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Creating change for generations: Papitto Opportunity Connection invests in R.I.’s communities of color

Barbara Papitto is making dreams come true with a new foundation aimed at uplifting and empowering people in Rhode Island

Barbara Papitto of the Papitto Opportunity Connection foundation, left, and board advisor Arnell Milhouse, center, chat with artist Lexus Fernandez of Providence about her painting inside the new Haircuts and Heritage barber shop in Pawtucket, R.I., on Sept. 17, 2021.Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

PAWTUCKET, R.I. — Kobi Dennis, a community organizer and activist in Providence who’s worked for years on projects to help teens stay out of trouble, had long wanted to create a place where mentors could connect with boys and young men and, hopefully, influence their lives.

On Sept. 17, Dennis presided at a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 28 Summer St. in downtown Pawtucket, welcoming a crowd to the new Haircuts and Heritage shop, offering free haircuts and mentoring to boys from middle schools and high schools in Providence, Central Falls and Pawtucket.

“I’m tired of young boys of color killing each other,” Dennis told the crowd. “We thought about a place where kids can come and be safe, a place where kids can learn about summer job opportunities. We thought about introducing them to business owners, building owners, property owners, [and being] next door to recreational agencies and the library.”

He had the dream. But when a stranger offered funding so he could realize it, Dennis had to meet her in person before he could believe she was serious.


Kobi Dennis, right, owner of Haricuts and Heritage barber shop, speaks before a ribbon cutting in Pawtucket, R.I., on Sept. 17, 2021. From left are Papitto Opportunities Connection founder Barbara Papitto, Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera, and Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien. Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

That stranger was Barbara Papitto, and she was “instantly intrigued” by Dennis’ idea.

“By rewarding and recognizing the accomplishments of young people,” she said, “Kobi and his dedicated team and staff will work to provide emotional support and mentorship that will bolster and encourage these teens to realize their dreams and aspirations.”

Papitto is the founder of the Papitto Opportunity Connection, a new private foundation. In less than 10 months she’s donated more than $7 million to help launch initiatives aimed at elevating people of color, and committed nearly $40 million in grants and scholarships to 30 organizations.

Arnell Milhouse, a Providence entrepreneur and advisor for the foundation, made the connection between Dennis and Papitto. He knew what opening this shop would mean to the community. And he knew Papitto would want to help.


“As a young Black man growing up in Roxbury, [I’d] pass by businesses that weren’t owned by people who looked like me,” Milhouse told the crowd, before joining Dennis in cutting the red ribbon outside the barber shop. “What you’re doing here, people seeing and knowing that in the heart of Pawtucket, this business is run by a Black man who’s been a community servant, a community leader — you’re going to transform lives, Kobi. You’re going to inspire people. People are going to look and say, ‘I can do that as well.’”

Then, Milhouse turned to Papitto, whose late husband’s large cross necklace shone against her black blouse. “Barbara, it’s been just an honor to get to know you, to become your friend, and see your vision,” Milhouse said, “and that you are really the real deal.”

Barbara Papitto had been married for 36 years and nine months to Ralph R. Papitto, the corporate executive and philanthropist who made his fortune in Rhode Island as the founder of Nortek, Glass-Tile Industries, and AFC Cable Systems.

Before he died in January 2019 at age 92, Ralph told Barbara that she could spend his fortune on anything she wanted. He had a team of trustees, advisors, and lawyers who would guide her.

She wasn’t interested in a trip around the world. She was interested in making a difference in her home state.

“He said to spend it on anything my heart desires,” Barbara Papitto recalled. “So, I wanted to be a little bit more greedy.”


The family had already established the Papitto Foundation, which donates to numerous charities and schools, and Read to Succeed, a summer reading program that offers up to $6,000 in college scholarships for children at three schools serving low-income South Providence families. After her death, all of the money will go into the Papitto Foundation.

But until then, Barbara Papitto wanted to do more.

Barbara Papitto of the Papitto Opportunity Connection poses for a photo after a ribbon cutting for Haircuts and Heritage in Pawtucket, R.I., on Sept. 17, 2021. Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

An accountant with a master’s degree from Bryant University, she has volunteered for years at different Catholic charities, including the Diocese of Providence’s Gabriel Project, which helps mothers who are pregnant or have young children.

She loved the hands-on volunteer work and was excited to see where the money went. She wanted to do something to help people of color in Rhode Island. So she decided she would go big, starting her own private foundation that could cut through strings and red tape. She would listen to the people and the agencies that are deep in the communities doing the work, find out what they need, then help them achieve it with funding, consultation, and mentorship — and maybe give them more than they expected.

She launched the Papitto Opportunity Connection, and dedicated it to funding organizations and individuals whose actions primarily benefit people of color in Rhode Island.

And, until the Sept. 17 ribbon-cutting in Pawtucket, the Papitto Opportunity Connection was the best-kept, $150-million secret in Rhode Island.


That’s the amount Barbara Papitto invested in the endowment. Since launching in December 2020, the POC has quietly paid out $7.1 million and committed $38.2 million in grants and scholarships.

There are a few things the organization does not fund, including building construction, capital campaigns, lobbying, or political campaigns. Instead, the money is going toward education, job skills training, and entrepreneurship. She’s addressing immediate needs, such as $2,000 for uniforms for teen athletes in Central Falls, and long-term ones, like a $10 million, four-year partnership with Lifespan to build a career development program that will create 1,000 medical professional jobs for people of color.

The foundation is funding full scholarships for 1,000 Rhode Islanders of color to attend CareerDevs, an initiative founded by Milhouse that condenses a four-year computer science degree into one, and guarantees a job paying at least $75,000. The Papitto Opportunity Connection is also backing the expansion of the Financial Literacy for Youth Initiative, known as FLY, which offers a financial education for people of color. The funding will pay for nearly 7,000 students in Rhode Island over the next three years.

With help from her husband’s trustees, Barbara Papitto set up the foundation’s advisory board, choosing Milhouse, FLY founder Marcy Reyes, and eight other Rhode Islanders of color who are successful in the fields of medicine, education, business, and law. Papitto wanted their advice and needed them to help her find out what her foundation could do.

“I have no idea as a white person what I can do to effectively change the life of someone in the Hispanic community or Asian or Black or Indigenous” communities, Papitto said. “But by going and having these focus groups, we are able to ask the questions. ‘What do you need?’ And like we say, ‘We’re here to listen. We’re here to help.’”


Keagan Murphy, left, of the arts incubator Conscious Curation, chats with Barbara Papitto of the Papitto Opportunity Connection foundation inside the new barber shop Haircuts and Heritage in Pawtucket.Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

She also had to address her husband’s past.

For 20 years, Ralph Papitto had been chairman of the board of trustees at Roger Williams University, where the law school bore his name. Then, in 2007, Papitto used a racial slur during a trustee meeting discussing the need to add minorities and women onto the panel.

He immediately apologized and, amid the public outcry, was forced off the board. His name was stripped from the university’s law school.

“My husband made a mistake. It was the worst time in his career, and he felt terrible about it later,” Barbara Papitto told the Globe in a recent interview. The Papittos founded Read to Succeed soon afterward, to show that what he said at the meeting “was not in our nature,” she said.

“Maybe I have to make more apologies,” Barbara Papitto added. ”But... none of us want to be judged by the worst mistake of our life for the rest of our lives.”

Milhouse, who had met Ralph Papitto before the incident, felt that it was important to have an open and honest conversation with Barbara Papitto before launching her new foundation, so that everyone could move forward.

“There’s forgiveness and, at the end of that, there can be a stronger bond coming together,” he said.

“You can’t take funding and then have this aching hole in your soul, but by talking about it, there’s healing,” Milhouse said. “So I’m grateful for Barbara’s leadership, Ralph’s apology and his willingness to really take it on the chin. He didn’t shrink down. He said, ‘I made a mistake and I’m here to face whatever I have to face.’ And, I can shake that man’s hand, as I did in 2007. And look Barbara in her eyes and say, ‘Thank you.’”

Papitto also sees her foundation as a way of carrying out her late husband’s vision. “He’s always helped the underdog. He’s always been there to support education and entrepreneurial skills and people,” she said. “And so I think that he’s looking down and he’s very happy with what I’m doing.”

Helen Baskerville Dukes, left, executive director of the Mount Hope Community Center and senior project manager for Haircuts and Heritage barber shop, chats with Barbara Papitto before a ribbon cutting for the new barber shop in Pawtucket, R.I. Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

The foundation’s advisors and trustees held focus groups and reached out to people of color who they knew were leading small businesses and organizations, to see what they needed.

“We didn’t rush in assuming that we knew anything. We held community conversations and felt the pulse of what was ailing people,” said Milhouse. “These were businesses that have had their hands raised for decades and no one’s called them.”

People were struggling. Small, minority-owned businesses were told they were “unbankable,” and small organizations were desperate for funding, Milhouse said.

“They were in dire straits. It’s an emergency for business owners and managers and executive directors who were working other jobs to help fund their organizations,” he said.

Each of the advisors and trustees found people and agencies that they wanted to help. “We were able to advocate for the people who typically didn’t have that seat at the table,” said Reyes, founder of the FLY initiative. “We’re all heavily invested in the state, even if we didn’t grow up here or weren’t born in this state, but we know how important it is to watch individuals in this community be provided with these opportunities.”

Once they had decided to work with a person or group, they insisted on funding them fully, sometimes offering more than they had been asked for. This approach changed how people were seeing the work they were doing and what they were capable of, said Reyes.

“We are creating brand new perspectives, whether it’s for the people who are coming to the table and looking for funding... or shifting the paradigms for our young individuals,” she explained. They no longer had to think that “because you came from a certain neighborhood or a certain school, you weren’t able to achieve that.”

From left: Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera, Pawtucket Mayor Donald R. Grebien, Papitto Opportunity Connection advisor Arnell Milhouse, Papitto Opportunity Connection founder Barbara Papitto, and Kobi Dennis in front of Dennis' new barber shop, Haircuts and Heritage, in Pawtucket, R.I., on Sept. 17, 2021. Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

The Rev. George L. Ortiz Jr. said it was the oddest conversation he’d ever had with someone from a foundation.

Papitto’s lawyer, John Tarantino, who is the president and shareholder at Adler, Pollock & Sheehan P.C., had called Ortiz out of the blue and said he was with Rose Jones, who was then-director of the state Office of Healthy Aging, and had asked who was the most innovative in delivering food to older people.

She named Ortiz’s nonprofit organization, The Elisha Project, a food-rescue operation that during the pandemic was contracted by the state to deliver boxes of food and personal protective equipment to people in need. It’s now serving more than 60,000 people a week through its network with other nonprofits and churches.

“I never get a call from the head of a foundation who says, ‘I love what you’re all about — what do you need?” Ortiz said.

The Elisha Project was leasing a refrigerated truck; Tarantino immediately cut a $25,000 check so the nonprofit could buy one, then followed up with more funding.

The effect was immediate. Ortiz can get pallets of food for the nonprofit. Most small food banks don’t have large refrigerators, so now Ortiz can help them. He can feed more people, help smaller food banks, and not compete with other nonprofits for grants.

For the 40-year-old Mount Hope Community Center in Providence, support from the Papitto Opportunity Connection meant the community center could help more people with employment and food, workforce development, housing assistance, tax preparation, and services for low-income mothers with children. It could pay its staff, replace its van and broken appliances, and start sports programs for children.

“The impact the POC is making will be felt for at least two generations,” executive director Helen Baskerville Dukes said recently. “When there’s a need and the need is so great, and they come in filling that need, it trickles down.”

At Lifespan, a $10 million commitment over four years means the healthcare company can build a career development program that will educate and train people for 1,000 professional medical jobs. Lifespan anticipates that it will begin recruiting students by the end of this year and beginning of 2022.

“This allows us to say to someone, ‘We can invest in you over a period of time,’” said Lisa M. Abbott, Lifespan senior vice president of Human Resources and Community Affairs. “The ability to think about this in a way that is beyond just the grant funding of one year is transformative for us.”

Rhode Island is small enough to see a ripple effect from an investment of millions of dollars.

“The amount of money we’re talking about is big anywhere, but it’s really big in a state this size,” Tarantino said. “And when you can create thousands and thousands of jobs, these aren’t hourly wage jobs, these are career-oriented jobs, these are transformational. ... And the big change, the transformational change, is that next generation with those thousands of BIPOC people who now have stability and careers and wealth.”

Channavy Chhay, the executive director for the Center of Southeast Asians, said when Papitto and Tarantino came to the nonprofit’s location in South Providence, it was the first time anyone from a foundation had visited.

And then, she said, they offered millions of dollars, over a period of several years, so the center could build on what it was offering to the community of immigrants and refugees. Since the Papitto Opportunity Connection does not fund construction, Papitto personally bought a house, hired a contractor to renovate it, furnished it, and gave it to Chhay’s organization to assist people who are homeless.

Chhay said it was like winning “the biggest lottery in the world.”

“It’s not only the funding — it’s the support, the listening. They listened to our cry,” Chhay said.

The funding and support has meant her nonprofit can focus on its work, without worrying, Chhay said, and in turn, help their community.

“She has helped lighten the load of thousands and thousands of people, and they have no idea who she is,” Chhay said. “And we are not the only organization that she’s helping. I hope those leaders embody her grace, her humility, and her laser focus to do their job and do it right for her and her late husband. I am so laser focused, so I don’t let her and her husband down. I want our community to know that she is our benefactor, and we are not going to let her down.”

Barbara Papitto laughs when she talks about how her husband teased her about spending all the money. Perhaps he thought she would just let it all go into their existing foundation. Instead, she decided to find ways to put it to use and transform lives immediately. Figuring out how helped her and the board of advisors navigate the pandemic, she said.

”People talked about going through the pandemic being downtrodden and [their] mental status was just depleted ... but we were involved with what we’re doing and it got us through,” she said. “It’s uplifting because you’re doing something for someone else. It’s the whole idea of giving. It’s so much more fun to give.”

Amanda Milkovits can be reached at amanda.milkovits@globe.com. Follow her @AmandaMilkovits.