George Wiley Center marks 40 years of advocating for justice

George Wiley Center marks 40 years of advocating for justice

Members of the Board of Directors for the George Wiley Center and friends on the steps of the Pawtucket Public Library in June 2019. The Center is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.
Staff, volunteers have been hard at work during pandemic

PAWTUCKET – After a busy year of helping feed people who are food insecure, fighting for racial justice, and pushing for policies to protect Rhode Islanders from utility shutoffs, the staff and volunteers at the George Wiley Center in Pawtucket are getting ready to celebrate 40 years of organizing for social and economic justice.

“We’re very excited about the 40th anniversary,” Executive Director Camilo Viveiros told The Breeze. “There aren’t many welfare groups that are still around. We’re the longest-running grassroots organizing group in Rhode Island.”

The Center, at 32 East Ave., is a grassroots group committed to organizing with low-income Rhode Islanders to advocate for systematic changes and create social and economic justice through changes in public policy, according to its website. Founded in 1981 by anti-poverty activist Henry Shelton, the organization is named for the late George Wiley, a Warwick native, who worked with the Congress of Racial Equality and founded the National Welfare Rights Organization.

The organization’s four staff members and many volunteers focus on issues related to basic needs and dignified quality of life including utility access, SNAP benefits, living wages, employment, and other ways to eliminate poverty. They provide direct support and focus on research, community education, grassroots lobbying, and more.

The Valley Breeze is committed to keeping quality news stories like this one free to our readers. You can be a huge part of this local journalism success story by making a one-time or monthly contribution to what we do every week. Thank you as always for reading.

While the Center began in Providence, Viveiros said it’s been based in Pawtucket for at least 30 years. “We’re happy to be in Pawtucket,” he said. “Pawtucket has been our home.”

Viveiros, who has been with the George Wiley Center since 2012, and as executive director since 2016, said they have plans for an anniversary celebration in May but aren’t sure if it will happen in person or not.

They are also trying to double their membership from 500 to 1,000 people, as well as recruit 40 supporters who can each donate $40 monthly to help sustain the organization, but he added that donations of any size are appreciated.

As part of an anniversary fundraiser, the venter is hosting an art auction featuring pieces by artists both local and across the country who make art related to social justice. Visit . He said staff have also been talking to longtime supporters and collecting their stories. If anyone wishes to contribute to this project, they can email .

Over the years, Viveiros said, many other groups have grown from the George Wiley Center, which serves as a community hub, including immigration rights and disability rights organizations. “We’re proud of that,” he said. “We see that as a success.”

Earlier this month the venter created the Pawtucket Youth Organizing Project, which will engage local youth and teach them organizing skills and about community issues, he noted. “We know there are youth who care and are active,” he said. “We want to give them the support they need.”

Viveiros said the organization has a track record of victories from over the years. In addition to looking back, they’re treating the 40th anniversary as a time to look forward and help win bigger victories, he added. “The victories that we want to win together are in some ways more important now than ever,” he said. “It’s not hyperbole to say it’s life or death for a lot of our members” – people who are disproportionately affected by the pandemic and racial and economic injustice.

This year, during the pandemic, the group was able to win a moratorium to prevent utility shutoffs during the pandemic to help folks who are unable to pay their gas and electric bills. At the same time, he said, people are getting stressed seeing their bills pile up, so they are currently campaigning for a Percentage Income Payment Plan that would allow low-income Rhode Islanders to pay a fixed percentage of their income on utilities.

“It’s unnecessary for low-income folks to have to live in that fear,” he said.

The venter has also continued to work to improve food insecurity, especially this year, when the need increased astronomically, Viveiros noted. They partner with Food Not Bombs to deliver food from local farms to hundreds of Rhode Islanders each week and work with the community gardens operated by Roots2Empower.

They’ve also been collaborating with the Rhode Island Food Policy Council and the Commercial Fisheries of Rhode Island to distribute locally caught fish. As of the end of November, they had donated more than 2,500 pounds to folks in need. “That’s been very popular,” he said. “We’ve heard a lot of really touching feedback.”

With many people without housing showing up to the food distributions, he said they’ve also been giving out clothes and blankets. They also have distributed more than 6,000 masks this year, he added.

Looking ahead to 2021, Viveiros said there is much work to be done by institutions and at the grassroots level to come out of the pandemic as a more caring society. “We’re hoping that this moment has solidified and reinforced people’s understanding of how we need a strong social safety net,” he said, including how important access to food, financial assistance, and health care is.

Also next year, pandemic-related issues will continue to be the focus, and they plan to distribute more masks, work on access to vaccinations, and more, he said.

For more information, visit .