Giving Voice to Injustice: RWU Faculty, Students Lead Coalition Building Path to Providence Reparations
RWU research team of faculty and students and the Providence Cultural Equity Initiative partner on reparative justice project for Providence Truth-Telling, Reconciliation and Reparations initiative
PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Curtis Kill Rain Bland’s family lived in the West Elmwood neighborhood when the City of Providence began breaking apart and relocating the Black community through eminent domain during the East Side urban renewal project in the 1950s and ’60s. “It was very painful to be uprooted from where you lived most of your life, just to be thrown out of that neighborhood.”
Kobi Dennis, an Upper South Providence resident, said: “Many of the ills of our community are definitely a direct impact from it … The division and the structural divide that occurred during those times made the community change as a whole – ownership changed, property management changed, housing changed. It went from homeowners to renters.”
These stories of having their community dismantled, and the generational impact that it continues to have today, are just two of 27 oral histories captured as part of a reparative justice project led by a Roger Williams University faculty and student team and the Providence Cultural Equity Initiative (PCEI). Their work spearheaded the second phase of the Truth-Telling, Reconciliation and Reparations process, a multi-year initiative undertaken by the City of Providence to recognize past injustices and create a municipal roadmap for repairing harm to the city’s African heritage and Indigenous communities.
On Feb. 28, in recognition of Black History Month, the City of Providence announced the Framework for Reconciliation and the launch of the next phase with the commissioning of a Providence Municipal Reparations Commission, at an event held in the Bethel AME Church on the East Side.
“Our partners, led by Roger Williams University and the Providence Cultural Equity Initiative, launched a framework for reconciliation which included several months of deep community engagement and discussions across the community, reflecting on the information discovered and the research compiled in A Matter of Truth. By engaging over 400 stakeholders, and specifically prioritizing those who have been directly impacted by actions outlined during our Truth-Telling phase, this framework demonstrates that history isn’t something that just happened in the past but is actively shaping present-day outcomes for African heritage and Indigenous Providence residents,” said Mayor Jorge O. Elorza in his announcement.
Over the past year, the RWU and PCEI team have been working to translate “A Matter of Truth” report, a 194-page document examining Providence’s racial history, into a website and digital interactive experience that brings to life the real stories of community members today. The project team identified housing inequities arising from the urban renewal project as the most prevalent present-day injustice and piloted the reconciliation phase in the neighborhoods of Fox Point, Lippitt Hill, Upper South Providence, and West Elmwood. Through the recently launched “Truth & Reconciliation” website and a framework for reconciliation – a process they developed for engaging the community with these issues – their work will be used to guide continued conversations about reparative justice for the community.
“Our goal was to center the voices of the communities of color affected by particular injustices identified in ‘A Matter of Truth’ and to humanize what the report often discusses at a much broader scale,” explained reconciliation project co-leader Brian Hendrickson, an assistant professor of writing studies at RWU. “You may have read about the issue, but now sitting down and listening to someone’s story about it can really make connections for you, and then how does that experience affect what the reconciliation and reparations process will look like?”
For reconciliation project co-leader Raymond Two Hawks Watson, the founder and executive director of PCEI and a third-year law student at RWU School of Law, this project both builds on his professional work in community development and is deeply personal.
“This report, and the framework for reconciliation that we developed, it’s my family narrative and history,” said Watson, sachem of the Mashapaug Nahagansett Tribe whose family has lived in Providence’s Mount Hope neighborhood since the late 1800s.
The Truth-Telling, Reconciliation and Reparations initiative is making that history known to the Rhode Island community, Watson said, “and that allows us to engage with the community so they can be aware of what happened, and then understand that you may need to do something about it. I want my family history to be acknowledged, revered. Whether good, bad or ugly, it is part of our history, people should know about it, and we can frame it in a way that future generations find it useful, are empowered by it and use it in a positive way to make change for the community as a whole.”
An Eye-Opening Research Experience
Blessing Pour grew up in Providence but was never taught about the city’s racial history in school. It wasn’t until an RWU study-abroad course, Social Justice in Hispaniola, that she learned about the major role Rhode Island played in the transatlantic slave trade. Still, she hadn’t heard about the recent experience of Providence’s Black community until she joined Professor Hendrickson’s research team last fall.
“There were so many things in the [Matter of Truth] report that I did not learn about in school, or had not yet touched on in college, that it was all very surprising,” said Pour, a junior double majoring in Legal Studies and Political Science. “In Professor Prado’s course we studied the triangle slave trade and visited the Dominican Republic, getting to know these stories and learn about social justice and equality in Hispaniola. That made me want to learn more and made me want to dive deeper into the work with Dr. Hendrickson.”
To do the work, Hendrickson and Watson – who had partnered previously on last year’s launch of RWU’s Wutche Wame Living Culture Collaborative – built a coalition of Roger Williams student researchers, faculty experts, and community partners from the Providence Cultural Equity Initiative, the Providence Public Library, and a lead stakeholder council comprised of African heritage and Indigenous community members from the four piloted Providence neighborhoods.
Pour was one of three students hired as paid research assistants; Erlinda Castro and Ainsley Iovanna were also research assistants on the project. They deeply investigated the urban renewal project and developed a survey asking the African heritage and Indigenous communities, and the broader Providence community, what injustices they wanted to see addressed, and then analyzed the nearly 400 responses. Some of those community members were invited to share their stories in documentary-style oral histories being developed for the website and Pour got a chance to interview some of them herself.
“It was very impactful” to hear those stories, Pour said.
And the engaged research experience, she added, has been just as influential in deciding to pursue a career path in social justice work. “I’ve never done something like this before. I was already interested in public interest work, helping people with the legal system, and this opportunity has opened me to what needs to be done in Providence, starting here, where I’m from and with people who I will probably see on the streets, and how I as a Legal Studies student can help them.”
But first she plans to attend law school and says this research experience will help her stand out among others. “This shows my commitment to legal work and to justice and how much I’m willing to work in the field, even as an undergrad,” said Pour, who also worked last year with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil and Urban Affairs as part of RWU’s Political Science internship program. “The fact that I did this for a whole semester on top of a full course load demonstrates the interest and passion I have for this work.”
In leading the community engagement portion of the reconciliation project, Watson said his legal education at RWU Law also came to bear on the work.
“It has shown me just how important the law is in addressing societal ills. RWU Law gave me the capacity and knowledge to identify the issues, answer them in a way that’s logical and can be quantified, and to be able to drive our work appropriately,” Watson said. “It’s added more tools in my toolbelt and is very impactful and productive in the community work that I do.”
Continuing the Work
While the reconciliation framework was announced last week, along with the launch of their multimedia initiative, Hendrickson and Watson are not done. With the help of Assistant Professor of Journalism Bernardo Motta and his students, they captured reels of interview footage that will be turned into longer oral histories shared on the website. Russell Beauchemin, assistant professor of Cybersecurity & Networking, has been helping to create an interactive augmented- and virtual-reality experience to complement the multimedia presentation.
Most importantly, Hendrickson said, these pieces will make the history and stories accessible to the greater Rhode Island community and their website will include a guide for community members to host their own conversations and engage around the questions of reparative justice.
“Our work and this website are intended to help foster community conversations, hosted by community organizations or church groups or schools, using the resources that we have made available,” Hendrickson said.
And via a submission portal on the website they aim to keep collecting stories, to ensure the conversation continues and more voices are heard and honored.