PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Legislative Black and Latino Caucus has changed its name to reflect greater diversity in the General Assembly.
The group is now called the Rhode Island Black, Latino, Indigenous, and Asian American and Pacific Islander Caucus (BLIAC).
The change reflects the fact that the 21-member group now includes Rhode Island’s first Asian-American state legislators — Senator Linda L. Ujifusa, a Portsmouth Democrat, and Senator Victoria Gu, a Charlestown Democrat — and the caucus includes Representative Brianna E. Henries, an East Providence Democrat who is of Native American, African-American, and Cape Verdean descent.
“We wanted to make sure we were inclusive not only for them but in the future for more folks to join the caucus and show this is a place for them,” said Representative Leonela Felix, a Pawtucket Democrat and caucus co-chair.
The group, which made the change in a meeting Thursday night, had considered options such as the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) Caucus; the Black, Latino and AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) Caucus; or the Solidarity Caucus.
But Felix said Ujifusa and Gu noted the term BIPOC has not historically included Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. She said the caucus wanted to explicitly include those communities, “so we merged a couple of options to create this new iteration.”
She said the group also discussed whether to use the term Latinx in the new name and decided against it.
“We decided not to because it’s a white term used in the United States, and it’s not used in our countries,” said Felix, who was born in Boston and spent her childhood in the Dominican Republic, her parents’ native home. “Latino members felt Lantinx is not really representing our community. I have never had a conversation with someone from the Latino community where they say Latinx. So, no thanks.”
Felix acknowledged that the new name is long, but she said the caucus could be known by the acronym BLIAC. And she said Henries told the group that “while the name is long, that is space that we are willing to take in terms of the issues we are advocating for.”
Last April, the caucus unveiled 13 priorities for the 2022 legislative session, focusing on areas such as health care, criminal justice, and the minimum wage.
The Assembly ended up achieving some of those goals, including the provision of health coverage for all children regardless of immigration status. But the Assembly did not pass other measures such as a proposed revamp the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights in response to the killing of George Floyd, a Minnesota man who died when a police officer pinned him down with a knee to his neck for nearly nine minutes.
Felix said the caucus continues to discuss proposals to either repeal LEOBOR or to pursue “an amendment that is actually meaningful.” And the issue has gained renewed attention following the death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of five Memphis police officers.
Past proposals have focused on allowing police chiefs to hand out longer suspensions to police officers accused of wrongdoing (currently anything longer than two days can trigger a LEOBOR hearing) and expanding the panel that hears police disciplinary cases (up from the current three members).
Felix said the caucus won’t settle on its legislative priorities until a meeting on May 9. She said legislators will advocate for the bills they want to prioritize, and the group will vote on the legislative package it will support.
The 2020 election produced the most diverse General Assembly in Rhode Island history, with 21 people of color in the 113-member legislature. After the 2022 elections, the Assembly still has 21 legislators of color, but there were changes within the caucus: The 38-member Senate is more diverse, going from five to seven senators of color, and the 75-member House is less diverse, going from 16 to 14 legislators of color.
On Feb. 1, the caucus held its annual Black History Month celebration in the Bell Room of the State House. The event celebrated Black culture, natural hair, and the contributions of Black Rhode Islanders to the state’s history, culture, and commerce.
“Black history is American history,” said Senator Tiara Mack, a Providence Democrat. “From the foundations of the nation to now, Black investors, creative, and thought leaders have created much of the fabric of our society. While this month is a time to intentionally focus on our achievements, it is also a time to focus on our future including policy, advocacy, and commerce that promotes the Black American experience.”
Attendees read “Hair Love,” a book celebrating natural hair, took a tour of the State House, and had an opportunity to have their hair braided or portrait drawn.
Speakers also called for passage of the CROWN (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) Act, which would prohibit racial discrimination based on natural textures and protective hairstyles. Similar legislation has been passed in 19 states, including Massachusetts and New York.
Felix said the caucus plans to host five events each year for Black History Month, Indigenous Peoples Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Asian-American History Month, and Juneteenth. The group is now aiming to have all 21 members of the caucus participate in and share the costs of the events, rather than having subgroups involved with each event, she said. And the group is seeking funding from General Assembly leaders for future events, she said.