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$300,000 fellowships target civic engagement
By Chris Barnett / April 13, 2017 /   Loading Disqus...
Two local women are the recipients of this year’s Rhode Island Innovation Fellowships. Donna Childs and Ditra Edwards were chosen from nearly 200 applicants to receive $300,000 over three years to pursue their proposals for improving civic engagement.

The fellowships are made possible through the vision and generosity of philanthropists Letitia and John Carter.

“Year after year Letitia and I are reminded of the talent and creativity that resides right here in Rhode Island,” said John Carter. “We look forward to seeing these two projects take shape and to the positive impact they will have on civic engagement in our state.”

Now in its sixth year the Rhode Island Innovation Fellowship seeks to achieve community impact by investing in an individual’s creativity and potential, and providing freedom to apply creative and fresh thinking to important challenges.

“Donna and Ditra have impressive ideas for change making. Each of their projects will focus resources on our state’s most valuable asset – its people,” said Neil Steinberg, the Foundation’s president and CEO. “We applaud Letitia and John Carter for their unshakeable confidence in Rhode Island’s potential and look forward to supporting our two newest fellows.”


Childs, of Warwick, will launch the “Civic Resilience” project, a technology-enabled credit bank that tracks volunteer service, enabling participants to save and trade service hours. She will focus first on volunteerism in the area of climate and disaster resilience.

“Providing a ‘get’ for the ‘give’ will be a more effective approach to recruiting and retaining volunteers than is typical with cause-based campaigns. And the web-based interface and mobile app will make it easy for people to participate,” said Childs.

Volunteers will earn an hour of service for an hour of their work. They will be able to bank their hours and can give or assign them as a currency. They can also build skills and experience that will enhance their professional careers.

“Success creates its own momentum when we show that we can do it. We then create another virtuous circle of success with tangible progress towards addressing an issue of shared concern – climate and disaster vulnerability – while building a culture of civic engagement in the process,” she said.

Edwards, of Providence, will launch SistaFire RI, to train a statewide network of women of color to actively engage their communities in addressing issues important to them.

“Many low-income women of color in our state are highly isolated and face significant economic challenges, even as many of them raise children, and there are almost no civic spaces open to them,” said Edwards. “I believe women can play a key civic leadership role in every community if they have a place to grow, learn and take their early steps as leaders.”

Edwards will build a coalition that can connect women across the state to address issues of economic opportunity. She will rely on a participant-led process, and use an intensive, multi-racial, cohort development model to build shared leadership and engagement.

In SistaFire RI’s first year, Edwards will train 30-40 women in effective civic engagement and advocacy. She envisions those graduates will train others until there are several hundred emerging women leaders focused on building economic stability and strengthening civic engagement.

“We’ll support and nurture women of color to come together to meet their own social and economic needs while also engaging them as problem-solvers and civic leaders in their communities, and connecting them to one another across the state,” said Edwards.

The Rhode Island Innovation Fellowship’s seven-member selection panel looked for proposals that represented pioneering work, exceptional leadership, bold vision, risk-taking, potential to scale up and statewide impact.

Chaired by Steinberg, the panelists included Elan Babchuk, director of innovation at Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership; Central Falls School Supt. Victor Capellan, Theresa Moore, president of T-Time Productions; Aidan Petrie, co-founder and chief innovation officer at Ximedica; Rhode Island College President Frank Sánchez, Dan Shedd, president of Taylor Box Company; and Leslie Taito, senior vice president of corporate operations at Hope Global.

Over the years, the innovation initiative has generated more than 1,700 applications. Last year’s recipient, Ray Two Hawks Watson, is working on boosting the state’s tourism industry and improving social cohesion by capitalizing on Rhode Island’s cultural heritage, history and diversity through his Providence Cultural Equity Initiative.

The other previous recipients are Amy Bernhardt, David Dadekian, Adrienne Gagnon, John Haley, Daniel Kamil and Emily Steffian, Soren Ryherd, Dr. Lynn Taylor and Allan Tear.

The Rhode Island Foundation is the largest and most comprehensive funder of nonprofit organizations in Rhode Island. In 2016, the Foundation awarded a record $45 million in grants to organizations addressing the state’s most pressing issues and needs of diverse communities. Through leadership, fundraising and grantmaking activities, often in partnership with individuals and organizations, the Foundation is helping Rhode Island reach its true potential.
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