This is what's next

Francis Parra

Executive Artistic Director, ECAS Theater, Providence

Rhode Island is a remarkable state, rich in resources, talent, and diversity. We are recognized across the country and world as leaders in the arts and culture, for example. Yet, so much potential lies within our borders, unrecognized and untapped, while we continue to search far and wide for solutions to our economic challenges.

Recently, economist Mark Zandi spoke to Rhode Island's top leaders about how the state could best leverage its assets. Zandi highlighted our great universities, proximity to Boston, and highly trained workforce among some of our greatest assets. While these observations are not new, what he said next was remarkable. According to the Providence Journal, the economist said that Rhode Island's "very poor demographics" were holding us back and that the way to move forward was to "allow for more skilled, educated immigrants to come into the state."

Bringing in highly-trained people sounds like a great idea. But what about all those “very poor" Rhode Islanders already here? As a proud Rhode Islander who is also an immigrant, educator, and artist, I would suggest that there are many Rhode Islanders within that demographic who represent enormous potential for our state.

In fact, many of those Rhode Islanders identify as Latinos. According to the PEW Hispanic Center in Washington, DC, Rhode Island is the 12th most Latino state in the nation, including immigrants and the Rhode Island-born children of immigrants. More importantly, Latino Rhode Islanders are young. According to the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University, the median age for Latinos in Rhode Island is 26 years old. In Providence, two-thirds of all public school students identify as Latino. They are Rhode Island's future.

As a state, we must ensure that these young Rhode Islanders have the necessary skills to compete and succeed in today’s workforce. It’s great that we are focusing greater attention and resources on improving education in our state. However, we should also look beyond the traditional classroom setting. In my experience as an educator and artist, I have seen first-hand how the arts can positively impact the life of a child or young adult and improve their academic performance. Exposure to the arts can be a life-changing experience for children facing economic hardship.

Simply put, the arts provide an opportunity for children to develop communication, creative, and critical thinking skills beyond what’s usually available in today’s traditional, test-driven educational setting. There are a number of remarkable arts organizations that are making a difference in this regard and, fortunately, the Rhode Island Foundation has often played a critical role in fostering their development and growth. However, there is a lot more than can be done.

It’s time to take a closer look at those “very poor demographics,” empower individuals and organizations that are making a difference from within, and develop real partnerships with them that will help all Rhode Islanders rise to the next level. The arts can play a critical role in this. It would be wise for all Rhode Islanders to take note and, more importantly, take action.

One Union Station
Providence, RI 02903


(401) 274-4564

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