PowerPlayer: Family Services of RI CEO Margaret Holland McDuff

Monday, August 08, 2011


She may not be a household name, but Family Services of RI CEO Margaret Holland McDuff is doing more to help children and families than almost anyone in the state. Her latest effort is an attempt to win a federal "Promise Neighborhood Grant," for the poorest parts of Providence. The goal is to revitalize neighborhoods and help guide children from the time they're through college.

Ms. McDuff was kind enough to chat with GoLocalProv and tell us more about the work she is doing to help all Rhode Islanders.

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1) You've made education a top priority for your organizations. Tell us why solid schools can help every other aspect of life for Rhode Islanders.

We’re all in this together. What happens in schools in South Providence or Central Falls affects what happens in Barrington and East Greenwich because we need each other to create and fill jobs, to choose our leaders and to make informed choices at the personal, community, state and national level.

We need to take “ownership” of all our children’s outcomes, from pre-natal to career, much as Geoffrey Canada and his Harlem Children’s Zone do in New York. That’s why we’re bringing Mr. Canada to Rhode Island on October 11 to speak at our Brighter Futures luncheon. We all need to hear his message and apply it to our day-to-day actions. As an agency, we’re putting his message into action through our work creating the Providence Children’s Initiative in South Providence. That effort, based at Fogarty Elementary, focuses on taking a small group of students and families and bringing together existing services or creating new ones to help overcome barriers like poverty, literacy and low achievement. For example, with the help of Fogarty staff, the Providence Public School District and other partners, the Providence Children’s Initiative created a new summer enrichment program for students and parents.

2) Like so many states, Rhode Island continues face budget cutbacks. How is that affecting the work you do.

We’ve put our focus on the new realities facing Rhode Islanders. For example--although Family Service of Rhode Island is not traditionally viewed as a homeless agency, we now run a homeless prevention program. And like many non-profits, we’ve had to make staff and expense cutbacks.

Non-profits also have had to take a hard look at the way we do business. AIDS Project RI, which used to be a stand-alone non-profit, merged into Family Service of Rhode Island a few years back due to administrative and programmatic issues. The good news is that the merger linked an array of HIV/AIDS services from both agencies. And AIDS Project RI, as a division of Family Service of RI, is bouncing back. We’re going to be unveiling an important new program and a new more informative website in the weeks ahead. And don’t miss our AIDS Walk for Life October 2nd.

3) Take us through a day in your life.

First, my husband and I take care of our young sons. There’s always a lot to do! Then, emails, phone calls, and meetings are a constant, sometimes extending far into the evening, as well as weekends and vacation. It’s part of the Family Service of Rhode Island culture that, while we respect the need for rest and relaxation, if something needs to be addressed it doesn’t matter what time or day it is.

4) Tell us about the Promise Neighborhood Grant you hope to receive from the government. What would it mean to Rhode Island?

Promise Neighborhoods is the Obama administration’s initiative inspired by Geoffrey Canada’s work in the Harlem Children’s Zone. The goal is to delve deeper into forces that cause intergenerational poverty. The approach is neighborhood revitalization through leveraging community assets and participation.

Currently, The Providence Partnership, a collaboration involving Family Service of Rhode Island, Meeting Street and Children’s Friend and Service, is in the process of submitting a planning grant application focusing on Lower South Providence, Elmwood, the West End, and Olneyville. Those areas were chosen because of significant need in the schools and significant assets within those neighborhoods.

If we receive the grant, neighborhood-driven plans will be created to address needs from pre-cradle to career.

5) Tell us something nobody knows about you.

I enjoy writing children’s stories—and have two in-house editors!

Quick Hitters

Role Model: Eleanor Roosevelt.

Favorite Restaurant: Finn’s on Block Island. I like the lobsters and steamers there on a great Rhode Island night--watching the ferries leave, knowing that I will not be getting on one that night. Bliss.

Favorite Beach: Tie: Second Beach in Middletown and Town Beach on Block Island.

Best Book You've Read This Year: The Bald Teenager by Thomas McDuff. It's a 24 chapter book written by my 9 year old son based on his cousin's fight and recovery from cancer. Inspiring!

Advice For The Next Margaret Holland McDuff: Have a sense of humor. Smile a lot—it doesn’t cost anything! Do what you say you are going to do; don’t disappoint. Always know that you, not others, define if you win. Build relationships. Don’t let anything fester. Have fun. Keep learning. Stay inspired. Remain curious, concerned, committed, passionate, persistent and purposeful. And try to get a lot of sleep!

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