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Oct. 16 WaterFire event will celebrate Rhode Island’s people of color

On the latest episode of the Rhode Island Report podcast, the founder and the board adviser of the Papitto Opportunity Connection discuss why it is sponsoring the special event.

Thousands of spectators come each year to Providence's dowtown for WaterFire, when the rivers are lit with bonfires and the air is filled with music.Mary Beth Meehan

PROVIDENCE — A full lighting of Waterfire on Oct. 16 will feature performances solely by Rhode Islanders of color to celebrate people of color throughout the Ocean State.

The event is sponsored by the Papitto Opportunity Connection, a new private foundation established by Barbara Papitto to fund organizations and individuals whose actions primarily benefit people of color in Rhode Island.

The foundation is also planning to make a major announcement during Waterfire that will “impact Rhode Island high school students of color and communities of color in a big way,” said spokesman Gregg Perry.

State Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott and Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green also will take part in the announcement, he said.


Papitto, the widow of corporate executive Ralph R. Papitto, told the Globe that she decided to use the fortune he’d left her to start her own foundation to help people of color in Rhode Island. It started with an endowment of $150 million. Since December, the foundation has donated more than $7 million and committed nearly $40 million in grants and scholarships to 30 organizations.

Papitto and board adviser Arnell Milhouse explained the mission in an interview on the Rhode Island Report podcast.

“We are here to really breathe hope,” Milhouse said.

Barbara Papitto of the Papitto Opportunity Connection Foundation and board adviser Arnell Milhouse address the crowd before a ribbon-cutting for the new barber shop in Pawtucket on Sept. 17.Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

The foundation decided to sponsor a full Waterfire event after seeing news reports that the nonprofit didn’t have the funding it needed for this year. The lighting sponsored by the Papitto Opportunity Connection is “designed to bring together and lift up Rhode Island communities of color,” Perry said.

All of the musical performers and entertainers will be people of color, including a jazz performance by the Rhode Island Philharmonic, Chinese dragon dancers, and Narragansett traditional storytellers. The Papitto Opportunity Connection also will have a music stage featuring Caribbean soul music by the Becky Bass band and salsa performed by Robertico Arias y Su Alebreke.


More than 15 organizations that have received funding from the foundation will have exhibits and opportunities to connect with visitors. The state Department of Health also will have a tent to provide free testing and vaccinations for COVID-19.

Hear more about the foundation and the event by downloading the latest episode of Rhode Island Report, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, and other podcasting platforms, or listen in the player below:

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