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Generational change is coming to Rhode Island - across every sector

1 Union Station in Providence houses both the Rhode Island Foundation and Rhode Island Kids Count.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

If you’ve got a big, bold idea for overhauling the state’s health care system or fixing the failing schools or tackling climate change, your first stop in Rhode Island doesn’t have to be the State House or Providence City Hall.

In fact, you’ll probably get a lot more accomplished if you first stop at 1 Union Station in Providence – conveniently located between those two centers of government – to bend the ear of Rhode Island Foundation President Neil Steinberg or Rhode Island Kids Count executive director Elizabeth Burke Bryant. They actually work in the same building.

From there, Steinberg and E.B.B., as she is known in most circles, can use the connections they’ve built over a lifetime in the business, government, and nonprofit sectors to get you in touch with Dr. Tim Babineau from Lifespan or Dr. James Fanale from Care New England, or any college president, or Jonathan Stone from Save the Bay, the state’s most important environmental organization.

And yes, if you need politicians to get on board, no mayor, governor, or member of Congress hits ignore on a phone call from Steinberg or Burke Bryant.

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That’s all about to change.

Steinberg is set to leave the Rhode Island Foundation after 15 years, and Burke Bryant just announced that she’s stepping away from Kids Count – the influential child advocacy nonprofit she started in 1994 – by the end of the year.

What’s more, many of the players in their rolodexes have already departed or are planning to leave their jobs by the end of 2023, setting the stage for a generational shift in leadership across many sectors in Rhode Island, as well as leaving a gaping hole of institutional knowledge that comes with such broad change.


There are plenty of shoes to fill.

Steinberg’s job as head of the Rhode Island Foundation might be the most coveted position in the entire state – including the governor’s office – because it comes with both the money and credibility to make things happen. It seems that every politician who doesn’t have a job come January, along with anyone with nonprofit fund-raising experience, is making inquiries. The foundation is conducting a national search.

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When it comes to shaping children’s policy in the state, no organization has been more essential than Kids Count over the past three decades. Burke-Bryant has worked with both Democratic and Republican governors to increase children’s health insurance coverage rates, expand pre-k and kindergarten, and highlight the economic challenges poor families face in Rhode Island.

Babineau and Fanale are leaving Lifespan and Care New England at a precarious time for health care in Rhode Island. The two hospital groups are bleeding money, and Attorney General Peter Neronha shot down their attempt to merge earlier this year.

In the education space, Rhode Island College is still searching for a president to succeed Frank Sanchez, who left in the spring. Over at the University of Rhode Island, the state’s flagship institution, every member of the Board of Trustees will be serving on an expired term by the end of February 2023, as they wait for the governor to make new appointments.

Stone, who just announced his exit from Save the Bay after 14 years on the job, is leaving at a pivotal moment for environmental advocates as state leaders begin to implement the Act on Climate and consider changes to the Coastal Resources Management Council.

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But speak to other leaders in the political, business, and social service spheres, and the talk isn’t of loss, but of opportunity.

“This a great opportunity to make sure that, as we’re considering hiring for these jobs, we consider that we want people who represent the communities they’re going to serve,” said Rele Abiade, who just left US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s office after more than 15 years to launch her own consulting firm.

“Rhode Island hasn’t had an opportunity like this in the time that I’ve been here,” said Mike Raia, a Providence College graduate and former aide to governor Gina Raimondo who now runs a consulting company that advises nonprofit and social impact executives. “My hope is that as all these organizations look for new leadership that they identify executives who can articulate thoughtful 10-year visions and simultaneously commit to growing a bench and building a culture across the state that embraces succession planning and generational inclusion.”


Growing the talent bench is a consistent theme that I heard as I reported out this column.

Abiade pointed out that organizations like the Rhode Island Foundation and Kids Count deserve credit for embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion – both internally and with the initiatives they support – but it’s past time for more leaders of color to be selected for some of these vacancies.

There’s also good reason to look outside of the current safety net of Rhode Islanders looking for jobs. Take the United Way of Rhode Island, for example. Four years ago, it hired Cortney Nicolato, a URI graduate who worked in nonprofits across the country before returning to the state. She breathed new energy into the organization, and is now one of the most important voices in Rhode Island when it comes to housing – arguably the most important issue at this moment.

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Xaykham Khamsyvoravong, who heads up asset operations for US infrastructure partners at CBRE Investment Management, is running for Newport City Council, and at age 38, is on just about everyone’s shortlist to do anything he wants in Rhode Island for the next 40 years. He says the business community is also bracing for significant changes.

Amica Mutual Insurance CEO Bob DiMuccio just retired after 31 years with the company, and is being replaced by Edmund Shallcross III. At casino giant Bally’s, Marc Crisafulli, who was president of the two casinos in Rhode Island, just announced his retirement. And Hasbro CEO Chris Cocks is still less than one year into his new role following the death of Brian Goldner.

“The corporate world has historically invested in people who understand politics, but what we are seeing is an evolution of that,” Khamsyvoravong said. “Tomorrow’s leaders need both the moral credibility of sincerely understanding their communities, while also having the technical expertise to deliver on their organizational missions.”

With all that change, it’s clear that the next year in Rhode Island has the chance to shape the next generation of leaders in the state.

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And you thought all we had was a few political offices changing hands.


Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him @danmcgowan.