Here in Rhode Island, we’ve entered phase 3 of reopening. While nothing feels normal, we are in a very different place from the dark days of March when I began the Coronacast.
This series was an attempt to connect with thoughtful, courageous people who were finding their own paths through an unprecedented time. I needed help in making meaning of the pandemic experience. Almost four months later, I can say that these 26 conversations kept me connected at times when I felt very alone, challenged me to think about things that were not visible or comfortable to me, and made me cry with grief and gratitude. When I look back across these short interviews, I’m struck by how each one reflects an individual perspective at a particular moment and also fits into a bigger picture of human experience.
To each and every person who made space to talk with me, to be tender, to share a personal story or glimpse into their life’s work, thank you. It is my belief that we are strongest when we are vulnerable. You have led the way for me in doing so.
Talking with and listening to other people is a good place to start, in any situation. Parker Palmer talks about our responsibility to “hear people into deeper speech” — which seems like a worthy goal. Right now, there are urgent conversations our community needs to have about race, oppression, history, access, priorities, and opportunity. We have to talk about these things so that we can work together for equity and justice. We are lucky to have many strong voices leading those discussions, and I’m committed to supporting them.
“Place really connects me to history,” said Brent Runyon. “It helps me understand historical timelines and events in ways that learning dates and names never did. I feel like it’s a really powerful tool for connecting us to our past, the good and the bad parts of it.”
Indeed. I find history intriguing because it helps me understand how people have influenced people, for years upon years, and how those people have created the places where we now live, which shape us.
As executive director of the Providence Preservation Society and someone who came to the preservation field through engineering, Brent is a good person to talk to about such topics.
“I have to say, the first month was kind of traumatizing,” Brent said, acknowledging the guilt and depression that went along with the early days of the pandemic for him. “It was really hard to get motivated and find a new way to work. What did work even mean anymore?”
As Brent notes, this is a difficult time to plan, and it is also an excellent time to consider transformation — of the work we do and the ways we do it.
“In public policy there is this notion of the policy window, and things that are in the policy window are things that are in the realm of possibility,” Ross Cheit said. “And I think that what’s happened in the last few months is the policy window has changed. I think it’s gotten a lot bigger. I think that there are now things that are possible and are happening that three months ago we might have said were impossible. So the window’s open.”
Yes, I thought. Yes! That explains the vague but persistent sense of opportunity that this terrible pandemic has brought upon us.
Ross Cheit is a professor of political science at Brown University. He wrestles with issues of ethics, criminal justice, and public policy. I know him from Twitter, where he offers sage and witty commentary. I was therefore totally unsurprised that, in a 10-minute conversation, Professor Cheit covered political science concepts I haven’t thought of since college, touched on the quirkiness of Rhode Island’s two degrees of separation, and clearly delighted in his students.
The uncertainty is challenging and at times overwhelming, but Professor Cheit left me with a new perspective. “Some good things are happening with this policy window open,” he said. “So things are possible.”
“We’re looking at $48.5 million in direct spending losses for the state of Rhode Island,” said Kristen Adamo on the impact of the coronavirus on tourism. “The hit that our industry has taken has just been massive. We were the first to be hit and I think we’re going to be one of the last to recover.”
Tourism is a major economic driver in Rhode Island; we hosted 25.4 million visitors in 2018, and the industry supported 86,000 jobs. (Not surprising, given our beautiful coastline, charming communities, amazing food, remarkable history, and vibrant cultural scene.)
So, yes, this hit is significant, deep, and widespread.
Kristen is president and CEO of the Providence Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau, which grows and supports the meetings, events, sports, hospitality, and tourism sectors of our economy. She was forced to lay off 15 of her own employees, and it’s the lost jobs that drive her. “It lights the fire in your belly,” she notes. “Everything you do, you think, am I saving a job?.”
So what can we do to support our neighbors who work in the tourism industry? “Advocate for us by getting out there,” Kristen responds. Patronize local restaurants (dining in or taking out!), plan a staycation at a local hotel, and recommend Rhode Island for conventions and events.
Theresa Moore thinks about history. More, she thinks about how we think about history. So when I consider what this moment means for our collective history, I want to listen to Theresa.
Theresa founded T-Time Productions to bring untold inspiring stories to life. With projects like Third and Long, a documentary which examines civil rights in this country through the integration of pro football, she weaves education and entertainment via great storytelling.
Theresa seeks to bring more accurate and inclusive histories into the classroom, as textbooks and classroom materials traditionally tell a one-sided and exclusive version of what happened. “Some of this historical stuff lays the foundation for some of the challenges and systemic issues we have right now,” she pointed out.
Witnessing the uneven impacts of COVID-19, educational inequities made worse by distance learning, and the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd has not been easy, but it has reinforced Theresa’s work and purpose. “At certain points, I just had to shut down and process and regroup,” she acknowledged.
Theresa draws, not surprisingly, on history — in this case, her own family’s legacy. “I look at the history of my ancestors. As a people, we can look back and look at the strength and the dignity and the grace that we have come through some of these things,” she notes. “And it doesn’t mean that we’re not pushing for change, but it does give me hope that that’s the underlying lineage and foundation of how we’re going to deal with this.”
I think that Damian Ewens knows a thing or two that is relevant right now.
Damian is founder of Ocean State of Mind, a mindfulness-based science and research initiative supporting ocean conservation and human health. He draws on his background as an educator, entrepreneur, and systems builder to use mindfulness practices to strengthen the human/nature connection.
“That journey has led me to start thinking about how do we help an individual human take stock of who they are, what they’re feeling, and bring some sort of control back to their lives,” Damian said. “And nature has a huge part in that. I think a big part of our disconnect in society is that we’ve also pulled away from our relationship with the natural world.”
Damian sees the connections between COVID-19 and the worldwide protests against racism and oppression. “There’s some really important conversations and changes that are happening in our country and around the world around the topic of race,” he said. “And we have to get those relational things right if we’re truly going to be able to walk forward as a species. Coronavirus has sort of put everyone on notice.”
My own efforts to develop a mindfulness practice have been pretty pathetic. I am easily distracted during daily life and easily triggered when the stresses rise, as they inevitably do. On a much bigger scale, I fear that happening in our world, as our attention lurches from one moment of outrage and despair to the next. How do we (individually and collectively) sustain intent as we walk forward?
“My bet and my sense is that if we go back to our own intuition, and if we learn to listen to our own wisdom that’s inside of each of us right now, that’s the path forward,” Damian offered. “That includes the really challenging internal deep dives that folks of privilege like myself have to do to shift these institutional, systemic pieces of injustice that are all over the place. So it’s not a rush back to the normal; it’s a recreation of a more just world where everyone has opportunity.”
It seems as though Lisa Raiola created Hope & Main, the food business incubator in Warren, from sheer force of will. She saw a need, mobilized a community of believers, and worked her tail off to make it successful. And it is successful; there are currently 93 businesses with licenses attached to Hope & Main.
I spoke with Lisa on June 3, in a week when our community and our nation — still reeling from the coronavirus — is crying out from the oppression and violence perpetuated for centuries against Black and African-American people. Going into our conversation, I felt heavy and unfocused.
Reflecting on the past two months, Lisa said, “There’s a great awakening to how interdependent we are on one another as a society and as a human race.” And then she said something that struck me as particularly profound: “We see that for the same reasons we had to stay inside to protect each other’s health, we’ve been drawn outside to protect each other’s rights.”
Yes to that. And yes to the hard work of being antiracist, yes to small and local, yes to the helpers, yes to the New Next.
Listen to the full conversation for more on how Hope & Main responded to community needs, the impact on member businesses, and what this might mean for the future. And stay to the end for Lisa’s Springsteen shout-out.
David Pollak grew up in Rhode Island (and he has the t-shirt to prove it). His technology career began with the Rhode Island Civil Defense in the late 1970s. He currently lives in San Francisco (making him the first Coronacast guest to date from a different time zone).
David took time from his weekend to share with me some thoughts on the past few months, from being “incredibly lucky and incredibly grateful” to live in an area with relatively few COVID-19 cases, to his meaningful career at Cisco supporting remote work for so many people these days, to the loss of a friend to the disease. “It’s something that I never expected to experience in my life.”
David has clearly thought a lot about the current moment, which he hopes is an inflection point for our world. As many others have expressed, he feels hope for what could be and fear of the alternative. “I hope what comes out of it is a positively changed world in which we feel connected because we are connected,” David concluded. “We are connected, and therefore we can do good for each other, we can be kind to each other, we can include each other.”
Give me a chance to work with someone who shares my slightly-higher-than-reasonable expectations for the project at hand, provides cookies at meetings, and isn’t afraid to dork out on (what some might consider) inane topics, and I am content. Enter John Marion, defender of democracy, Census champion, and executive director of Common Cause RI.
When I asked John how he was doing during COVID-19, he responded, “counting my blessings and privileges.” His wife, Karen, is a physician with a community health center located in 02909, the hardest-hit zip code in Rhode Island. John notes, “I see greater awareness of some of the inequities from folks who don’t typically talk about them or even use that language, so I’m hopeful that the conversation continues as the health care situation stabilizes…And we’ll start to work hopefully more collaboratively toward some solutions.”
Used to haunting the halls of the Rhode Island State House during the first half of each year, John and his organization have shifted to supporting online open meetings and voting-by-mail. “One thing we’ve seen is a lot more people attending public meetings,” he said. “People are going to demand that ability once this is over.”
(As we should.)
Dear reader, you’ll want to watch all the way to the end for John’s three civically-minded tips.
“The biggest thing I’m seeing is just the inequity of distance learning.”
Ramona Santos got right to the point when I asked about her experience during the time of the coronavirus. “It’s nothing new,” she added. “We know what we have in our education system and how it impacts communities of color. But I think that this was a new way of seeing things.”
Ramona would know. She is a mom, social worker, and co-founder and executive director of PLEE (Parents Leading for Educational Equity). She has spent the past two months guiding and advocating for parents who are supporting their children in the transition to distance learning. “This is like a big monster that we’re trying to wrap our heads around,” she said, speaking particularly passionately about the challenges for parents of multi-language learners and children with disabilities.
Big heart and spine of steel, that’s how I’d describe Ramona. She has tremendous empathy, and she’s absolutely relentless when it comes to ensuring Providence children have the public education they deserve.
“There is little that we can do to change this pandemic,” she told me. “The nature of this is beyond the control that we have. Whatever we can do, whatever is in our control, we have to focus on doing that… Focusing on what we can control to try to make change. That’s where I’m at.”
Perhaps this is the message we all need right now.