This is what’s next

Taino J. Palermo

Program Director, Community Development, Roger Williams University | School of Continuing Studies

When thinking about what is next for the communities of Rhode Island, from my lens as a community guy first and an academic second, who serves on a variety of boards, commissions, and committees, I think it boils down to systems re-thinking. That sounds broad and lofty but there are very specific examples of how cities and states are innovatively approaching (and capitalizing on) the intersection of public systems and positively impacting whole demographic groups and communities.

Here’s an example of public system intersection that happens all too often:

A family living in poverty subsequently has less than ideal housing conditions, which means they could also be potentially living in an unsafe neighborhood. The parents are offspring of poor parents who did not attend college and have grown up in the same unsafe neighborhood and living conditions. Housing alone is an indicator of poor health outcomes for children and adults (transiency, lead exposure, etc.). The children in that household are exposed to the trauma of poverty and crime in their neighborhood which results in chronic stress and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in many case, to the same degree as veterans coming home from war. These children then attend their local public school which is underperforming due to the lack of funding because public schools are funded primarily by property taxes. That underfunded, underperforming public school is in a poor neighborhood where a majority of the residents (i.e. the family in this example) are renters, not homeowners. Therefore, that school will continuously remain underfunded and as is the case in Rhode Island and many other cities and states across the country, the schools themselves are often in poor conditions just like the homes the children come from. So those children, suffering from the woes of poverty (also known as social determinants) are underperforming and potentially becoming a behavior problem for teachers. But why?

Lead exposure from poor housing (and yes, even the schools), plus inadequate access to healthcare, equals higher rates of asthma, poor vision, and a variety of other poor health outcomes. Because of poverty, this child may not even be able to see the whiteboard. Or because they went to sleep to gunshots or are subject to an unstable/unsafe family situation, they are suffering from trauma. Add the fact that teachers and school staff may not be culturally competent and aware of these situations and/or merely not equipped with the skills and training to adequately support the children (due to lack of funding), then you can see how this is a recipe for disaster. Said children are now kicked out of class and suspended out of school because of their behavioral issues and they eventually end up back on the street, in the training school, in the Adult Correctional Institution, and then in 15 years we complain about them asking us for change in Kennedy Plaza.

Do you see how this is all connected? In this one example, I touched on housing, criminal justice/public safety, education, and employment through the lens of poverty and the example is all too real. I’m from New York City, grew up in poverty, have taught in NYC public schools, as well as the Rhode Island Training School and the ACI. I’m a community guy and an academic. I’ve lived this, have studied it, teach it, and work in it. I’ve seen the structural deficits of the systems that impact our society and examined how they can be re-thought and re-designed. The beauty is Rhode Island is the perfect place to be bold and set a model for the country on how to blow up public systems and re-build them in ways that make sense.

Understanding how public systems interact, overlap, and impact one another is the first step. Then it becomes about getting all the key players (from department heads and frontline staff to the community members interfacing with public systems) to get real-time feedback about how each system impacts one another and identifying barriers and opportunities for breaking down silos.

Let’s first take our size as an advantage (and opportunity) to completely overhaul systems change state-wide. As a small state with urban cores, suburban and rural communities, all of which have their own unique set of issues, the benefit of our size is that access isn’t an issue – from city mayors to the governor. We are a tight community and the degree of separation from key figures who can affect major change is literally one degree. If you don’t know the mayor or city council member of your city, or the governor or someone on her staff, you know someone who does. That kind of access from the community member on the ground to the policy maker in the statehouse is invaluable. Take it from someone who’s from a major city where access to a public official can often be harder than getting in touch with the President of the United States.

What that means is that when we’re fully engaged civically, visible at public meetings and listening sessions, and actively voting and rallying around issues as a community, our voices can be heard and we can affect change. And if we have the gall to hold policymakers accountable for carrying out the will of the people, then we can truly make change because we will see them (and let them know about it) at church, when we pick up our kids from school, or when we run into them at the supermarket.
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