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OPINION

Rhode Island’s ‘new normal’ needs to work for everyone

As the state emerges from the coronavirus crisis, our obligation is to do better, to be better.

Nurses stood in counter-protest during a demonstration against stay-at-home orders at the State House in Providence in April.
Nurses stood in counter-protest during a demonstration against stay-at-home orders at the State House in Providence in April.Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

In these extraordinary times, there is evidence of hope and generosity all around, just as there is uncertainty – and urgent, extreme need. We are facing an unrivaled health and economic threat, the long-term effects of which we are only beginning to contemplate and plan to address.

Rhode Island Foundation President and CEO Neil D. Steinberg
Rhode Island Foundation President and CEO Neil D. SteinbergCourtesy of Bryant University

In Rhode Island we are grateful for Governor Gina Raimondo and Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott’s leadership, as well as that of their colleagues across state government. Soon, legislative leaders will turn their attention to the most difficult budget they’ve tackled in their careers – we are grateful for their service as well.

Leadership through crisis is both art and science. As Rhode Island’s community foundation, we will work diligently with leaders across the state to encourage creativity, pragmatism, and to be bold in ensuring that all Rhode Islanders emerge better off over the long term than they were before this crisis began.

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In the midst of disruption and loss, there is opportunity for positive change. There are absolutely no replacements for the loved ones, economic security, or time lost to this crisis. It has exposed our deepest fault lines. So the goal – no, the obligation – is to do better, to be better. To honor those most affected, we must plan for and work toward a better future for each and every Rhode Islander.

From a ‘new normal’ to a ‘better future’

There is much discussion of the “new normal”, but the truth is that the “old normal” left too many people behind, especially in underserved communities, and even in very good times. We must not settle for just a “new normal,” but focus on a “better future” for all.

It will take a combination of getting back to the basics and innovation to move us successfully into the future. We cannot afford to lose our focus on the basics as we emerge from this crisis. Many of the critical problems that existed under the “old normal” are amplified now. Zip codes have too often determined outcomes – whether those outcomes are related to economic prosperity, access to food, educational attainment, a safe place to live, individual health, or, quite frankly, how a person might fare during a pandemic.

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Yet we also see innovation in the midst of crisis that shows promise for those most in need.

Distance learning is connecting students and teachers in new ways – giving educators a window into what their students need to thrive at home in order to thrive at school, and connecting families to resources they may not have had access to prior to this time.

Telehealth is another example – a streamlined way to connect more readily with care providers to monitor chronic conditions, or manage behavioral health.

Innovations like these, combined with getting back-to-basics, may allow us to provide the better, more equitable, future that we all want – particularly as we strive to permanently eliminate achievement gaps in education and health disparities once and for all.

We have a collective opportunity, and obligation, to look and plan long-term – with a focus on equitable access for all Rhode Islanders to economic security, education, and health. Here are some tough questions that we need to ask in the coming months:

  • Can we we do a real assessment of vulnerable populations and finally structure a more efficient, cost effective, and customer-friendly way to meet the needs of the disabled, the elderly, the chronically sick, and others that will always require our support?
  • Can we analyze and rationalize the delivery of education at the public K-12 and higher education levels in an efficient and results-oriented structure?
  • Can we explore and have the courage to push for health and health care reforms that take us forward with new organizational structures and payment models that are best for the state?
  • Can we rebuild our future workforce by enhancing skills and training for all?

There is no doubt that the answer to these questions will require big change and disruptive new models, but we believe they will produce more equitable outcomes across Rhode Island, more success, and prosperity for all Rhode Islanders.

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Long-term planning initiatives

At the end of last year, the Rhode Island Foundation presented the exciting work of two long-term planning initiatives – one focused on pre-K to 12th grade public education, and one on health. The plans that were developed were the result of more than a year’s worth of work by two committees filled with highly regarded, experienced Rhode Islanders. And the plans were presented to state leaders just before the COVID-19 crisis broke.

These plans establish a vision and strategies that could serve as a blueprint as we plan for a better future. In fact, the same social determinants that have been exacerbated by this current crisis are a focus of these long-term plans, and some of the tough questions raised here are addressed.

At the Rhode Island Foundation, we are willing to use our voice and resources for the greater good and to embrace the size, strength, and diversity of Rhode Island. We encourage the same for our state, local, and industry leaders, and for each and every resident of the state.

If we focus and engage together in civic and civil dialogue, prioritize the success of all over the success of few, get back to basics, and innovate simultaneously, we can ensure that the plans we make and the actions we take reflect where we want to be – not where we have been.

We can do this. We’ve endured so much – and there is more to come – but hope abides and a better future awaits.

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Neil Steinberg is the president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation.