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COMMENTARY

With legislative proposals to further equity, Rhode Island has an opportunity to create transformational change

Does talking about equity really create meaningful impact for Rhode Islanders who have been left behind and continue to struggle? The answer is Yes, when we take action for equity.

The Rhode Island State House in Providence.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

In the remaining weeks of the 2023 legislative session, as lawmakers appraise proposals to further efforts to ensure equity for all Rhode Islanders, it’s important to consider, what does equity look like?

To me, equity in Rhode Island looks like the promise of democracy fulfilled.

Nelson Mandela said, “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities,” and those words have resonated with me since I was a child. Yet, our communities continue to wait for the promise of equal opportunity, and are becoming weary that nothing will change. Rhode Island, because it is a small and close-knit state, has a unique opportunity to create transformational change.

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The Equity Impact Campaign launched in March with a group of nearly three dozen community leaders and organizations, to create a more equitable future for all Rhode Islanders by ensuring that policies, programs, and the state budget correct historic disparities and design new policies centered in equity.

The campaign recently hosted two Equity Impact Days, when more than 200 Rhode Islanders shared their vision for equity in their communities.

Even with all these efforts, a fundamental question remains: Does talking about equity really create meaningful and transformational impact for those in Rhode Island who have been left behind and continue to struggle due to historic and present-day disparities?

The answer is Yes, when we take action for equity.

Yes, when we start with an explanation of ways in which the proposed state budget furthers the governor’s efforts to ensure equity, as proposed by Representative Terri Cortvriend and Senator Jonathon Acosta.

Yes, when our legislators are intentional about providing access to opportunities for all by considering the impact, both positive and negative, of their proposed legislation in decreasing disparities and increasing equity, as proposed by Representative Rebecca Kislak.

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Yes, when our legislators use tools like equity impact statements and racial equity assessments in their analyses of criminal justice, education, health care, and employment, where there remains a massive disproportionate impact on Black and Brown communities, as proposed by Senator Tiara Mack.

We created a democracy on the promise of equal opportunity for all. The promise of equal opportunity should be fulfilled regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, zip code, or socio-economic status. We want to deliver on that promise for all, and to do so requires us to center equity in the decision-making process — not as a buzzword, but as a tool to get us to the promise of equal opportunity.

If Rhode Island leaders want to ensure that all Rhode Islanders are heard, have resources, and access to opportunities, then they must center equity. Equity, like love and hope, is an action word that calls for intentionality as we create budgets. programs, and policies.

Our elected leaders must center equity to ensure that children no longer live in poverty. They must center equity so that workers, especially workers of color, are given a living wage, child care assistance, and paid leave to care for themselves and their families. Our elected officials must center equity to ensure that persons with disabilities have access to health care, employment, and other resources. And they must center equity to address the incarceration rate in Rhode Island, where in 2020 there were 9.9 times more Black people incarcerated than their white counterparts per 100,000 people. Equity is a tool that helps us to reduce and eliminate these disparities.

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So, what does equity look like in Rhode Island? To me, it looks like HOPE realized and acted on by bold leaders who turn hope and that promise of democracy into action.

With action, we can certainly create a more equitable future for all Rhode Islanders.

Weayonnoh Nelson-Davies is the executive director of The Economic Progress Institute.