Leaders Talk Race and Politics at Rhode Island College American Democracy Project

Thursday, April 02, 2015


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Kendra King Momon

Rhode Island College was host to a discussion Wednesday on “African Americans and Politics: Challenges and Opportunities" as part of the American Democracy Project -- and panelists weighed in on the lack of diversity in the leadership ranks of new Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza

The event, co-sponsored by the RIC Unity Center and the Dialogue on Diversity Committee, featured author of “African American Politics” and media commentator Kendra King Momon, a Providence native, who delivered the keynote. Momon is Associate Professor of politics at Oglethorpe University and Director of the Rich Foundation Urban Program in Atlanta, Georgia.

"We have to call a spade a spade," said Momon.  "I applaud diversity training, but it's not the end-all to address institutional racism that impacts all of us.  What are we going to do once this conversation ends?"

Dubbing herself a "concerned, maladjusted transformist," Momon said she "came in all humility the vocation to speak calls for."

Referencing the recent plane crash in the Alps, Momon appealed the audience of students and community members to seek a broader worldview.  

"Dr. Martin Luther King JR. always talked about the interrelatedness of life," said Momon. "If we don't begin to recognize we're interrelated, we're on a crash course with a turbulent state of being in our state, and in our city."

Politics, Power, Education

The panel discussion was moderated by former State Representative and Deputy Secretary of State Ray Rickman, and included Armeather Gibbs, Managing Director of Urban Finance and Business Development at the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation, State Representative and Sergeant of the Providence Police Ray Hull;  Donald King, Vice President of Fete Music and founder of the former Providence Black Repertory Company; Lisa Ranglin, Vice President at Bank of America and founding president of the Rhode Island Black Business Association, and Travis Escobar, community engagement coordinator for Olneyville Housing Corporation and cofounder of Millennial Professional Group of Rhode Island.

Rickman opened the discussion saying, "For the last ten years, there's been a movement afoot to make us more agreeable.  We're supposed to want harmony."

Rickman then quoted Barry Goldwater, saying "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice."

"If you're an old lady with Social Security, you want [Senators] Reed and Whitehouse to fight for you -- not compromise," said Rickman.  

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Travis Escobar and Armeather Gibbs

Hull mentioned that he has reached out to Elorza -- twice -- about putting a liaison to the city's African-American community, but has received no response. 

"I believe he needs someone [from the African American community] in his upper echelon," said Hull "I'm a police officer.  Being a police officer, we're react.  I don't want to be reactionary.  I'm pro-active.  I said, how can we get in front of this -- as an officer and a legislator -- there's things happen around the country, it can happen here."

Speaking to the GoLocal article that showed that Elorza has an all-white senior staff, King spoke to being courted for his support during the election -- but not after. 

"What happened, once this person was elected, the phone no longer rang," said King. "I was important enough to bring my constituents to the table -- I wasn't important to be employed.  I saw the same thing when i was in the theater."

King later added, "My comment was not to support or endorse a campaign against the current administration.  I'm hoping the conversation can go higher -- about how the African American community has been marginalized, and we're not part of the structural change.  This started way before, this happens over and over and over again in this town, which is why there aren't power brokers at the table.  I think he's a wonderful man, but there's a higher conversation we need to be having here."

Ranglin spoke to issues outside of politics -- including issues of diversity in education and business.  

"As I think about education, 83% of the student body [in Providence] are children of color.  90% of the faculty are white.  Why can't all the high schools be like Classical?  If some of us are failing, all of us are failing," said Ranglin. "If we're all doing well -- we can be proud about RI.  If anyone is left behind, there's nothing to be proud of."

"[In] Fortune 500 companies, 3.2% of black women hold board seats. It's not just politics, we have to look at it holistically," said Ranglin. "As President of the Rhode Island Black Business Association, I've engaged the Mayor and Governor, to bring the business leaders, and talk with them about diversity. And we need to bring ladies to the table...when I hear about gender diversity, it's always a white women thing.  If I'm not at the table, no one's talking about "me" -- all of us need to work collectively together.  It's not about politics. "


Related Slideshow: “Why Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Still Matters”

GoLocalProv asked elected officials and community organizers why Dr King and his legacy still matters today. See the responses in the slide show below. 

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Kobi Dennis

Community Organizer, Founder of Project Night Vision

I can clearly remember 23 plus years ago aboard the USS Samuel B. Roberts awakening to the sound of our Captain's voice, he said "Gentlemen, it's been an extreme pleasure serving with you all. If today should be our last day, we served our country proud..." I was 18 yrs. old, from the streets of South Providence, possibly about to die, and I had absolutely no idea what my life stood for or who would even remember me. At the young age of 18, all I could think of was "legacy" and how I would certainly do everything in my power to create one if I survived. It was then I decided to follow the non-violent, peaceful approach of Martin Luther Luther King Jr. 

Unfortunately, like thousands of other students in our forgotten school systems, I had know idea where to start. Black leaders and Black History subject matter was far from important in Providence Schools then, and sadly to say, still to this day! As I traveled to the far off lands of Europe, Egypt and Africa with little to no knowledge of self, I read countless books on Black leadership, the Civil Rights Movement and self empowerment books to help increase my personal knowledge about my "Own" cultural leaders and their contributions to our country. 

Martin Luther King Jr. Day to me symbolizes "Hope with an Ending"  for people of color. 

I often use the word "Hope" to help motivate or encourage but very seldom do I have instances of hope with an ending. 

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I often feel the sense of hope with an ending as during that pivotal period of time Martin Luther King Jr. instilled hope in the masses and ended an entire era of hate. 

Because of this great man and his ability to instill "Hope", myself and many other community leaders can believe we can do the same, instill "Hope with an ending".  

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Michael Van Leesten

CEO of Opportunities Industrialization Center of Rhode Island

American democracy was enhanced significantly by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement; for he challenged the conscience of a nation, strengthened the US Constitution, and made us all better human beings.  The results of his noble and courageous work has made America come one step closer toward perfecting a true democracy,   While there is still much unfinished business, Dr. King’s legacy serves as a continual  reminder to all of us that we owe it to future generations to correct outstanding injustices and income inequality matters that need to be resolved.  

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Jo-Ann Ryan

Providence City Council, Ward 5

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. represents the best of what is great about our nation.  Through his years of study and his hard work, he brought life and meaning to the words first written by Thomas Jefferson, “that all men are created equal.”

He energized a nation to fight for social justice and equality. His leadership and message of peaceful activism demonstrated that there is much unfinished business in bringing the American Dream to all corners of our country.

He showed the world that we are a nation of laws.  That our country, to live out the true meaning of its creed, needed to abandon the selective application of the laws and the rights of our citizens, and to embrace a future where Thomas Jefferson’s words ring true.

While we have made much progress since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. first walked among us, we still have work to do.  It is important for us as a city to take the time to pause and reflect on Dr. King’s work and ensure that opportunity and justice are afforded to all.

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Samuel Zurier

Providence City Council, Ward 2

When Dr. King became active in the 1950's, America’s greatest shame was its mistreatment of its African Americans, descendants of victims of the injustice of slavery.  Through his work, Dr. King brought all Americans together to acknowledge our shame, and to resolve to live by our fundamental values.  While helping us to confront our worst failure, Dr. King charted a path of critical progress to continue after his untimely death, much of which remains to be done more than 45 years later.  His message and his ideals stir me deeply, as I was reminded last week by my intense reaction while watching the new Selma movie at the community screening sponsored by the Providence NAACP.

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Ray Rickman

Former State Representative and Founder of the Rickman Group

If Dr. King was alive to celebrate his 86th birthday what would he think of the nation? I am positive Dr. King would love the fact the Obama is president and that that Dr. King being the warrior for legal rights would be very happy with the legal advances on all fronts.

But I think that the Dr. King I know would be deeply disturbed (as I am) by the difficult race gaps in employment, education, the  number of African Americans serving longer prison sentences and the lack of recreational opportunities in this nation. He would be shocked that 60% of African American children are raised in single parent households and that these children are more likely to go to prison than to college in 2015.

I think Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would see the glass of life as not half full on his 86th birthday. He would think that we can do better in the richest nation in the world. And if Dr. King were alive I would send him a birthday card full of love!

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Keith Oliveira

Chairman, Providence School Committee

MLK matters because the American values of social justice and equality remain an on-going challenge in our nation. Dr. King is our nation's historical embodiment and personification of these values. His words and his teachings continue to inform and instruct our nation's social dialogue. MLK matters because he remains this nation's social conscience.

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Leah Williams Metts

NAACP Youth Council Chairwoman

Let's imagine for a moment that a fateful shot did not pierce the thick, evening air in Memphis that early April night in 1968. Instead, Dr. King was celebrating his 86th birthday today. How glorious would it have been for the man to witness his magnificent dream become a reality. How inspiring his words, left unwritten, would have described the transformation of America as the walls of segregation fell.

Of course, now we know how brittle a foundation that structure stood upon. The events of the past year, I have to believe, would have shaken even his faith. We thought we had traveled such a great distance from that place. Now we see that racism and bigotry are still alive and well in our society. That a child can be instantly tried and executed by the ignorance woven into a man's psyche. 

Whether black, hispanic, Muslim, asian... too many of us still view different as just that. Something to be avoided... someone to be sent away from here either by boat, plane or bullet. 

There is a third Tower that is still burning in the land of the free. Cowards still walk among men, in the home of the brave. Yes, I believe Dr. King, were he still with us in body today, would hang his head in shame. 

We have abolished racism from our laws, but, for many of us, not from our hearts and minds. The toll this past year has taken on our "more perfect union" is as yet unknown. Let us not forget what Dr. King reminded us, "In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."

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David Salvatore

Providence City Council, Ward 14

In American history we have been blessed with memorable leaders that leave the world a better place, changing us, inspiring us. They change the way we think and how we live our lives. They inspire us to be better people and to strive for a brighter future. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of our greatest, most influential leaders and trailblazers. We have so much to thank him for.

I still remember learning about the great Dr. King Jr. as a fifth grader at Robert F. Kennedy Elementary School in Providence. His life story left an impact on me at an early stage in my youth and continues to do so today. 

Today I give thanks for his life, his mission and his sacrifice. Dr. King Jr. will always be remembered for the dream he shared and made a reality. His moral fabric continues to inspire the leaders of today and tomorrow to work towards the betterment of humanity.

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Chace Baptista

Community Organizer, The Concerned Citizens for John Hope

50 years later I have the honor of reflecting on Dr. Martin Luther King's life and purpose.  I learned of Dr. King not in class during black history month, but at home with my grandparents.  I learned how he was a leader who stood on the shoulders of giants, and was the evolution of a names like Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Dubois, and countless others.  

However I would be remiss to talk about Dr. King on his day.  In fact in studying Dr. King, what  becomes clear is that he would rather people spend their time combating the injustices that exist and not have any one take a day off on his account.  I'm sure that he would tweet that #blacklivesmatter. He would speak about how racism has evolved from interpersonal (one to one) to systemic racism (how large systems disproportionately hurt people of color).  In any case, Dr. King did not march on Washington to have a federal holiday.  He marched for true equality.  For the kind of justice that the court of law is created to try and administer, though has often fallen short. 

As we enter in to a new year, names like Tamir Rice, Mike Brown, and Eric Garner are now household names.  Constant chants of, "No justice no peace." echo through out our neighborhoods.  What are we doing to honor Dr. King and his legacy? Are we happy to have a holiday? Or are we going to react to the to the injustices that persist, and fight for the kind of justice that he himself advocated, fought, and ultimately died for? 


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