In Your Neighborhood/Opinion

A time to talk, a time to listen

Preparing for an interview with David Cicilline, the new president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation

Photo by Gene Dwiggins, used with permission of photographer

The inauguration of Mayor David Cicilline on Jan. 6, 2003, captured in a digital tiled landscape by photographer Gene Dwiggins.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 12/11/23
David Cicilline, the president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, faces numerous daunting challenges in a time of economic disruption.
How will the Equity Leadership Initiative move forward under the guidance of David Cicilline? Will the Rhode Island Foundation move forcefully under David Cicilline to address the need for investments in the nonprofit sector, elevating the role of community agencies as an economic force? Will the Rhode Island Foundation lend its voice around issues of climate change and its future impacts on Narragansett Bay?
The growing political tensions on college campuses concerning the rise of anti-Semitism have created lots of angry rhetoric in recent weeks. If I were still teaching journalism and freshman English at the college level, I would change my curriculum as follows: First, I would assign “Against Our Will” by Susan Brownmiller, a book recounting the way that rape has been used as a weapon of war. As a classroom assignment, students would have to make a presentation, choosing a “pro” or “con” position. “A woman is justified in killing her attacker if she were being raped.”
Then I would have the students read, “This way for the gas, ladies and gentleman,” by Tadeusz Borowski, and “If not now, when?” by Primo Levi, as basic primers on the Holocaust.
Finally, I would assign “Shooting an Elephant,” by George Orwell, recounting his experiences as a police officer in Burma, where in order to save face, he was forced to shoot an elephant that had gone on a rampage.
For extra credit, I would assign “Dispatches” by Michael Herr, with the writing assignment: “When did the Vietnam War start?”
All of these reading assignments [save for Primo Levi} were actual parts of the curriculum for the two classes I taught as an adjunct instructor in “Freshman Rhetoric” at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the spring semester of 1978.

PROVIDENCE – The inauguration of David Cicilline as Mayor of Providence on Jan. 6, 2003, occurred on a cold and snowy day. The historic moment was captured by photographer Gene Dwiggins in a tiled digital landscape, put together from hundreds of images to document the big sea change in Rhode Island’s political history.

Twenty years later, after a stint as a Congressman, Cicilline is now serving as the president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation. With its $1.4 billion endowment and its activist philanthropic agenda, the Rhode Island Foundation has emerged as a powerful arm of state investment and public policy, supporting initiatives focused on education, health, housing and life sciences innovation.

In January, ConvergenceRI hopes to be able to sit down and talk, one-on-one, with Cicilline. It is a tradition of “interviews” that goes back two decades, to September of 2003, when, as editor of The Jewish Advocate in Boston, I had the opportunity to interview the Mayor in his office at City Hall.

The interview “tradition” extended to when George Graboys had served as president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, before Neil Steinberg assumed that role in 2008. 

And, before that, to when Ron Gallo had served as president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation during the decade of the1990s, and the Rhode Island Foundation and United Way of Rhode Island [I had worked as the communications director at United Way], the two philanthropic organizations were frequent collaborators on a number of initiatives, including Child Opportunity Zones.

How has giving changed everything?  
The messaging from the Rhode Island Foundation has been consistent: “Giving changes us. Giving changes everything.” So reads the copy in the digital print ads that now grace ecoRI News and Nesi’s Notes, on a weekly basis.

In response to the urgent demands created by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Rhode Island Foundation found itself in the thick of government interventions. The R.I. General Assembly asked – and the Rhode Island Foundation agreed to take up the task – to oversee the disbursement of roughly $20 million from the state’s share of $1.1 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act monies through grants made to some 240 nonprofits working on the issues of hunger, housing, and behavioral health.

Translated, the Rhode Island Foundation effectively served as an unelected fourth arm of state government. “The $20 million the Foundation has awarded since December [of 2022] is the single largest pool of grants in the organization’s 107-year history,” wrote Chris Barnett, the Foundation’s public relations manager, earlier in 2023.

Further, in 2020, the Rhode Island Foundation served as the pro bono “partner” for McKinsey & Company, enabling the consulting firm to become embedded with state government to help direct the state’s response to COVID-19, in an unpublicized and apparently “unpaid” role, at least by the state.

The Rhode Island Foundation also provided “bridge” financing to help secure the loans needed to make the deal to redevelop the former U.S. Industrial Trust building, commonly referred to as the “Superman” building.

And, in October of 2020, the Rhode Island Foundation invested $8.5 million to launch the Equity Leadership Initiative, under the direction of the Foundation’s Vice President Angela Bannerman Ankoma.

Finally, the Rhode Island Foundation paid for a study to research the opportunities for the state to invest in its life sciences industry sector, which led to the creation of the R.I. Life Science Hub, with a $45 million investment by the R.I. General Assembly – and the nomination of former Rhode Island Foundation President and CEO Neil Steinberg to serve as chair of the board of directors of the new Hub.

Translated, David Cicilline arrived on the job at the Rhode Island Foundation with what appears to be a full dance card.

Are we looking ahead to seven lean years?  
All the recent data trends show an ever-widening wealth gap in Rhode Island that is playing out in every economic sector in the state. The middle class seems to be rapidly disappearing in Rhode Island,

To borrow a lyric from Joni Mitchell,  “reading the news and it sure looks bad…”:

  •    The R.I. Life Index produced its lowest scores since its inception five years ago in 2019.
  •    The 2023 Housing Fact Book produced by HousingWorks RI documented the lack of communities offering an affordable place to rent or to buy a home.
  •    Food insecurity keeps growing, according to the most recent survey by the R.I. Food Bank.
  •    The nonprofit sector, representing nearly 17 percent of the state’s private workforce, earned some $4 billion in total wages in 2021. Yet it continues to bear the brunt of the state’s failure to invest in that sector, being treated as disposable vendors, according to Nancy Wolanski, director of the Nonprofit Resource Center headquartered at United Way of Rhode Island.

The weight of being poor
One-third of the state’s total population – some 365,000 in March of 2023 out of 1.1 million residents – were dependent upon Medicaid for their health insurance coverage. The failure to raise Medicaid rates for providers has limited both services and workforce.

The health care delivery system [although some, such as Dr. Michael Fine, the former director of the R.I. Department of Health, have argued that it is not a system but rather a market that is very good at extracting wealth] appears to be no longer sustainable.

The health care workforce has been departing in droves, finding jobs in Massachusetts and Connecticut because of the low pay in Rhode Island.

Neil Sarkar, the president and CEO of the Rhode Island Quality Institute, one of the members of the Rhode Island Foundation’s stakeholder group grappling with the future of health care in the state, said that one of the fundamental problems facing the health care sector is burnout.

“In our health care community, the rate of burnout is very, very high and can be directly tied to lack of workforce, and the [payment] rates that we have are not there,” Sarkar said. He then asked rhetorically: Why would anybody subject themselves to the tortures of practicing medicine in any form right now?

The learning curve in education  
In education, ever since the state takeover of the Providence public schools in 2019, championed by Neil Steinberg and the Partnership for Rhode Island, a nonprofit CEO roundtable made up of the state’s largest employers, has found itself mired in controversy – poor attendance, poor performance on standardized tests, poor retention of teachers, particularly teachers of color.

Translated, David Cicilline not only has a full dance card but a laundry list of worrying economic indicators.

The good news is that Cicilline has proven to be an adept politician, a skilled orator, and a builder of coalitions. ConvergenceRI is looking forward to the opportunity to engage with Cicilline, to listen and to learn about his vision for the future of the Rhode Island Foundation. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, who can you find in Gene Dwiggins’ tiled landscape of David Cicilline’s inauguration on Jan. 6, 2003?

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