Rhode Island leaders tackle racism as a ‘public health threat’

Special Reports

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Racism can be a death sentence for African Americans, Indigenous people, and other people of color.

As videos of police killing Black Americans have been thrust into the national spotlight, protests have revealed pain and outrage in streets across the country, including in Rhode Island.

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza and other leaders around the state are choosing to challenge the pain of the past by declaring racism a public health threat.

“It’s a public health issue that we have never directly confronted as a country,” Elorza said.

To address racism in Providence, Elorza created the African American Ambassador Group in hopes of bringing about deep structural change. He also signed an executive order committing the city to a process of truth, reconciliation, and reparations for Black, Indigenous, and all people of color.

“We can’t expect to do the same thing that we’ve always done with race and expect any different result. The reality is that the way that they’ve been treated, the way policies have been developed, they haven’t been made to feel like they are a full part of the team. That’s wrong.”

Mayor Jorge Elorza

In Cranston, the City Council recently voted unanimously to officially declare racism a public health issue. Ward 3 City Councilor John Donegan acknowledged that racism isn’t always visible because it sometimes happens in subtle ways, which he’s seen in his own community.

“Everything from residents earning lower incomes, having lower rates of home ownership, lower educational attainment,” he said.

As a white man, Donegan indicated that his role begins with taking a deeper look at himself.

“For me, it’s a constant state of introspection to continue educating myself on how I can be better, analyzing and critiquing my own privileges, and unpacking those,” he said.

He’s also begun community projects like gardens in lower-income neighborhoods and introduced proposals about spending in businesses run by people of color and women.

In Newport, a typical City Council meeting on Zoom quickly changed when someone entered the chat room spewing racial slurs and hate speech directed at Ward 1 City Councilor Angela McCalla. The incident prompted city leaders to sign their own resolution condemning hate speech and racial slurs.

“What happened to me is a symptom of what happens in our community every day,” McCalla said. “I knew that this was probably going to be a reality of some sort or casualty for me running in politics.”

At least 10 communities in Rhode Island have taken steps to address racism in the past year:

YesNoHas Not Responded
CranstonJohnstonBristol
East GreenwichNarragansettBurrillville
Little ComptonNew ShorehamCentral Falls
MiddletownNorth KingstownCoventry
NewportNorth SmithfieldCumberland
Pawtucket SmithfieldFoster
PortsmouthTivertonJamestown
ProvidenceWest WarwickLincoln
WarrenNorth Providence
WoonsocketScituate
BarringtonSouth Kingstown
Warwick
Westerly

These leaders acknowledged the work isn’t easy, and according to them, declaring race as a public health issue is a start, but it’s only when everyone shows up to the table that change happens.

“Combating racism isn’t and shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” Donegan added.

McCalla said racism is being talked about in ways it never has before.

“Maybe some of us didn’t start those drafts, but we need to recognize too: we may actually be hurting a community with certain policies and procedures that are set up,” she said.

Newport police were unable to track down the person who ambushed that City Council meeting.

The town of Barrington has also taken many steps to address racism and discrimination in recent months. In February, the town created an anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policy. It also established a Pride month in May, and supported the removal of “Plantations” from the state name in June. An ordinance was passed in October prohibiting housing discrimination and a Black Lives Matter flag flies outside of Barrington City Hall.

12 News reached out to the Rhode Island Department of Health regarding racism as a public health threat. The agency declined to comment.

Watch: 12 Town Hall: Race in RI »

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