” she said. Patenaude made a point of not talking as an individual, but as a member of team, identifying with the survivors who, “having lost their sense of safety,” had “the courage to start their life over again, at age 8 or at age 80.”

 ‘Our voices need amplification’  
In his introductory remarks, Attorney General Peter Neronha attempted to frame the ceremony by talking about the importance of speaking up and speaking out.  “Make no mistake,” he said. “Our voices need amplification. Because too often, in the halls of justice, and in the halls of power, we are many times speaking into the wind. And, it shouldn’t be as difficult as it is to make our drunk driving laws what they should be, to provide justice for victims.”

Neronha voiced his frustrations about the difficulties of victims’ voices being heard. “Too often, victims’ voices are not amplified, and even when they are amplified, not heard,” he said. “Too often, when law enforcement speaks, our voices are taken for granted, We have to keep speaking loudly, and not be discouraged by the fact that sometimes, it feels like we are speaking into the wind.”

Neronha then shifted his focus to speak about victims in a broader sense. “When Providence schoolchildren, when nearly 20 percent of them are lead-poisoned, they are victims of a health care system and a justice system that makes it harder for them to learn,” he said.

“When Providence schoolchildren can’t get the dental care that they need, not just the cleaning but for cavities and root canals, that’s not justice for your schoolchildren,” Neronha continued. “When they can’t breathe clean air because they live in neighborhoods polluted by industries around them, there is no justice for those children.”

The schoolchildren, Neronha said, were victims not just of failing systems of health care and education, but a lack of political will to fix the problems. “It shouldn’t come as a surprise to us that children in the Providence school system don’t meet the standards that we’d like them to meet, when 20 percent of them are lead-poisoned and they are in pain for lack of dental care and lack of health care, and they go home to neighborhoods that are polluted,” he said. “They are victims, too, of a failing health care system, of a failing educational system. [The systems] victimize them in a way that can be fixed, but there is a lack of will to fix it.”

Neronha emphasized the need to continue to speak out. “The voices that are speaking out today need to continue to speak out loudly, not withstanding the uphill challenges that may exist,” he said.

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