The Phoenix salutes six individuals whose efforts make Rhode Island a better place
Frank Shea / Photo by Richard McCaffrey
You have to spend a bit of time in Providence's classic, hardscrabble
Olneyville neighborhood to see what is really going on. A palpable sense of
renewal can be detected, but it is happening largely beneath the radar of the
news media, which seems to come to Olneyville only when there's a crime story
to be covered. Traveling through the interior streets, however, you notice
small groups of attractively rehabbed family homes. You also see some
surprisingly beautiful little "pocket parks" -- a few small acres of peace and
calm in the midst of the inner city. Delve a little deeper and you'll also find
a thriving arts community.
The rebirth of Olneyville has begun and one of the key players in the
neighborhood's revitalization has been Frank Shea, the energetic and focused
executive director of the Olneyville Housing Corporation (OHC). He's also a
leading figure in the Olneyville Collaborative, a consortium of neighborhood
organizations that include local churches (like the very active communicants of
St. Teresa's Roman Catholic parish on Manton Avenue), arts and environmental
groups, the Olneyville Merchants Association, the Rhode Island Housing and
Mortgage Finance Corporation (RIHMFC), and the Providence Office of Planning
Olneyville Housing was started in 1988 as a program of the Nickerson House
Community Center. According to its mission statement, OHC works, "To stabilize
the neighborhood by addressing the problems associated with an aging housing
stock, decline in owner occupancy, and an increasing gap between housing costs
and residents' income."
Under Shea's leadership, OHC has realized notable successes, taking one
three-block area (bounded by Florence, Julian, Appleton, and Putnam streets),
replacing vacant lots and abandoned houses with 32 new rental apartments in two
renovated and 13 new buildings. Olneyville Housing's current initiative calls
for the development of 20 new homeownership properties on scattered sites in
Olneyville over the next three years.
But the task of community revitalization cannot be done piecemeal. All the
parts -- from education, health services, environmental concerns, recreation
and housing -- have to fit. Since Shea fully understands this, both he and OHC
are bulwarks of the Olneyville Collaborative. More than 500 people showed up
for one event sponsored by the collaborative, and a core group of the member
organizations meets biweekly to steadily develop and refine plans to reclaim
Shea and I recently took a ride around the neighborhood to see some of the
OHC's efforts. One spot -- a formerly vacant lot too small to build on -- now
features a beautifully landscaped area that would be stunning even on the
city's affluent East Side. Shea explains that the work was done in partnership
with the Southside Community Land Trust. "Comprehensive planning with all the
neighborhood groups involved," is essential, he says, in coordinating all the
positives in the neighborhood.
And there are many positives. The Price Right supermarket (the former Star
Market) on Manton, just off Olneyville Square, is one of the best places to
shop for staples popular in most Latin American countries. As a result, Shea
says, "The place is always busy and lots of folks come in from other
neighborhoods to shop here." Intelligent planning and an aggressive and
creative programming schedule mean that the aforementioned "pocket parks" are
frequently filled with children or families, keeping them from falling into
disrepair or turning into hangouts for drug dealers and users. There's also the
underground artwork going on at the Hive collective and its offshoot, the Dirt
Next on Shea's plate is sprucing up the storefronts in the square, and the
Riverside Gateway development. The latter will turn the large vacant parcels
lining Riverside Park (currently in development along the Woonasquatucket),
into 16 new two-unit houses. Olneyville is a neighborhood in transition, and
Frank Shea is one of the indispensable architects of this urban
-- Rudy Cheeks
Mary Reilly / Photo by Richard McCaffrey
Wherever life has taken her -- from her childhood in an Irish immigrant family
in South Providence to teaching in Central America and back to the old
neighborhood -- Sister Mary Reilly has looked at the needs of the poor around
her, particularly women and children, and tried to fill in the gaps. In January
1981, she co-founded Dorcas Place, a literacy and advocacy center for
low-income women, now in its 22nd year. Reilly left after 19 years and took a
year's sabbatical that included two months in New York City, where, as a
representative of non-governmental organizations, she sat in on United Nations
meetings concerned with girls, women, and world health.
It was there that Reilly's resolve to reach out to girls between the ages of
10 and 14 began to gel. Returning to Rhode Island, she consulted with her
order, the Sisters of Mercy, and they formed the Sisters Collaborative, made up
of five women's religious groups. They worked for two years on the idea of a
school for girls, pledging start-up money for what became Sophia Academy, now
in its second year of operation, with Reilly as the director.
With 43 girls in grades 5, 6, and 7 -- the school will cap itself at 60
students in four grades, with no more than 15 per class -- the principal and
teachers work to foster a positive sense of self in each girl. "It's a
gender-specific curriculum," Reilly emphasizes. "We are educating girls, so
it's very relational, project-learning, working in teams. It's such a difficult
time in a girl's growth -- we want them to realize how beautiful they are
inside as well as out."
Reilly and her staff recruited students from low-income Providence families
during the summer of 2001, looking for promising girls who might otherwise get
lost in the large populations of middle schools. The girls' cultural diversity
-- Latina, African-American, Hmong, Native American -- is recognized in
assignments to interview their parents and grandparents and to share such
information with the other girls.
"In social studies, we are looking at surfacing people from behind the
scenes," Reilly explains. "The way we study history is generally wars and
revolutions. We want to write in what we've never written in before, but not
write out other things."
Sophia Academy has a strong social service component, including an
after-school program and ongoing outreach to the girls' families. The girls are
exposed to career opportunities - and encouraged to forge dreams for their
future - during cooperative programs with Roger Williams Zoo, Women &
Infants Hospital, Save the Bay, Johnson & Wales University, and other
"We are providing meaningful experiences that give substance to the words they
are reading," Reilly remarks. "I always think in terms of our motto,
`reflecting wisdom in the girl.' We want to help them explore themselves,
understand themselves, so that they can handle a situation where they are a
The 72-year-old Reilly is energetic and enthusiastic about her new endeavor.
She credits the melding of spirituality with her active life in keeping her
"I have been very fortunate to be at the places I was," she notes. "I am a
person who sees the alternatives and networks the possibilities. I really do
believe there is something happening for girls these days."
An important piece of it is happening at Sophia Academy.
An open house will be held at Sophia Academy, in the Algonquin House (807
Broad St.) on December 13 from 6 to 8 p.m. The public is invited. For more
information, call (401) 461-0070.
-- Johnette Rodriguez
Karina Wood and Cleora O'Connor
Photo by Richard McCaffrey
Karina Wood and Cleora O'Connor
Although Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine offers a welcome focus on
the distinctly American problem of gun-related violence, it's people like
Cleora O'Connor and Karina Wood that do much of the day-to-day slogging in the
As co-chairs of the Rhode Island chapter of the Million Mom March, the two
women have been working to raise awareness about gun violence -- a subject that
remains remote for most people unless they have been personally touched by it
-- while also promoting the importance of grassroots democracy. Although Wood
and O'Connor have known each other for little more than two years, they've
become familiar enough that they can complete each other's sentences. "We're a
good compliment," Wood acknowledges. "That's what I like about it."
The duo came to their shared goal of reducing gun violence through different
paths. O'Connor, 44, a computer network specialist for the Providence schools,
lost her 17-year-old son, Malik, when he was fatally shot as the unintended
target of a drive-by shooting in South Providence in 1997. Wood, a 34-year-old
British native who moved to Providence after attending graduate school in
Washington, DC, has long been active in peace and social justice concerns,
currently working on security issues with the nonprofit Mainstream Media
When the Million Mom March, a mass demonstration against gun violence, took
place in Washington on Mother's Day 2000, O'Connor organized a busload of
residents to attend, and Wood, who had recently given birth to her second
daughter, helped stage a local event at Waterplace Park that attracted 1000
people. Getting to know each other during a subsequent strategy meeting at
Rhode Island Hospital, the two women quickly emerged as the driving force
behind the Million Mom March's Rhode Island chapter.
Strengthening gun control remains an uphill fight, even in Rhode Island, since
the gun lobby is better financed and more organized than its critics. But by
documenting the stances of legislators on gun issues and making related
endorsements, Wood and O'Connor have served notice that lawmakers can face a
political cost for their positions. "The gun lobby would have you believe we're
trying to take away everybody's gun," Wood says, when the MMM's goals include
such reasonable measures as closing gun show loopholes, requiring trigger locks
on guns in the home, and diminishing the legal access to guns of people who
have a record of committing violence.
Gun advocates note that criminals aren't concerned with following laws. Still,
the case of DC sniper suspect John A. Muhammad -- who was able to buy a gun
despite being the subject of a restraining order -- reflects the vast amount of
room for improvement.
Rhode Island's MMM chapter (www.mmmri.org), one of about 230 in the country,
claims about 700 supporters. O'Connor and Wood try to steadily build their
momentum through various opportunities -- such as gaining permission to
distribute literature at the Avon during screenings of Bowling for
Columbine -- and by speaking to different audiences.
O'Connor, for example, recently found attentive listeners at the Met School,
where students last year lost one of their classmates, Joe Hector, to gun
violence. "One of my driving forces is to get these kids heated up and to
understand the importance of this electoral process," O'Connor says. "We had to
work for this, to get the right to vote. Whether it's students or somebody
else, we try to impress upon them the importance of holding the legislators
For those audiences for which gun violence remains more abstract, O'Connor
draws on her own experience: the phone call in the middle of the night, the
screaming coming from the other end.
"It is a parent's worst nightmare," she recalls. "It will never be as bad as
getting that phone call -- you've got to come, something's happened. I try to
make parents feel [that nightmare], just for an instant" -- so that others
won't have to.
-- Ian Donnis
Roger LeBrun / Photo by William Loggia
University of Rhode Island professor Roger LeBrun didn't expect to be drafted,
in 1969, out of grad school at Cornell, where he was pursuing degrees in
medical entomology and insect pathology. But he also couldn't have predicted
the long-lasting effect of his work at Buddhist orphanages in Vietnam, where he
served as a combat medic.
"Those children and the monks were so inspirational to me, in terms of their
happiness," recalls LeBrun. "The way in which they looked at the present moment
almost made me understand the absurdity of being in a war. I also learned from
the innocence of those children, and I saw the light that came from them. And,
for whatever reason, I see the light that comes from the URI students, whenever
I teach. I truly do. They also have an innocence. I don't know what kind of
alchemy is involved in that, but I don't get tired, burned out, cynical, or
frustrated with teaching."
Indeed, LeBrun was showered with teaching and research honors two years ago,
and in 2001, he became the first URI faculty member to win the prestigious
Carnegie Foundation award as "University Professor of the Year," based on
testimony about his fascinating and far-ranging lectures and his compassionate
interaction with his students. Though the award had gone five times to
professors at Brown University since 1981, this was the first time someone in
public higher education received it, an emphasis that LeBrun is very proud to
At a time when Rhode Island ranks dead last in the country in per-capita
funding for public higher education and the state continually underfunds the
university, low morale can stifle creativity and dampen enthusiasm among the
teaching staff. But LeBrun has, in his words, "circled the wagons" and kept on
going. "You act locally," he observes. "And that might mean an entourage of
students, but you're still working locally and thinking globally."
In LeBrun's classroom, he uses entomology as a jumping-off point to convey
that up to 5000 children under the age of five in Africa die of malaria every
day; that 80 percent of the world's people live in substandard housing; that
only one percent have a college education. LeBrun enlivens every lecture with
slides and video, every statistic with a story, and every story with his own
irrepressible humor. Outside the classroom, he makes it a practice to meet
personally with every single student at least once during the semester. "I want
to see what they want to do -- aspirations, goals, deficiencies, needs," LeBrun
says, and he guarantees his top 10 students a job, having placed some doing
beetle research on Block Island and book editing for a scientific publisher.
"I work real hard doing that," he says. "I don't believe that they should
study and have a discipline and not have a direction and a focus for their
In addition to his teaching, this Coventry native makes frequent research
trips to the Pasteur Institute in France, and he continues to look at long-term
biological control of ticks and mosquitoes. LeBrun patented a device that
sprays the head of deer with a fungus that kills ticks and spreads across the
deer's body without harming it. He mentors many grad students in work that
examines non-chemical management of disease-carrying vectors.
The biggest gleam in his eye, however, comes when he talks about teaching. The
55-year-old professor says the key to his energy and enthusiasm comes from
thinking about the next generation.
"You've got to get the message out to them, no matter the circumstances,"
LeBrun stresses. "I'll teach them at the A & P or in the parking lot if I
have to. It's not that hard to teach sometimes. Socrates did it perfectly well,
just speaking one-on-one."
-- Johnette Rodriguez
Nellie Gorbea / Photo by Richard McCaffrey
Six years ago, when not one of the three Latino candidates running for the
Central Falls City Council landed a seat, there was plenty of finger-pointing
among Rhode Island's leading Latino political activists. With all the turmoil
and recriminations, recalls Nellie Gorbea, "We said we'll never win this
Flash forward to the spring of 2002: A crowd of hundreds, including virtually
all of the primary candidates for governor and a bevy of other politicos,
turned out for the Rhode Island Latino Civic Fund's festive coming-out party
and recognition for Dr. Pablo Rodriguez at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Warwick.
Candidates actively courted Latino voters during the subsequent election season
and Latino candidates made progress in campaigns for the General Assembly and
Providence City Council.
Give a fair share of the credit to Gorbea, the president of the civic fund and
the related Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee (RILPAC), who has
been actively working to bring about a fair share of political representation
for the state's growing Latino community. In so doing, Gorbea and fellow
activists -- Rodriguez, Luis Aponte, Sylvia Bernal, Miguel Luna, and Angel
Taveras, to name a few -- have been renewing the spirit of democracy while
offering an effective model for others seeking a place at the table.
The political organizing effort seems a natural calling for Gorbea, a gracious
35-year-old native of Puerto Rico, who acknowledges, with the mock mournfulness
of someone addressing a self-help group for policy types, "I've been a policy
wonk pretty much all my life." Originally setting her sights on becoming an
astronomer, she became fascinated with world history in high school, partially
inspired after viewing Reds, the Russian revolution epic based on the
journalism of John Reed.
The East Greenwich resident came to the states with her husband, who teaches
in University of Rhode Island's oceanography program. After returning to Puerto
Rico to serve in roles including economic adviser to the governor, Gorbea was
in the right place, at the right time, coming back to Rhode Island as
supporters of the Latino Political Action Committee were looking to transform
it into a more active and multi-faceted effort.
The distinction between the two all-volunteer groups is that the PAC raises
funds and offers endorsements, while the civic fund focuses on civic education
and developing organizational capacity. Both groups are non-partisan; Many of
those active with the group lean Democratic, but RILPAC endorsed some
non-Democratic candidates this year, including Stephen Laffey, the Republican
mayor-elect in Cranston, and Jeff Toste, an unsuccessful Green Party candidate
for state Senate.
Among other efforts, Gorbea, who is quick to give credit to her board members,
helped to produce an election supplement for Providence En Espanol (the
impressive showing of political ads, with candidates ranging from Providence
mayor-elect David Cicilline to attorney general-elect Patrick Lynch, is another
sign of growing respect for the Latino community). Future plans for the civic
fund, which uses office space at Sylvia Bernal's cleaning business on Broad
Street, include promoting Latina candidates and seeking a fair share of
representation for Latinos in Rhode Island's state government and appointed
It promises to be a busy time for Gorbea, who works as an executive for the
Puerto Rico-based Internet business solutions firm started by her sister.
"After this election, if anything, I think we are stronger," she notes. "But it
takes work. It doesn't just happen."
-- Ian Donnis
Issue Date: November 22 - 28, 2002