Coronacast 17: Juan

“We take the good with the bad and try to really focus on the good,” said entrepreneur and advocate Juan Wilson. “All we can do is move forward. I’m just continuing to move forward, and hopefully the light gets closer at the end of the tunnel.”

As the founder of #YESPVD!, Juan produces events and activities focused on education, entrepreneurship, career exploration, and community and civic engagement to engage youth ages 13-24. He spoke with me about:

  • How he’s applied a mindset of continuous improvement and proactiveness to himself and his community work — and what this means for him during quarantine.
  • The many times his cousin Michael Van Leesten proudly introduced him as the person who first brought Jay-Z to Providence.
  • How it feels to see his community severely impacted by the coronavirus.
  • The realities of having his family of five home “all at once, all the time.”
  • What #YESPVD! is doing to keep youth engaged and learning during the stay at home orders.

Juan knows a thing or two about perseverance, so let’s hope that light is getting closer.

Coronacast 16: Lisa

If you’re looking for a wicked smart, kickass champion of a worthy cause, look no further than Lisa Guillette, executive director of Foster Forward.

Trust me, you want Lisa on your side.

The pandemic hasn’t slowed things down for Foster Forward, but Lisa was kind enough to take a few minutes to talk with me. Here’s my primary takeaway from our conversation: the pandemic has proven the universality of the agency’s five focus areas for foster youth. As we rebuild our world, education, housing, income, supportive and trusted advisors, and mental well-being seem like pretty good places to start.

“I’m hoping that the silver lining in all of this,” Lisa said, “is that it really pushes a common agenda that helps people live healthier, more successful lives.” I’m hoping that, too.

My second major takeaway from Lisa? Get a puppy.

Coronacast 15: Elyse

“It really is a grab bag of everything I love,” Providence Media Editor in Chief Elyse Major says about her job. She describes Providence Media, which publishes five local print magazines, as “feel good content for the everyday person.”

I suspect that grab bag was bounced up and down a few dozen times, and maybe thrown against the wall once or twice, over the past few months. As coronavirus spread through our communities, Elyse was for several weeks the company’s single editorial staff member. That means she was finding, writing, distributing, and promoting content online while considering the future of their magazines.

It was a lot. A lot of work, a lot of hours, a lot of stress, a lot of change. Elyse focused on supporting their small business partners and pivoting to more current stories. “Instantly, I made that switch,” she describes, “from the later to the now.”

She’s been inspired by the resourcefulness and sheer determination of her fellow entrepreneurs. (You can get a taste for that in their COVID-19 Rhody Resources round-up.) Quoting Governor Raimondo, Elyse says, “‘There’s no option to stop.’ That’s sort of been my mantra. Like, there’s no option to stop. We have to just all do what we can to make this work.”

No matter the uncertainty, Elyse’s mission remains true: “I want to show everyday people doing special things to make your own little corner of the world lovely and interesting.” 

We thank you, Elyse and Providence Media, for making Rhode Island a little more lovely.

PS…While waiting for the next issue to drop, you can follow Providence Media on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Coronacast 14: Jock

Local news matters. And local ownership matters, too.

Access to quality information is a public good. It’s core to our democracy, quality of life, and (as demonstrated by the current pandemic) health. But, boy, is it a tough business.

Enter the East Bay Media Group, a venerable Rhode Island institution. The Bristol Phoenix, the oldest of seven newspapers the group prints weekly, first published in 1837. Jock Hayes and his brother Matt are the current stewards of the company. His family has been running it since the 1920s, so they know something about persisting through hard times. As he puts it, “It’s a way of life.”

Why does local ownership matter? Jock sums it up nicely in his description of his work: “There’s a lot to it, but it all begins and ends right here in our communities.”

News outlets that rely on advertising from small and locally-owned businesses have seen their revenue dry up at the exact same time that access to quality local information is more critical than ever. This is one of COVID-19’s terrible ironies. And in the throes of that reality, some outlets are recommitting, innovating, and building forward. That is one of humankind’s beautiful ironies.

Jock spoke with me from their archives (hence winning the Coronacast Best Zoom Background Award). He offered generous and thoughtful reflections on:

  • Their mission to be a “steady source of credible, honest information.”
  • How East Bay Media Group is responding to COVID-19 and “the humbling and overwhelming support” they’ve received from the community.
  • Questions he’s asking himself as they start to look ahead. For starters, he wonders, “How far ahead can you look right now?”
  • The fragility of our social structures, made obvious to him the past few months.
  • His own personal coping strategies.

My fellow Rhode Islanders, I implore you: subscribe local. (Here’s a good place to start.)

Coronacast 13: Carmen

Carmen Diaz-Jusino is a helper. Personally and professionally, she makes it her mission to know what people need and to connect them with others who can help.

Carmen started a new job (as vice president of community development at Bank Newport) during the quarantine. In that role, she builds on her long career as a coach, teacher, nurturer, and enthusiastic supporter for entrepreneurs and small businesses.

She’s also working with a group of community members to meet the needs of undocumented Rhode Island residents during COVID-19. As Carmen said, the new immigrant community “is hurting a lot. A lot. They’re very scared. A lot of them are sick. It’s difficult. This is a very difficult time.”

Carmen has hope, though, and it comes from watching others dig deep. “I know we’re going to come out of this, and I really hope that the kindness and the humanity that we are seeing stay with us,” she offered. “And that we see each other as just human beings, and not as documented/undocumented, just as human beings.”

Coronacast 12: Mary

Did you know that Rhode Island companies manufacture materials and components for medical equipment? Everything from fabric and nose stays to elastics and screws are made in our small state.

“That’s a very Rhode Island thing,” says Mary Johnson. “We make a lot of very small parts, but when you put the parts together, you can make things.”

Mary is manager of the 401 Tech Bridge with Polaris MEP. She works to connect manufacturers with each other, within Rhode Island and outside.

Mary spoke with me about how many Rhode Island manufacturers mobilized to protect their own employees and respond to the health sector’s needs during COVID-19. She’s been working with a robust network of companies to deepen the supply chain nationally for personal protective equipment (PPE).

One of the things I appreciate most about Mary is how thoughtful she is about the impact of economic trends and decisions on people. While automation is likely to increase as a response to this pandemic, she cautions, “We need to be careful and find a way to support the people who may get lost in that transition.”

You can tell: It’s personal to Mary, and she’s bringing her whole human self to this moment. “I’m going to go everyday, and just try to be chin up, and do the best I can.” A woman after my own heart.

Thank you, Mary and Polaris, for keeping us working.

Coronacast 11: Knock it off, Frog & Toad

“For all the huggers that are out there,” declares Asher Schofield, “this has been a difficult time.”

Thankfully, in these challenging times we have a little extra Rhode Island flavored splash of human niceness courtesy of Frog & Toad. Asher is co-owner of Frog & Toad, and he describes it as “a novelty store that sells frivolous things.” (Disclaimer: It’s my favorite novelty store that sells frivolous things.)

We will now forever know Frog & Toad as the creator of the official Rhode Island t-shirt of COVID-19, inspired by our governor’s tough love. You can proudly wear Governor Raimondo’s now-famous “knock it off” admonition and feel good because 20% of the sales are going to the COVID-19 Response Fund at the Rhode Island Foundation. Rhode Islanders have bought more than 9,500 t-shirts, Asher shared, resulting in $41,000 for the response fund.

(That’s right: $41,000. Didn’t I tell you that we take our t-shirts seriously in Rhode Island?)

Asher, like his beloved store, is a delight. You definitely don’t want to miss the parts of our conversation where he:

  • Describes the origins and evolution of Knock It Off. “It really projected to me what is so amazing about living in Rhode Island.”
  • Casually name drops another venerable Rhode Island small business legend.
  • Declares that we are bros.
  • Ponders the future of Frog & Toad and his responsibilities as a business owner.

There’s too much fun here for me to summarize, so please watch, buy local, and generously support our nonprofits and small businesses.

And virtual hugs to everyone.

Coronacast 10: Bishop Knisely

Bishop W. Nicholas Knisely of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island put it right on the table at the outset of our conversation. “This strikes me as one of those epochal moments in our history,” he began.

He shared with me his unique and reflective view of how the coronavirus is disrupting lives and institutions. For all of us, the pandemic “turns up the volume” on pre-existing situations like difficult relationships or financial worries. (You can read more in his latest blog post.)

The same is true for churches, who are shifting in different ways to serving people virtually. Bishop Knisely struck a positive note on how people have responded; with more people participating and more representative voices at the table, “we’re not going back” to in-person-only.

“I find that I’m remembering junior high a lot.” That was how the bishop launched into an excellent coping strategy recommendation. (You’ll have to listen for the details.)

He touched on the human toll of this pandemic, describing the many parishioners who have lost their jobs in industries that will not come back quickly. Bishop Knisely called on the church to keep those people front and center as we move forward.

And he spoke with great love about prayer.

(One last note: My apologies to Bishop Knisely and other astro-physicists everywhere for confusing astrology and astronomy. Yes, I really did that, and I’m sorry.)

Coronacast 9: Marcela

“The world’s in flames a little bit,” Marcela Betancur acknowledged at the outset of our conversation.

Marcela is executive director of the Latino Policy Institute. Preliminary data suggest that 45% of Rhode Islanders who have tested positive for COVID-19 are Latino. (Read more about that.)

I want to keep shouting: The coronavirus has laid bare inequities that already existed in our community. And Marcela said it best: “It’s not okay to ever go back.” Now that we all see the truth, now that we know it’s possible to better care for one another, we can’t accept the way we used to do things.


And I miss hugging my parents, too.

Coronacast 8: Jodie

Jodie Vinson is program manager at What Cheer Writers Club, a nonprofit that connects and supports “Rhode Island’s makers of the written, spoken, and illustrated word.”

(Side note: it’s really challenging for me to say What Cheer Writers Club.)

Jodie spoke with me about the impact of the coronavirus on the creative community (yes, the introverts among us do feel the ill effects of isolation) and the Club (“it lit a fire under us” to try out different ways of delivering support to members).

Her main takeaway from this time? “A renewed appreciation for the community and a renewed dedication to it.” Amen.

The team and members of What Cheer Writers Club have kept the creative content coming. When their space in downtown Providence reopens, I hope you’ll visit. (I’ve been known to drool over the nooks.)