Pawtucket’s diversity a strength, say those at TogetherRI event

Pawtucket’s diversity a strength, say those at TogetherRI event

Pawtucket’s Khrystyne Bento shares thoughts with others at her table during last Saturday’s Rhode Island Foundation event at the YMCA. (Breeze photo by Diandra Markgraf)

PAWTUCKET – More than 70 residents of Pawtucket and Central Falls gathered in the second-floor gym of the downtown Pawtucket Family YMCA last Saturday to discuss what makes their city and state great.

In Spanish, English, Portuguese and French, the group spanning generations sat together and hashed out the city and state’s greatest strengths – and the many challenges that are still ahead.

The Rhode Island Foundation sponsored this “Bring It to the Table” breakfast discussion, one of 20 events across the state, as part of its new “TogetherRI” initiative.

Foundation President and CEO Neil Steinberg noted the goal of Together RI is to bring Rhode Islanders to mealtime tables with people they wouldn’t otherwise meet, and to chip at impersonal barriers erected in the digital age.

“Our role in these TogetherRI community meet-ups is to provide the opportunity for people to talk and listen to each other and then step back and listen carefully,” Steinberg said.

So far, he said he’s seen engagement and thoughtful dialogue in multiple languages from Providence to Foster.

“The key is the table, where eight or so people can have a conversation about the strengths and challenges of Rhode Island,” he said.

Over eggs and bacon, orange juice and coffee, the group at the YMCA began their time by discussing the state’s strengths.

Across the board, designated speakers from each table said “Little Rhody” leads with its size, which offers accessibility to outdoor adventures as well as public servants and politicians.

Cultural diversity, noted Pawtucket attendees, also plays to Rhode Island’s pocket of strengths. One participant noted Providence County is the site of the 2018 Census Test in part because of its demographic diversity.

One woman, who introduced herself to the room only as Claudia, arrived with minutes left of timed discussion. The Rhode Island native said she felt compelled to share what brought her and her children to the table Saturday – what she called a strength of the state no other city she’s lived in could offer in the same capacity.

To a wave of applause, she added, “Diversity is such a privilege and an asset. … Now, my children are growing up in that same cultural competency.”

But the diversity that can be a boon has also caused a rift in some communities, said those at the event. Some noted the state’s demographics coupled with its capacity for redeveloping existing properties led to a dearth of affordable housing across income levels.

As each table dove into the challenges facing their communities that impact their daily lives, themes began to emerge, from the need for better public transportation routes for commuting to work, to the threat of more garbage flowing through the waste transfer station in Pawtucket’s Fairlawn neighborhood.

From these challenges, participants discussed what opportunities are sprouting through the topsoil. Many expressed a desire to tap into the natural resources of the state, instead, to drive local economies, including the Blackstone River Corridor.

Others acknowledged inherent talents a culturally diverse, immigrant-driven population has to offer. With this, they said, comes a need for representative discussion and leadership. In tandem, many emphasized the importance of having voices not only heard, but recognized as able to enact change.

Participant Elmer Carvalho Pina, of Capeverdean American Community Development, explained, “Advocacy impacts daily life,” and themes of racism and minority perceptions are nationwide issues that stretch beyond Pawtucket’s borders. He pushed the need for minority groups to be able to come to the table and battle policy makers.

Pina’s tablemate, Tony Lima, concurred, adding, “You have to get out and speak to be heard.”

Many figures of local organizations participated in the discussion as well, including the CACD, Blackstone Valley Tourism Council and Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien.

Five more roundtable talks will take place through May 5. Attendees can visit the Rhode Island Foundation at www.RIFoundation.org to see a full schedule and register for the community events. Registration is not mandatory to participate, but is helpful in allowing better planning and setup.

Following the final event, a team at the University of Rhode Island’s Social Science Institute for Research, Education, and Policy will compile data garnered from the discussions in addition to the surveys attendees submitted at the close of each session.

The R.I. Foundation plans to share the themes from the events later this year, and adapt future programming to suit the needs of communities across Rhode Island.