Innovation Ecosystem

It is time to have some uncomfortable conversations

On racial equity in Rhode Island, on the legacy of slavery in Rhode Island, on what it means to be Jewish in Rhode Island, on the threat of climate change in Rhode Island and our perverse relationship with the fossil fuel industry, on the relationship between gun violence and domestic violence in Rhode Island, and on the increasingly bizarre, erratic behavior of President Trump

Photo by Connie Grosch, courtesy of Rhode Island Foundation, as tweeted by Neil Steinberg

Womazetta Jones, right, the new Secretary of the R.I. Executive Office of Health and Human Services, speaking at a reception to welcome her on Thursday morning, Aug. 22, at the Rhode Island Foundation, with Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 8/26/19
To embrace the potential for an innovation economy to thrive and be inclusive as an engine for future economic prosperity in Rhode Island, it will require becoming comfortable with having any number of uncomfortable conversations, including about racial equity, health equity, educational equity, and wealth equity. The first big step in doing so will be to create convergence, to be able to make the conversations public, to build an engaged community, and to encourage the news media to report on them and give such conversations prominence.
Why publish inaccurate data on chronic absenteeism by teachers in the Providence schools that does not separate out maternity leave, bereavement leave, and approved absences for training and professional development days? Whose agenda does it serve to publish such skewed data as newsworthy? Will the new commissioner of education be willing to ask the R.I. Department of Health to conduct a health audit of all schools in Providence as a way to determine which buildings may be making students and teachers sick? When will there be an engaged, public conversation about plans to expand personalized learning in Rhode Island schools using software platforms dominated by large technology companies? What kinds of curriculum changes are needed to address students in high school who are English language learners and special education students who not reading at grade level? When will nurses fully participate at the decision-making table around the future of health care in Rhode Island? When will the creation of affordable, safe, healthy housing become an economic priority?
It cannot be truly hidden under the radar screen when the Amazon River basin is ablaze, when the ice caps are melting and the ocean levels are swelling, when the intensity of heat waves and storms escalate, when the vectors of disease-carrying mosquitoes and ticks keep expanding, when the oceans are awash in plastic waste, and when the dire changes in weather conditions are propelling the mass exodus of populations throughout the world. These are not “niche” economic issues; climate change is not a hoax.
Here in Rhode Island, the question is: when will the business community and the R.I. General Assembly be willing to step up to the plate and take the necessary actions to try to avert catastrophe here in the Ocean State?


“We have to get comfortable with having uncomfortable conversations about racial equity.”

That was the pronouncement made by Womazetta Jones, the new Secretary of the R.I. Executive Office of Health and Human Services, at a reception held in her honor on Aug. 22 at the Rhode Island Foundation, as tweeted out by Angela B. Ankoma, executive vice president of United Way of Rhode Island, with Ankoma adding an enthusiastic “Yes!”

It was the kind of frank declaration rarely made in public in Rhode Island by a high-ranking government official – and even more unlikely ever to be reported on by the local news media.

Two weeks earlier, on Thursday, Aug. 8, at a lengthy hearing held by the House Oversight Committee to discuss the failings of the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families, which Secretary Jones attended, Rep. Anastasia Williams spoke at length in welcoming Jones and shared some frank observations about racial equity in Rhode Island.

“Welcome to Rhode Island,” Williams began, and then addressed the risks that Jones would face in her new job, being a woman of color, urging Jones not to be forced to defend policies that could not be defended. Jones appeared to nod in acknowledgement.

Much of the hearing had centered on the problems of caseloads being too large for front-line workers at DCYF, the failure to ask for more money in the state budget to hire more front-line workers, and the lack of accountability in the current system of care, during which House Oversight Chairwoman Patricia Serpa suggested that it was “time to clean house,” because the agency had been “doing a half-ass job for our families.” The agency, Serpa said, “is at a fork in the road,” having had three directors in six years.

Williams had taken her turn in grilling the witnesses, including outgoing DCYF Director Trista Piccola. The hearings drew a large crowd, which had to be accommodated in an overflow room.

If the anger, disgust and outrage expressed by many members of the committee had been predictable, what Williams voiced had been surprising, in ConvergenceRI’s opinion. It was the first time, as far as ConvergenceRI could recall, during an Oversight Committee meeting, when the issue of racial equity had been addressed, front and center, in public.

The next day, at the celebration opening the new pedestrian bridge over the Providence River, ConvergenceRI spoke to a member of the Oversight Committee, a long-term veteran at the State House, who agreed with ConvergenceRI’s observation that she, too, had never heard the issue of racial equity be addressed so openly before.

The front-page story published on Aug. 9 about the hearing in The Providence Journal, written by reporter Tom Mooney, did not quote Williams once in his story; it did not make any reference to Williams’ remarks about racial equity. [Interestingly, the big feature story on The Journal’s front page that same day was about Rhode Island’s oldest black church celebrating its bicentennial, entitled “Keeping the faith for 200 years.”]

As best ConvergenceRI could determine, none of the other media coverage of the Oversight Committee hearing had contained any mention of William’s remarks around racial equity. [Curious readers can view the hearing themselves; see link below to RI Capitol TV for the video from the Aug. 8 Oversight Committee hearing.]

Was it a conditioned response by many members of the news media not to be able to hear or discern what Williams had said? Or, to perhaps discount it as being “unimportant” or “irrelevant” to the story, because it did not fit easily into the prevailing narrative? [Some observers told ConvergenceRI the problem was not with what was being said, but rather, who was saying it, and the tone of voice being used.]

However, under Secretary Jones, that sense of invisibility, of imperceptibility, of not being heard, promises to change, across a broad spectrum of ethnic, racial and cultural identities.


What it means to be a Jew?

Another uncomfortable conversation that needs to take place is about what it means to be a Jew in America and in Rhode Island, particularly after President Donald Trump claimed that Jews were being disloyal to Israel if they voted for Democratic candidates.

There was something ironic, cruel and beyond belief about having Trump attempt to serve as the arbiter, much like the advertising cartoon character, Charlie the Tuna, who once tried to steer American consumers to choose between “what is good taste” and “what tastes good,” about what it means to be Jewish in America – and what the relationship between American Jews should be with Israel, and how they should express their personal voting rights at the ballot box as American citizens.

Had Trump ever heard of or read the letter that President George Washington sent to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, written on Aug. 21, 1790? Not likely. In the letter, Washington wrote: “For happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.”

Somehow, Trump equated that Jews who voted Democratic as being disloyal to Israel, because Trump said that criticism of Israel’s policies by some Democratic lawmakers was allegedly “anti-Semitic.”

On the same day, Thursday, Aug. 22, that Secretary Jones was making her pronouncement, “We have to get comfortable with having uncomfortable conversations about racial equity,” The Providence Journal published a story, somewhat buried on Page 8, under the headline, “Trump’s comments on Jews draws sharp response in R.I.,” quoting M. Charles Bakst, identified as a prominent member of the Jewish community and as a former political columnist for The Journal.

“It’s ignorant and outrageous,” Bakst said. “There’s a whole long history of this kind of trope,” he continued. “It’s an example of how incompetent [Trump] is that he just fires off something like this and doesn’t really explain himself.”

In typical “he says this, he says that” journalistic etiquette, The Journal then interviewed David Talan, identified as vice-president of the Rhode Island Coalition for Israel and co-chair of the Providence Republican Party, who told the reporter, Madeleine List, that while he agreed with Trump’s sentiments, he would not have used the word “disloyal.”

“I think Jewish people who support candidates who support anti-Semitic positions are not voting in their best interests,” Talan told the reporter.

But, underneath the disagreement between Bakst and Talan is a much more fundamental conflict, one with an untold back story, about the apparent unwillingness of the Jewish community in Rhode Island to confront its own inability to have an uncomfortable conversation with itself, about itself – and to come to terms with its own past pursuit of a relationship with extreme elements of the evangelical Christian movement as a lucrative fundraising mechanism.

The broader context is the way that the evangelical Christian movement has positioned itself politically as the biggest support of Israel in the U.S.

The untold back story
On May 8, 2008, in the defining theatrical moment of “A Night To Honor Israel,” held at the Faith Christian Center in Seekonk, Mass., with more than 1,000 fervent evangelical Christians cheering and waving American and Israeli flags, Pastor David Marquard called upon a representative of the Rhode Island Jewish Federation [now renamed the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island] to receive a check for $30,000 made out to the Friends of the Alyn Hospital in Jerusalem.

The $30,000 represented about 90 percent of the money that had been raised that evening from participants gathered to “celebrate Israel’s 60th anniversary and 4,000 years of history.” The program featured an address by Pastor John Hagee, the controversial founder and chairman of Christians United for Israel, and president and CEO of John Hagee Ministries in San Antonio, Texas.

The night’s spotlight belonged to Hagee, who, hitting upon his familiar themes, attacked both radical Islam terrorists as well as what he perceived as liberal media, such as The New York Times, while avoiding some of his more controversial opinions regarding Catholics and Hurricane Katrina.

Courtship of the Jews

The well-scripted theatrical event was part of an ongoing – and controversial – courtship of the organized Jewish world by the evangelical Christian denominations, led by the Rev. Hagee. Similar fund-raising events had been held throughout the nation and regionally, including in New Haven and Hartford.

What would be the relationship the Jewish Federation of Rhode Island should pursue with the “Night To Honor Israel” and whether or not to accept funds raised at the event was a controversial, hush-hush topic discussed internally by top leaders at the Federation. The plan, as articulated in an email sent to the Federation’s executive vice president and CEO, had been to arrange for the funds to be sent to the Jewish Agency of Afula, Israel. [The Federation had an ongoing partnership with the Jewish Agency in Afula.]

Unfortunately, because of the Federation’s “lateness” in figuring out what it wanted to do, the designation of the Jewish Agency in Afula as the recipient of funds did not occur; instead, the money went to the Alyn Hospital in Jerusalem. Translated, despite the best laid plans, none of the money ended up in the coffers controlled or directed by the Federation.

What never got reported

Bakst was then working as a columnist for The Providence Journal. He had been tipped off, in advance, concerning the fund-raising event featuring the speech by the controversial Pastor Charles Hagee.

[ConvergenceRI was the one who told Bakst about Hagee’s pending visit, over coffee at the Starbucks formerly located adjacent to the lobby of the hotel formerly known as The Biltmore.]

For whatever reason, Bakst declined the opportunity to cover the story, voicing his concern about whether or not he could get permission from his editor to do so. So it goes.

Would coverage of the Hagee event either by Bakst or by The Providence Journal have changed the nature of the internal conversation in the Rhode Island Jewish community? Maybe, maybe not.

The story that subsequently appeared in The Jewish Voice & Herald had been, ah, heavily edited, in order to delete specific content about the role that the Federation had attempted to play in coordinating where the $30,000 raised at the event would go.

A number of rabbis who had participated in the internal discussions regarding the Hagee event, and who had voiced strong concerns privately about entering into any relationship with Hagee, no matter how much money was raised, chose not to speak out publicly.

There is a pronounced tendency, if that is the right word choice, to shush criticism of the Jewish community in public, even in casual conversation, as if it were impolitic to have the kinds of uncomfortable conversations required.

Indeed, a week before Trump made his controversial comments of Jewish voters, ConvergenceRI had the occasion to bump into Bakst at the L’Artisan Café in Wayland Square, at which time Bakst introduced me to his companion as the former editor of The Jewish Voice in Rhode Island.

As ConvergenceRI paused to gather his thoughts, in response, Bakst added, as a kind of proscriptive warning, “No bitterness, now.”

To paraphrase Secretary Jones, perhaps the Jewish community in Rhode Island needs to get comfortable with having uncomfortable conversations about Jewish identity and racial equity in the age of Trump.

PART Three

Who we are as Americans

These are the times when uncomfortable conversations about who we are and where we come from have become an urgent necessity to secure our own future survival, in the current course of human events.

To embrace the potential for an innovation economy to thrive and be inclusive as an engine for future economic prosperity in Rhode Island, it will require having any number of uncomfortable conversations about the diversity of our communities and neighborhoods.

One place to begin is with the roots of slavery in Rhode Island. The publication of The New York Times series, "The 1619 Project," observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery, has sparked a healthy debate in an attempt to reframe the country’s history, placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.

The provocative second piece in the series, “In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation,” by Matthew Desmond, offers the kind of insightful reporting often missing from most political coverage these days.

The story begins with a full-throated defense of a fatalistic capitalism offered by fraudster Martin Shkreli to defend his behaviors:

A couple of years before he was convicted of securities fraud, Martin Shkreli was the chief executive of a pharmaceutical company that acquired the rights to Daraprim, a lifesaving antiparasitic drug. Previously the drug cost $13.50 a pill, but in Shkreli’s hands, the price quickly increased by a factor of 56, to $750 a pill. At a health care conference, Shkreli told the audience that he should have raised the price even higher. “No one wants to say it, no one’s proud of it,” he explained. “But this is a capitalist society, a capitalist system and capitalist rules.” [See link to The New York Times  story from the 1619 Project below.]

The story links the current workplace of unremitting workplace supervision to its origins in the economics of slavery.

Desmond writes: “Today modern technology has facilitated unremitting workplace supervision, particularly in the service sector. Companies have developed software that records workers’ keystrokes and mouse clicks, along with randomly capturing screenshots multiple times a day. Modern-day workers are subjected to a wide variety of surveillance strategies, from drug tests and closed-circuit video monitoring to tracking apps and even devices that sense heat and motion.”

A 2006 survey, Desmond continued, “found that more than a third of companies with work forces of 1,000 or more had staff members who read through employees’ outbound emails. The technology that accompanies this workplace supervision can make it feel futuristic. But it’s only the technology that’s new.”

The core impulse, Desmond wrote, “behind that technology pervaded [the slave] plantations, which sought innermost control over the bodies of their enslaved work force.”

“The cotton plantation was America’s first big business, and the nation’s first corporate Big Brother was the overseer. And behind every cold calculation, every rational fine-tuning of the system, violence lurked.”

Imagine the conversation if the 12 CEO members of the Partnership for Rhode Island would have if Desmond’s story were required reading before their next meeting?

[One way to encourage becoming comfortable with holding the uncomfortable conversations around racial equity in Rhode Island, in a positive, constructive way to create a better understanding of Rhode Island’s history with slavery and honoring the descendants of slaves, is the proposed creation of a bench, in partnership with the Toni Morrison Society, on the parkland adjacent to the new pedestrian bridge over the Providence river. See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “To build an inclusive bridge into the future, honor the past.”]


A time to speak up
President Trump’s comments came during a week of increasingly bizarre, erratic behavior, including referring to himself as “the chosen one,” ordering American companies to stop doing business with China, because he told them to, and expressing outrage that his bid to buy Greenland was rejected by Denmark as being absurd.

At some point, the fulcrum will shift, and instead of calculating how many elected officials serving in Congress are in favor of impeachment, the question will be asked: why are you still defending Trump from a litany of alleged high crimes and misdemeanors?

To do so will require uncomfortable public conversations to be convened around racial equity, health equity, educational equity, and wealth and tax equity. Rhode Island is positioned to do so, in part because of the innovative work being done around such initiatives as the creation of health equity zones, which have put words into actions in developing community-based solutions addressing the 80 percent of health outcomes not determined by a visit to the doctor’s or nurse’s offices.

Editor's Note: The murder of Berta Hudson, the 48-year-old victim of a domestic violence shooting, on Saturday in Providence, in which the alleged gunman then shot and killed himself, according to police, raises questions, according to the R.I. Coalition  Against Domestic Violence. How did the gunman have access to a firearm, despite having a history of domestic violence? The murder marks the fourth domestic violence homicide in Rhode Island this year. This is part of another uncomfortable conversation we need to have.

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