This is what's next

Joe Garlick

Executive Director, NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley

380 years ago, an immigrant fleeing deportation created a unique, enduring, and inspirational blueprint for Rhode Island’s communities and neighborhoods.

Roger Williams’ leadership and his ‘Lively Experiment’ made early Rhode Island a radical and principled outlier in its institutional ethics, governance, and social order. And, I hope that’s what’s next for our State, again.

As historian and author George Bancroft opined, “Although Rhode Island was small in size, it was large in the ‘Excellency’ of the principles on which it rested its institutions”. This legacy of ‘Excellency’ inspires me as a nonprofit affordable housing and community development practitioner as I envision Rhode Island moving forward.

The bar was set very high by Williams for future community builders committed to working in Rhode Island’s neighborhoods to build innovative, equitable, just, caring, welcoming, and prosperous communities.

His ‘community development’ principles distinguished Rhode Island in 1636 from the rest of the Colonies, and indeed, from all of Europe. These are a solid foundation on which to continue building Rhode Island into the next century, and setting our State apart again. Primary among these was a real commitment to ‘liberty and equality in both land and government’.

Today, more so than ever before, where we live shapes our children’s opportunities and ours. Our zip codes are a predictor of our economic status, educational success and achievement, health, and access to healthy food, jobs, and even shade trees. This must change by 2116. Zip codes, if they exist then, should only be a predictor of where our mail will be sent.

Fair Housing and equitable development are the great issues to be tackled going forward. Our laws, policy, and investments will need to evolve to further break down barriers and increase the geography of opportunity for all Rhode Islanders. Just as Roger Williams did, our community leaders and institutions must rise to the challenge of spearheading efforts to expand opportunity and increase diversity across Rhode Island’s 2,000 square miles.

Despite the fact that he was the first European on the scene in 1636, he divided his land equally among the first settlers and donated the bulk of his land purchase from the Narragansett’s to the City of Providence. His action stands in stark contrast to Massachusetts, where 33 families owned most of that Colony’s lands. As Providence grew and entrenched interests successfully blocked an effort to expand land ownership and the vote, he forged a compromise to allow smaller, less expensive lots. This allowed the single men who came to the City as laborers to be able to afford them, and eventually gain their vote. All these years later, land use regulations still remain at the core of the Fair Housing debate.

Bridging divides was a particular skill of Williams, as it will be to tackle Rhode Island’s future equitable development policies and practices. Over the course of his life, he maintained cooperative relationships with the government leaders of Massachusetts—the same leaders who banished him from their midst and were ready to deport him. He maintained excellent relationships with Native Americans throughout Southern New England, averting wars and helping to end those that did break out. He secured Rhode Island’s royal charter and legitimacy as a Colony despite tremendous political power shifts in England. He achieved all of these because he maintained alliances and relationships with a diversity of people over the course of his life, and mobilized them at critical times for the common good.

Perhaps the most important policy tool Roger Williams has bequeathed Rhode Islanders is to always question the deeply rooted, subconscious assumptions behind the common policies, practices, and beliefs of the times in which we live. While these encumbered the leaders of his time, as author John M Barry noted, Roger Williams broke through in ways that helped shape not only our unique State and its institutions, but formed a bedrock principle of our Nation.


One Union Station
Providence, RI 02903


(401) 274-4564

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