Innovation Ecosystem

A beautiful day in the neighborhood

ONE Neighborhood Builders celebrates 35 years of investing in community

Photo by Richard Asinof/File Photo

Jennifer Hawkins, director of the ONE Neighborhood Builders community development corporation, standing in Riverside Park, with some of the new homes her group has developed in Olneyville behind her, during a trolley tour organized by Rhode Island Housing in 2017.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 5/22/23
As ONE Neighborhood Builders celebrates 35 years as a community catalyst, here is an interview with the agency’s executive director, Jennifer Hawkins, sharing her insights about how to build a brighter, more equitable future in Providence.
With the plans to invest $45 million in state funds to create a Life Sciences hub in Rhode Island, how can the state leverage its strengths in diversity to imagine a research and innovation hub that focuses on new diagnostic tools being developed for newborns by researchers at Women & Infants Hospital? What would be the advantages to building out such a Life Sciences hub in Olneywille, with a focus on community, placed-based health equity and affordable housing? What would the pilot of a new sit-com situated in Olneyville, with the name “Providence,” revolve around in terms of a plot line? What kind of friendship bracelet could be created to honor the strengths of diverse, mother-daughter relationships by Taylor Swift fans?
In the afterglow of the Rhode Island Foundation annual meeting, held on Wednesday, May 17, as many of the 900 guests went from food station to food station, ConvergenceRI found himself in a perplexing situation: there was no way to juggle carrying a plate of food back to a table and to keep one’s balance, without falling or spilling the food on the floor. Frankly, the entire event was designed around the presumption that people in attendance were not disabled. And, for many of the attendees, it was more than easy to ignore someone who was disabled, not offering assistance, instead content to physically bump their way past on the line, as if they were driving their car and they had encountered the inconvenience of a speed bump along the way, in a hurry to scarf up a plate of tenderloin and fries.
Thankfully, one couple did stop to assist ConvergenceRI. In the conversation that followed, ConvergenceRI shared with them the fact some numbers that were not part of the discussion at the annual meeting: some 365,000 Rhode Islanders had Medicaid for their health insurance coverage – more than one-third of the state’s population. For whatever reason, the two professionals were surprised – aghast would be a better description – by the size of the cohort and what that meant in terms of Rhode Island’s future prosperity.
They realized, in a bolt of understanding, that any future prosperity in Rhode Island was dependent upon changing that denominator – and the importance of raising the artificially low Medicaid rates of reimbursement.
Rhode Island has been blessed by a recent crop of young journalists who have cut their teeth, as it were, covering the fecund landscape of the state’s political swamp: Celia Hack [now in Kansas], Julia Rock, and Olivia George [now in Tampa], among others.
Imagine if Stephen Kinzer, a former reporter and now a visiting fellow at Watson Institute at Brown, would convene a gathering of recovering journalists, including Tracy Breton and Mike Stanton, among others, to talk about the failures of reporters to hold elected officials accountable. [For the record, I first met Kinzer when he was doing communications for then candidate Michael Dukakis, who was running for Governor of Massachusetts in 1974, and I was a 21-year-old reporter with The Valley Advocate.
These days, so much of what we “receive” as news comes in emails through subscriber platforms.

PROVIDENCE – When ONE Neighborhood Builders holds its 35th birthday party on Wednesday evening, May 24, at the Graduate Providence hotel, honoring its community catalysts – Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, EOHHS Assistant Secretary Ana Novais, and Neil Steinberg, the outgoing president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation – it represents an opportunity to celebrate the champions of community, focused on the fruits of harvesting the investments in affordable housing, health equity, broadband connectivity, and bottom-up innovation for three decades.

Translated, ONE|NB has been at the center of transforming and reclaiming what once were the mean streets of Olneyville and its surrounding neighborhoods into a place where the road to prosperity begins at the front door of your own home.

Since 2017, much of that journey has been led by Jennifer Hawkins, executive director at ONE|NB, who along with her team, has been an indefatigable champion of community.

“If Providence had its own home-grown breakfast cereal to celebrate its champions of place-based development,” ConvergenceRI wrote in July of 2021, “one of the faces on the inaugural cereal boxes would no doubt be Jennifer Hawkins, the executive director of ONE Neighborhood Builders, who in the last few years has stewarded a series of remarkable achievements and tangible results [though Hawkins would certainly demur and insist that members of her team share in the spotlight].”

Time and again, Hawkins has been featured in reporting by ConvergenceRI, showcasing her leadership – from developing five affordable, net-zero small homes to launching a network of free, wire mesh WiFi to help heal the digital divide, from serving as the convener of the Central Providence health equity zone to linking childcare centers with place-based affordable housing. [See links to ConvergenceRI stories below.]

It seemed more than appropriate to turn the microphone over, as it were, to Hawkins, to allow her to talk about the past accomplishments and future visions of ONE Neighborhood Builders. Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Jennifer Hawkins, executive director of ONE|NB, on the occasion of the community development corporation’s 35th birthday celebration.

ConvergenceRI: As your community begins to vote on its participatory budgeting to choose where to invest more than $1 million in health equity projects, what do you believe to be the most important messaging to be heard about investments being driven through a bottom-up process?
HAWKINS: The process leading up to the vote may be as important, if not more important, than the actual [participatory budgeting] election.

This process began nearly a year ago with the formation of the Steering Committee – a group of 15 residents met intensively to develop the rulebook that has governed the entire process, laying out decisions such as who would be eligible to vote, how projects make it to the ballot, and the minimum and maximum investment in projects.

The most important message is that genuine building and shifting power comes from establishing the table – setting the seating arrangement, the menu, etc. – not just having a seat at the table, to use that metaphor.

The Nine Neighborhood Fund election will run from June 6 through June 20. [Readers can learn more at the link below.]

ConvergenceRI: Time and again, ONE|NB has been the glue in pushing a collaborative approach to housing development. How do you believe the landscape has changed as a result of you and your team’s advocacy around housing?
HAWKINS: I genuinely believe that when you can partner with like-minded organizations, the result will be stronger.

ONE|NB is partnering with PACE-RI on our development in Cumberland called Steeple & Stone. The housing project will set-aside 10 apartments for medically frail older adults who are PACE participants.

We are partnering with Foster Forward on our Riverside Square project where three of the 16 apartments will be for youth aging out of foster care.

And we are really pleased to be serving as a joint venture partner with Aldersbridge Communities to develop 39 apartments at East Point for older adults who identify as LGBTQ+ – Rhode Island’s first such development.

ConvergenceRI: How has the study commission on the Low and Moderate Income Housing Act, chaired by Rep. June Speakman, changed the conversation at the General Assembly?
HAWKINS: Speaker Shekarchi was smart to appoint Rep. Speakman as the Chair of the LMI Commission. She is a strong facilitator of the dialogue; which is not always easy to do, given the fact so many of us on the Commission are not shrinking violets.

The Commission has admittedly expanded its scope to [investigate]  the myriad of factors that stymie affordable housing production. I think the leadership of Speaker Shekarchi, Chair Speakman, Whip Kazazian, and others in the House has resulted in an elevation of the issue that is “unprecedented” – an adjective that goes thrown around a lot these days.

The Boston Consulting Group housing report laid out numerous policies that we need to evaluate for Rhode Island, and I think the Commission is a good place to do just that.

ConvergenceRI: There is a famous lyric from one of Bob Dylan’s early songs, “Talkin’ New York,” which goes: “So long, New York/Howdy, East Orange [N.J.]  It seems that sentiment could be true regarding East Providence, which is emerging as a hub of new affordable housing development. Why has East Providence emerged as such a hub?
HAWKINS: First and foremost – Mayor Bob DaSilva has made housing a priority. The City of East Providence could not be more collaborative and easy to work with!

Secondly, East Providence has a considerable amount of unused and underused properties that can be used for housing.

Lastly, the Waterfront District Commission has an inclusionary zoning requirement that has spurred affordable envelopment, and for those developers who elect to pay the fee-in-lieu as opposed to constructing the affordable requirement, East Providence now has a pool of funds it can use to help developers like ONE|NB complete their capital stack.

ConvergenceRI: If you could offer David Cicilline an opportunity to take a tour of ONE|NB’s projects, now that he’s serving as the new CEO and president of the Rhode Island Foundation, where would you take him on such a walking tour?
HAWKINS: I would offer to bring David to 350 Taunton Ave. and have him meet with my three friends and colleagues – Karen Santilli from Crossroads, Lisa Guillette from Foster Forward, and Margaret Holland-McDuff from Family Service of RI – and together we would show him where we will be breaking ground on 160 apartments – a transformational project of significant scale.

He would see the short distance to downtown East Providence that has new shops that will welcome new customers; he’d see the bus stop in front of the building that underscores the importance of transit-oriented development, and he’d be able to envision where high-quality housing and a childcare center will replace the three-acre currently blighted site.

ConvergenceRI: The latest ceremony handing out the 2023 RI Kids Count Factbook on Monday, May 15, was marked by a philosophical launch of a future Rhode Island that celebrates its diversity. How can that messaging be amplified, based upon your knowledge and experience working at the community level?
HAWKINS: Central Falls is a city that celebrates its diversity; it is in fact its slogan. I’ve had the opportunity to get to know Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera and, in watching her leadership style, I think celebrating diversity means “showing up.”

Being present and accessible to the community is so essential for elected leaders as well as for nonprofit leaders. And, community work is messy and complicated, so it helps to have very tough skin.

ConvergenceRI: How has the community small loan program you launched last year progressed?
HAWKINS: It’s been highly successful; we’ve made 11 loans totaling $137,500 to businesses as diverse as a hair salon to an auto shop. While there are several small business loan programs in Rhode Island, I think we distinguish ourselves in two important ways: it's community-controlled; and it'splace-based.

Our loan committee is comprised of individuals who work or live in Central Providence, and all loans are made to very small businesses [less than 25 employees] placed in Rhode Island. Also, it’s important to add that we support borrowers to become “capital ready” – for many entrepreneurs, there is a fair amount of support that needs to happen before they are ready to obtain a loan, even one that is only $5000.

Our partners at Providence Revolving Fund and Innovation Studio are instrumental in this effort.

ConvergenceRI: What questions haven’t I asked, should I have asked, that you would like to talk about?
HAWKINS: We’re celebrating 35 years and I’m thrilled that we are honoring Neil Steinberg, Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, and Assistant Secretary Ana Novias as our 2023 Community Catalysts on Wednesday, May 24.

ConvergenceRI: This question may seem a bit self-serving, but I am asking it anyway: What have you experienced as the value of ConvergenceRI providing ongoing, extensive in-depth reporting on the work of ONE|NB over the last 10 years?
HAWKINS: Richard, you truly connect the dots and you have a long memory – especially on topics others would wish you would forget about. I’ve always appreciated the “under the radar” portion of your stories.

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