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Papitto Opportunity Connection wants to help transform R.I. with scholarships — and a $1m prize

The “Transform Rhode Island Scholarship” gives students of color the opportunity to lead, and to see their best ideas funded immediately

Barbara Papitto, right, and Arnell Milhouse of The Papitto Opportunity Connection  prepare to light a special Waterfire to promote and celebrate BIPOC residents, with music and performances by BIPOC in Providence, R.I. on Saturday, October 16 2021. (Photo/Joe Giblin)
Barbara Papitto, right, and Arnell Milhouse of The Papitto Opportunity Connection prepare to light a special Waterfire to promote and celebrate BIPOC residents, with music and performances by BIPOC in Providence, R.I. on Saturday, October 16 2021. (Photo/Joe Giblin)Joe Giblin

PROVIDENCE — Who is the high schooler with the million-dollar idea to improve the lives of people of color in Rhode Island?

The Papitto Opportunity Connection wants to know — and it’s pledging a million dollars, literally, to make the right idea a reality.

Just before the torches were lit Saturday for a WaterFire dedicated to people of color, Papitto Opportunity Connection trustee John Tarantino and state Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green stood on the stage at Waterplace Park and announced a new annual scholarship for Rhode Island high school students who are people of color.

John Tarantino of the Papitto Opportunity Connection announces scholarships for high-schoolers who come up with the best ideas for how they would spend $1 million to help BIPOC with housing, education, jobs. He made the announcement before the lighting of a WaterFire celebrating Rhode Island's BIPOC community in Providence, R.I. on Saturday, Oct. 16 2021.
John Tarantino of the Papitto Opportunity Connection announces scholarships for high-schoolers who come up with the best ideas for how they would spend $1 million to help BIPOC with housing, education, jobs. He made the announcement before the lighting of a WaterFire celebrating Rhode Island's BIPOC community in Providence, R.I. on Saturday, Oct. 16 2021. Joe Giblin

The “Transform Rhode Island Scholarship” established by the Papitto Opportunity Connection will be open to any high schooler of color in Rhode Island. From Nov. 1 to Jan. 30 every year, students can apply by submitting an essay, video, or multi-media presentation that answers this question: If you had a million dollars to better the lives of people of color in Rhode Island — through education, housing, job skills training, health care or business — what would you do?

The top three finalists will receive scholarships of $25,000, $15,000, or $10,000, to be used for tuition, housing, health care or other related costs.

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And, the Papitto Opportunity Connection will fund the winning idea with $1 million.

There is no other scholarship program quite like this, Tarantino said, where high school students are empowered to help their communities.

“We will be the beacon to teach other states how to change the narrative,” Infante-Green said. “This is an opportunity for our youth to lead in a way they never have before.”

Since it began last December, the new private foundation has given $8 million and has committed $45 million more in grants and scholarships toward initiatives in housing, education, business, and entrepreneurial ventures that benefit people of color, Tarantino said. The “Transform Rhode Island Scholarship” aims even higher.

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Sherenté Harris of the Harris Family Dance Troupe, which is made up of all Narragansett Indians, performs before the lighting of a WaterFire celebrating Rhode Island's BIPOC community in Providence, R.I. on Saturday, Oct. 16 2021.
Sherenté Harris of the Harris Family Dance Troupe, which is made up of all Narragansett Indians, performs before the lighting of a WaterFire celebrating Rhode Island's BIPOC community in Providence, R.I. on Saturday, Oct. 16 2021.Joe Giblin

Sometimes, as people get older, they can lose hope and become hardened, said founder Barbara Papitto, as she held an unlit torch just before the announcement. This scholarship — and the promise to fund the best idea with $1 million — could show young people that their visions matter, she said. It gives students the opportunity to lead, and to see their best ideas funded immediately.

“They are brilliant, creative, and amazing, and they also want to help,” Tarantino said.

“This scholarship is going to open the minds and eyes of young men and women in Rhode Island and help them give birth to their dreams,” said Arnell Milhouse, founder of CareerDevs and an advisory board member of the Papitto Opportunity Connection. “And, specifically for communities of color, few have felt like they had that power. This will get them behind the driver’s wheel.”

The Rhode Island Kung Fun and Lion Dance Club perform before the lighting of a Waterfire celebrating Rhode Island's BIPOC community in Providence, R.I. on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021.
The Rhode Island Kung Fun and Lion Dance Club perform before the lighting of a Waterfire celebrating Rhode Island's BIPOC community in Providence, R.I. on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021. Joe Giblin

Saturday’s WaterFire, co-sponsored by the Papitto Opportunity Connection and Brown University, was the first time that the 27-year-old event has been dedicated to celebrating the lives and contributions of Rhode Island’s BIPOC communities. All of the performers, musicians, and vendors featured Saturday were people of color, and several organizations that have been helped by the Papitto Opportunity Connection had set up booths at the event.

Loren Spears, the executive director of the Tomaquag Indigenous Museum, said that the support of the POC has given the Indigenous Empowerment Network the ability to expand its work, offer internships, and partner with schools and other groups.

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She said she’s excited now to see what ideas come from the scholarship. She sees how young people today are empowered to speak out about equity and inclusivity, and how they support their communities.

“They will have not only a voice, but an opportunity to enact” their ideas, she said.


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