News & analysis at the convergence of health, science, technology and innovation
Innovation Ecosystem/Opinion

The making of an engaged community

Sometimes hipness, like innovation and education, is what it ain’t

Photo by Richard Asinof

The current busy beehive of innovation in Providence on a Sunday afternoon are the sunflowers, across the river from the Wexford Innovation Complex, which attract a steady flow of honeybees, just down river from the Providence Flea,

By Richard Asinof
Posted 7/29/19
An attempt to explore the undercurrents of stories published in last week’s ConvergenceRI, because the facts are nothing without their nuance.
What would happen if teachers and students [and the parents of students] refused to go back into classrooms in Providence schools on Sept. 3 if they have not been certified by a third party as being safe, healthy environments? Will Brown encourage its employees working across the river in the former Jewelry District to consider becoming members of the Urban Greens co-op market? When will the new state education commissioner be willing to sit down and talk with Hope High School teacher Betsy Taylor? Will primary care physicians join with teachers, students and parents to demand a safe educational environment in schools as a way of preventing chronic diseases such as asthma?
Having been apparently “blackballed” by “A Lively Experiment” because of my unwillingness to follow the script, I keep wondering: what would it take to launch a different kind of political talk show? Imagine, for instance, if the voices of environmental reporters, women’s health advocates, public health advocates and community activists were to create their own show. How would that change the political conversation and create a more engaged community, rather than having the usual political pundits pontificating, mostly from a conservative point of view?
My guess is that it would shake up the status quo and develop a devoted following, even drawing interest from a cavalry of sponsors.

PROVIDENCE – The remnants of storms from recent stories published in ConvergenceRI, much like the sound of distant thunder from a late night summer squall, or the constant rumbling from truck traffic on Point Street while trying to have a conversation in the outside patio at Olga’s Cup + Saucer, keep intruding and interrupting my thoughts as I attempt to write and edit stories for the upcoming issue.

FIRST is the launch of the state takeover of the Providence schools.
A story written by Hope High School teacher Betsy Taylor in the July 22 edition of ConvergenceRI went viral, receiving more than 13,000 page views in five days. Why was that?

The story was long, very long, more than 4,000 words, a story that defied the strictures of most news narratives these days, which are composed of concise sound bites. Yet the average time spent reading Taylor’s story was about 8 minutes, according to the analytics, a phenomenal amount of time spent engaged in a story on a digital news platform in our distracted world of immediate gratification. What made it strike such a resonant chord?

Perhaps, it was because Taylor’s story was so honest and personal, cutting through all the verbiage, just as her impromptu, impassioned plea at Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza’s news conference on July 19 had disrupted the scripted messaging and carefully managed narrative. In a world where our voices are often blended and homogenized into opinion polls, Taylor’s story rang true.

Perhaps, it was because, for the first time, Taylor’s story gave a human voice to the teacher’s perspective about the ongoing educational crisis in our schools, a voice that had been largely missing from so much of the media script dominating the coverage. It also provided concrete steps, a plan of action, about what to do.

[Some credit, of course, must go to those who shared Taylor’s story on their platforms: WPRO's Tara Granahan, RINews Today, and the RI AFL-CIO, among others.]

Ignorance is bliss

Despite the widespread viral flow of Taylor’s story, what turned out to be most surprising was the fact that the new state education commissioner, Angélica Infante-Green, admitted to me after the meeting held on Tuesday evening, July 23, after the R.I. Council on Elementary and Secondary Education had voted to begin the process of the state takeover of the Providence schools, that she had not yet read the story. Really? Why not?

Neither had the commissioner’s acting communications director, Pete Janhunen.

Translated, the new education commissioner seems to thrive inside her own silo of manufactured news, adept at managing the press, skilled at pushing her agenda, keeping the spotlight on her. The media is the massage.

Betsy Taylor’s story had been preceded by “The importance of being earnest about education in RI,” published in ConvergenceRI on July 15, the week before. In fact, it was because of that story, which Taylor had read, liked and shared, that the door was opened for Taylor to be willing to write her own story for ConvergenceRI.

In the first story, also long and in-depth, the narrative had pulled together a number of missing threads from most of the existing coverage: the plans to expand computer-driven “personalized learning” in Rhode Island; what had actually happened in Newark, N.J., a city that had been compared with Providence in the commissioned Johns Hopkins report [and brought up by Infante-Green at the July 2 forum at Hope High School], where in 2010 Mark Zuckerberg had made a $100 million investment, matched by another $100 million, to push an agenda of public school education reform; a pending federal lawsuit against the state, charging that students had been deprived of their constitutional right to learn about civics; and the absolute lack of knowledge about an initiative launched 25 years ago in Rhode Island, Child Opportunity Zones, which sought to address many of the same issues now rampant in the Providence schools.

A third story, published mid-week last week, on Thursday, July 25, by ConvergenceRI, “What is the remedy for sick buildings?” followed up on details revealed in Taylor’s original story: unsafe conditions in her classroom had created an unhealthy, toxic environment for learning.

The gist of the story explored the dissonance around Commissioner Infante-Green’s announced plans to create a transparent database detailing chronic absences for students and teachers, as a kind of scolding metric to achieve accountability. But there was no plan articulated by the Commissioner on how to remediate the toxic, sick school buildings in advance of opening day of school on Sept. 3, which appeared to be at the root of so many of the large number of chronic absenteeism by students. [As the data analysis in the 2019 Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook reveals: “Asthma is one of the leading causes of school absenteeism, accounting for one-third of all absences.”]

There are protocols in place that would enable the R.I. Department of Health to do a point-in-time health audit of all the Providence school buildings, but the Catch-22 is: they have to be asked to do so by the R.I. Department of Education. A big question for Commissioner Infante-Green: Are you willing to make a request for a point-in-time health audit of all Providence school buildings? And, perhaps more importantly, who will certify that the classrooms are healthy and safe for students and teachers before the opening day of school on Sept. 3, while they are still under the control of the city?

Common sense says that you need to know, with evidence-based facts, what needs to be cleaned up and fixed before you launch into frenetic repairs.

And, a more pressing question: What would happen if students, teachers and parents revolted, refusing to enter sick school buildings that could be seen as recklessly endangering their health, and arranged to meet in alternative classrooms, until the city and the state could certify, following an independent environmental and health audit by a third party, that the rooms are safe and healthy?

Would primary care physicians be willing to back up those decisions, providing prescriptions to attend alternative classrooms in order to protect against chronic health diseases such as asthma?

The three ConvergenceRI stories, taken together, can be seen as a trilogy of what good reporting can achieve in Rhode Island, when convergence and conversation take place, often outside of the silo and bubble of traditional news media.

The takeaway moving forward, from the perspective of ConvergenceRI, is this: The response to Betsy Taylor’s story, and the three stories combined, gives a clearer definition to what an engaged community can become, when provided with the kind of news coverage that encourages conversation and convergence.

For sure, it is a much different metric that trying to sell ads based on how many clicks you get on a digital platform, promoting anxiety and mayhem.

Creating “an engaged community” through shared news content can have enormous political consequences. What caused the governor of Puerto Rico to resign? As Margaret Sullivan wrote in the July 27 issue of The Washington Post, “Eleven days. That’s the [amount of] time it took from a [local] Puerto Rican news organization’s [release] of nearly 900 pages of devastating documents to a governor’s forced resignation.” For all the media coverage of what had happened to the island of Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the tipping point proved to be the revelations by a local media outlet. People took to the streets to demand a change; call it a truly engaged community.

What forced the Southern District of New York to file new charges against alleged sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein? It was in large part the investigative reporting of Julie K. Brown at the Miami Herald.

One final note: Mayor Elorza has reached out to set up a meeting with Taylor; Commissioner Infante-Green has not.

And, one final series of question: During his appearance on WPRI’s Newsmakers, Mayor Elorza revealed that the asbestos removal now underway at Hope High School was for “caulking” around doors. Had the teachers ever been informed about the problem? Had the teacher’s union? Had the students? If the caulking around doors was a problem, what about the caulking around windows in the school which, in addition to asbestos, may also contain PCBs, according to problems identified in other schools regarding window caulking?

What we talk about when we talk about innovation?
The song that kept playing in my head, call it an earworm, following last week’s opening of the Wexford Innovation Complex, now being rebranded as “225” or “Point 225,” was “What is hip? by Tower of Power, given all the different ways that “innovation” was being championed by the speakers:

(What is hip) tell me, tell me if you think you know/
(What is hip) if you’re really hip, the passing years will show/
You in a hip trip, maybe hipper than hip/
But what is hip?

Hipness is (well) what it is/
Hipness is (yeah) what it is/
Hipness is (uh huh) what it is/
And sometimes hipness is what it ain’t

Perhaps, as Tower of Power once suggested, sometimes innovation “is what it ain’t.”

The overarching question to ask is: what is innovation? And, what does the new Wexford Innovation Complex have to do with innovation?

At the ribbon-cutting ceremony held on Wednesday, July 17, all the dignitaries had their say. Each envisioned a world of innovation being defined by the gleaming glass and steel edifice, serving as a new church of innovation:

• The gorgeous 200,000-square-foot building behind us, Gov. Gina Raimondo said, will become “a beehive of innovation,” with the promise of generating nearly 2,000 jobs, high paying jobs, in high-growth industries. “I think it was worth the wait – and a few gray hairs for all of us in the process.”

• “We view this as ground zero for innovation,” said Jim Berens, the founder and CEO of Wexford Science & Technology. “We believe, at the end of the day, that this will be the epicenter for innovation for Providence and the greater region.”

The new Wexford building, which Commerce RI Secretary Stefan Pryor compared to Pandora’s Box, was “a box containing hope,” in his retelling of the story from Aesop’s Fables. “What was trapped inside was hope, and ladies and gentlemen, after all the cleaning and governing and preparing and financing, what we have behind us is hope for the future, hope for an economy that leans into the future, hope for innovation and entrepreneurship and opportunities for Rhode Islanders.”

Brown University President Christina Paxson declared that Brown was “All in!” as if the university’s investment in the new Wexford Innovation Complex and in the rebirth of the former Jewelry District was a bet in a high stakes poker game, adding: “While Wexford doesn’t have to invest here, we kind of do; we’ve been here for 250 years,” she said.

The entrepreneurial spark
The intersection of the process of innovation with the entrepreneurial spirit was much on my mind at the Wexford Innovation Complex official opening [I am not sure that the rebranding of “225” will have much staying power].

The day before I had spent much of the day fishing off the ocean waters of Rockport, Mass., with three old friends, reminiscing about our time as roommates in an old house in Montague Center, a side-of-the-road town north of Amherst, four decades ago. We didn’t catch many fish but we did catch up on more than 40 years of stories about our lives.

The house had been built in 1900 as a worker residence for employees of the Montague Boot & Shoe Co., which had gone out of business in the depression during the 1930s. Its wooden frame had been built out of chestnut, the cheapest wood available following the chestnut blight. The street was configured as an elbow street just off the actual town center, where the factory had been located, with all the houses clustered together. Everyone, like it or not, was involved in everyone else’s business, by design.

Today, our careers would be called entrepreneurial by 21st century definitions: one of the old friends ended up as a principal at New England Biolabs, founded by the family of a former housemate. A second had founded a technology company. What unified their experiences, in many ways, as they talked about their past, had been the rejection of their ideas by the academic orthodoxy at the local university. The first had his work analyzing enzymes rejected by a professor, because it wasn’t part of the curriculum being taught; the second had been forced to use a slide rule rather than a calculator. Call it a common spark against the rules of orthodoxy.

What one friend remembered about me was the way I hammered away at my electric typewriter, a Smith Corona portable, banging out stories and rewriting them for The New York Times Magazine, among others. “Boy, could you type fast. You were amazing.” In my case, it was challenging the orthodoxy of publishers at the weekly alternative newspaper where I had served as managing editor that triggered my entrepreneurial endeavors. But that’s a story for another time.

The other unifying factor was the unavoidable collisions that took place as a result of living in a congested center of a rural small town. Two days a week our milk from a Jersey cow was delivered in big gallon jugs from a local farm, which just happened to be the communal farm where the anti-nuclear movement in America had been born. Across the street was a local stream, stocked with trout, where it was relatively easy pickings to catch breakfast in the spring and summer. I had been recruited to join the local Grange, and after I signed the papers, I asked: What was animal husbandry? It was a place where tolerance of quirks and differences was an essential tenet of survival, by necessity. The front door was never locked; when neighbors stopped to talk, you made the time to listen.

The boundaries of community and neighborhood were defined by inclusiveness. I played softball in the local men’s fast-pitch league for a team sponsored by the local bus and oil company. My tryout occurred in the gravel parking lot of a Laundromat in a neighboring town. I was told to show up in a green t-shirt for the game the next night; the only one I had was a Massachusetts Turnpike shirt, which once belonged to a friend who had been hired for a summer job as a toll collector, a shirt his wife insisted he get rid of when she found it in his closet. For years, my moniker in the league was “Turnpike.”

Beyond the collisions of Montague Center, there were the collisions happening in Western Massachusetts, which had become a hotbed of entrepreneurial and artistic invention. The city of Northampton had reinvented itself; a loose affiliation of artists found the community conducive to exploration, there was a political populist explosion. The region, known as The Happy Valley, became its own social enterprise greenhouse, as it were. For sure, some of the disruptive ex-pats from the Happy Valley have achieved a much wider audience: Ken Burns and Florentine Films; Stephen Hannock; the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; the chorus Young at Heart; and Yankee Candle, Rachel Maddow and Al Giordano, among others.

What has yet to be determined, despite all the speechifying, is whether the new church of innovation, the Wexford Innovation Complex, will serve as a welcoming institution for bottom-up as well as top-down innovation in Providence and the region. The week before the Wexford opening, a new member-owned retail grocery store, the Urban Greens co-op market, had a similar ribbon cutting, with Mayor Elorza and representatives of CommerceRI and the Governor’s office speaking. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “A tale of bottom up innovation and enterprise.”]

The opening at Wexford could have served as a wonderful opportunity to suggest to everyone attending the ceremony to consider becoming a member of Urban Greens co-op market and to shop there. But it wasn’t part of the messaging. Why not? Imagine if Brown would suggest to its employees working at South Street Landing and the new Wexford Innovation Complex to check out Urban Greens as a place to shop for groceries?

Finding common ground
Last week, the most read story in ConvergenceRI after Betsy Taylor’s story that went viral was a wonderful story by Toby Simon about a Haitian band, Lakou Mizik, in what is becoming an annual visit to Wellfleet. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Spending time with Mama Jazz and Papa Poul.”]

The story was, in many ways, an antidote to the current ugliness on display by President Trump, with his increasingly strident and racist taunts on Twitter, seeking to divide America along racial lines.

This weekend, the Newport Folk Festival is in full flower, and next weekend, the city by the sea will welcome the Newport Jazz Festival. Both festivals provide proof positive of the power of song to unite us and to find common ground – and the value of embracing innovation, improvisation and diversity as the key to Rhode Island’s future prosperity.

Sowing the whirlwind of racism
There is one more story to share, reluctantly, one that keeps coming up in my thoughts. The day after July 4, while exiting my car in the parking lot at a shopping center plaza in East Providence, the driver parked next to me was talking loudly on her phone, in a convertible with the top down.

“We need to shoot all the illegal immigrants. Line them up against a wall and shoot them. That’s what we need to do,” she said, repeating: “Line them up against a wall and shoot them, kill them all.

She looked up, suddenly aware that she had an unexpected audience, as I stared at her in disbelief. “I can’t believe it,” she continued in a loud voice, a bit taken aback. “Someone is outside my car, listening to what I say.”

I walked away, dumbfounded about what I had heard. My first response was to say something in response, but decided against it, for personal safety reasons. Violent driver road rage in Rhode Island is a real thing.

I had wanted to ask her: Have you ever shot someone to death, in person, as part of a firing squad? Are you experienced?

In retrospect, maybe I should have said something. I would like to believe my look of disgust about what she was saying had somewhat chastened her.

Once inside my destination, I tried to construct a way to include the incident in a news story I was working on, but it didn’t really fit.

I recalled a line from a poem I had written, some 47 years ago:

Sitting inside a forgotten steel town/
the pogrom lurks.

Today, in the parking lots and streets of our communities, the reality is that the pogrom still lurks. [For those unfamiliar with the term, pogrom is a word of Russian origin, used to describe a violent riot organized by Russian government forces, to murder and rape Jews and pillage their communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.]

The racial taunts and tweets from Trump, and the cowed silence in response by most Republicans and the nation’s biggest corporations, only reinforces that threat.


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