Week 5: Rhode Island



PHOTO: Members of the Esek Hopkins Middle School team pose as part of a scavenger hunt we completed during my stay in Providence.



 “What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?” — Jean-Jacques Rosseau[1]

“You caught me at a good time,” Gara Field said honestly without looking up from her computer screen. The high-energy principal of Pleasant View Elementary School in the west side of Providence, Field displayed her impressive understanding of modern education as I met with her, as well as her aptitude for multi-tasking. She remained remarkably attentive during the half-hour we spent together, explaining the nuances of her exciting vision for the school and spitting out the names of countless authors who had influenced her philosophy on education, despite having to field calls on two phones and to manage a handful of top-priority tasks.

From the well-attended open house I joined to the orderly morning session I witnessed at the school, Pleasant View cut an unusually encouraging figure for a formerly low-performing, underserved, inner-city school. Field has secured partnerships that have transformed the climate and resources at the school. In addition to securing grants for advanced technology, the school has “full-service community” partners that provide after-school and family support, and a team from City Year Rhode Island, which provides unique, diverse tutors and role models in every classroom for grades three to five.

“They’re becoming a part of the community in terms of their presence and their interpersonal relationships with the kids,” Field said about City Year. “The fact that they’re mentors will become even more important as we go.”

Amazingly, the school provides quality education for a student body that includes 45% with special needs. Kush Shukla, a member of the City Year team at Pleasant View, said everyone gains from the inclusive environment.

“I think the inclusion model of learning in the long-term is really beneficial,” he said. “The kids learn from one another. If anything, the ‘regular-ed’ kids benefit.”

Kush said his team is thrilled to be a part of the up-and-coming school’s efforts. “The great thing is Gara’s a visionary but she has a plan for that vision,” he said. “It’s great to see we’re making an impact, and it’s appreciated.”

City Year also provides four middle schools in the toughest parts of Providence with determined, idealistic young adults who volunteer for a full school year. While they are part of a holistic wave of improvement at Pleasant View, City Year corps members find their enthusiasm is often needed in other schools simply to counter the negativity that underserved students face.

“These kids felt like they couldn’t be anything they wanted to be because they were so bombarded with negativity,” said Leah Powell, who is on the team at Gilbert Stuart Middle School. “It’s hard to smooth that over with one conversation, but I try to negate their negativity with positivity.”

Leah, an outstanding pre-med graduate of Howard University who has also volunteered in Gujarat, India, is part of a team that carries a legacy from a previous group of young corps members that worked with the school last year. With a new corps comes a new wave of empowerment and optimism, as well as a new group of young leaders that witness the tough realities of the city’s public schools, which collectively educate 800 students who have parents in prison.

“I didn’t expect Providence to be like this,” Leah admitted. “The students have so much going on and sometimes they bring their problems from home and act out. Being in this environment where people always give up on these students, you have to be that one person who never gives up.”

The southern part of Providence that is home to Gilbert Stuart and Roger Williams, both middle schools served by City Year, is a maze of poverty and dangerous influences. Attendance at the Kindergarten and first-grade level is very low because it’s such a rough area that parents worry about their children’s commute, a problem slightly mitigated by volunteers enlisted to walk kids to school each day.

Walking south down Broad Street, I passed strung-out folks on most of the corners, and ambled through a crosswalk as a screaming teenager in front of me threatened to shoot a middle-aged man. The pungent smell of drugs filled the air at the church where I waited for the No. 11 bus – and the bus itself was full of the same odor, as I sat between two adolescents calmly discussing drug prices and two homeless men angrily discussing their friend’s hardship with the local courts.

In the heart of this area is the revolutionary Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence, a community that provides education, victim support and advocacy to work toward the end of violence in Providence. They respond to every stabbing and shooting in the area, work closely with many current and former gang members, and create opportunities for young people to pursue higher education, serve the local community and promote mental and emotional health. The group’s mission is to create the “beloved community” that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned.[2]

The Institute’s director, Teny Gross, revealed there is a 45% chance stabbing or shooting victims will become repeat victims, and a 20% chance they will be killed.

“America is insanely wasteful in human capital, and it’s expensive for taxpayers: We spend $120,000 per kid (via public education) but we’re wasting lives.” Gross said a homicide costs $8.3 million from the first ambulance to the final court fees, not to mention the economic effects of depression for the victim’s family. “Somehow they have to mourn and be productive at the same time,” he said, noting America has had about 200,000 homicides in the last dozen years.[3]

Gross emphasized that in order to curb the country’s “insane incarceration rate,” it is vital to support and empower the young adults who have been locked up.

“It’s the community’s responsibility to help people that come out of prison,” he said. “People who come out will fail without transition space. It has to come from the ground – we need to trust that the people who were victims can speak.

“We see it as the most patriotic thing you can do to integrate them into the economy.”

Giving kids who are in the line of fire the space and voice to grow is something the Institute does through its various programs, and is what City Year strives to do in schools.

Abby Schottenfels, Leah’s teammate at Gilbert Stuart, said of her goal for the year: “I want to find various ways to give students their voice. This whole structure is for them and I think they’re the lowest on the totem pole.”

Their teammate Esther Cajahuaringa added: “I think positive community means instilling the idea that a person can fulfill their potential. Having a positive community means the kids in the end can become their own people.”

This concept was aptly articulated by Bernie Beaudreau, the director for Serve Rhode Island, which oversees the state’s AmeriCorps programs (including one that works with Teny Gross) and its volunteer centers.

“The more power you try to keep, the more you lose,” he said. “The more you give it out, the more you have – because the goal is not to get power, but to empower.”

The good news is there are heroic leaders in organizations like these focused on giving children a real chance. I had the honor of presenting a workshop examining identity, power and privilege to City Year’s diverse corps of 42 young people, and of spending time with them throughout the week. It’s incredibly exciting and rewarding to work with young idealists who are willing to be challenged and who seek growth in order to make a difference.

Through their shared mission, the City Year Rhode Island members build positive community amongst each other, throughout the service community and in Providence as a whole. The key is that groups like City Year harness and mobilize wisdom and kindness.

Beaudreau understands this, and after more than 30 years working on the world’s hunger problem, he now helps promote community through encouraging a culture of volunteering.

Each time I look back on his inspiring words from our conversation together, I find my energy redoubled:

“We don’t have a lot of money but we have the goodness of people, and that needs to be discovered, unleashed, and connected,” said Beaudreau.

“Serving is such a gift to be able to do – it’s so needed for people to be engaged with other people for healthy community … and to continue a chain reaction of human caring. Very simple human interaction can be monumental. Participate. Do what you can do. It could be transformative.”


 What do you think? Please share your thoughts in comments on the blog!


[1] Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762) “Emile.” Available as Project Gutenberg eBook, transl. Barbara Foxley, here.

[2] See “The King Philosophy: The Beloved Community.” The King Center. Available here.

[3] Data through 2010 at “Crime in the United States” Federal Bureau of Investigation. Available here.

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