PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Following the recent release of a disparity study in Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Black Business Association (RIBBA) is calling on state leaders to respond, while also issuing the state a failing grade.

The Disparity Study, conducted by Mason Tillman Associates and released by the Office of Diversity, Equity & Opportunity (ODEO), found evidence of discrimination in the state agency’s contracting with minority or women-owned businesses.

The study, first authorized by then-Gov. Gina Raimondo, was commissioned to examine the agency’s “procurement activities for any evidence of discrimination in the award of contracts to available minority and women-owned enterprises.”

RIBBA says the study’s release came eight months after it was completed and “cost a hefty $499,029 of taxpayers’ money.”

Because of the evidence of discrimination found, the group says it is calling on the state to enforce the Minority Business Enterprise law, which carries out the state’s policy of “supporting the fullest possible participation of firms owned and controlled by minorities and women (MBE’s) in state-funded and state-directed public construction programs and projects and in state purchases of goods and services. This includes assisting MBE’s throughout the life of contracts in which they participate.”

RIBBA claims in the 35 years since the law was enacted, the state has only complied with its own law two times: once in 2018 and again in 2019.  

“The Advocacy and Policy Committee has studied the disparity report produced by the ODEO, and while the results are not surprising and reflect the gap we work to fill, the data is disappointing and painful to see,” RIBBA’s Advocacy & Policy Committee said in a statement.

The committee said while the report looks at data from 2014 to 2017, current economic trends show the treatment of MBE and WBEs “has not received the systemic changes it desperately desires.”

“With the untimely and tragic death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter Movement, Rhode Island went through the symbolic process of denouncing systemic racism and inequities by officially changing our name last year – that is not enough,” the statement read.

“Rhode Island must rid itself of the vestiges of structural and systemic racism and inequality by taking actionable steps to ensure an equitable economy for Black and brown Rhode Islanders,” the statement continued. “There is a great opportunity within this data, and the Rhode Island Black Business Association looks forward to being a trusted part of the solution.”

The report also notes state agencies did not maintain comprehensive data on subcontracts awarded by prime contractors, so extensive research had to be done and reconstructed by the consultant that conducted the study.

In a news release, RIBBA said based on the findings, it believes the state failed to maintain the required data to measure the effectiveness and compliance of the law, and also failed in its support of Black- and minority-owned business owners.

The association says it’s issuing a call to action to stakeholders, including “elected officials, public and private sector entities, and civic leaders to make this a real turning point in closing skills and opportunity gaps disproportionately affecting Black Americans and communities of color in Rhode Island.”

“I’m calling on the governor and the leaders of Commerce Corporation to step up and fund Black and brown organization so their capacity is where it needs to be so we can really do business development in a meaningful way,” RIBBA Founder and Executive Director Lisa Ranglin said at a news conference on Thursday.

Gov. McKee’s press secretary Alana O’Hare told 12 News “as the Governor said at his weekly press conference, he is fully committed to increasing diversity and minority business participation in the state procurement process and knows it will take an intentional strategy to do just that.”

O’Hare also said the governor’s office expects to announce a new director of the Office of Diversity, Equity & Opportunity next week, and “the review of the disparity study, which includes spending data from Fiscal Year 2015 through Fiscal Year 2017 and was commissioned by the prior administration, remains ongoing.”

“This work requires all stakeholders to have a voice, and that is why the Department of Administration and Office of Diversity, Equity and Opportunity (ODEO) hosted briefings on the study last week, with one specifically for stakeholders and another for all certified MBEs in Rhode Island. ODEO will continue to consult with and solicit feedback from stakeholders to determine what can be done to improve the MBE Program, make it more accessible for the MBE community, and increase the utilization rate,” McKee’s press secretary said.

RIBBA and its supporters have identified several solutions in addition to the recommendations cited in the disparity study:

  • Establish a Contract Compliance office outside of government to monitor and enforce compliance to MBE commitments 
  • Mandate when a prime contractor fails to meet the goal of awarding 10% of the prime contract to a M/WBE, that prime contractor must submit good faith documentation indicating efforts to engage and hire minorities or women, a requirement existing as far back as 1996 
  • Investigate complaints of non-compliance and develop corrective action plans as needed 
  • Implementation of MBE/WBE tracking of comprehensive data on the subcontracts awarded by the prime contractors 
  • Increase the government procurement participation goal for Black and Latino contractors to reflect the increased minority population in RI 
  • The state must set up, and financially assist organizations that provide support to Black businesses so that they too can grow and thrive 
  • Issue an Executive order to establish preference in state contracts where Black and brown people are the predominant group to be served or when contracts are cited within a neighborhood where the population is 20% or more minority  
  • Commit at least 20% of funding to economic development in Black and brown communities 
  • Intentionally work with organizations led by Black and Latino leaders 
  • Increase loan funds available through Black and Latino organizations 
  • Establish clear lines of authority to the office of the Attorney General or other legal entity to ensure enforcement 
  • Implement a Pay Audit System to be used by Prime Vendors and their Subcontractors to independently report payments from Prime Vendors to the Subcontractors on state contracts.