By EMMA BARTLETT
When Doris Blanchard, John Graichen, Jim Goulet and David Raymond sat together at Cranston’s Portuguese Club last Wednesday, they knew nothing about each other. Blanchard …
When Doris Blanchard, John Graichen, Jim Goulet and David Raymond sat together at Cranston’s Portuguese Club last Wednesday, they knew nothing about each other. Blanchard works at Rhode Island Commerce as director of small business programs, Graichen runs a free fishing program for kids, Goulet was a former model for RISD and Raymond is a retired Providence firefighter. What connected the four was their decision to attend the Rhode Island Foundation’s Together RI dinner – an event where Rhode Island’s community comes together to break bread over civic and civil dialogue.
The Rhode Island Foundation is the largest and most comprehensive funder of nonprofit organizations in the state. Working with generous and visionary donors, the foundation raised $98 million and awarded $76 million in grants to organizations addressing the state’s most pressing issues and needs of diverse communities in 2021. The foundation launched the Together RI initiative in 2018 with two goals in mind: first, to find out, where individual Rhode Islanders saw opportunity in the Ocean State and where they identify challenge; and second, to create a neutral place for dialogue on topics that are critical to individuals’ common future and a place where divisiveness and polarization is left at the door.
On Oct. 28, roughly 40 Rhode Islanders attended the tenth community dinner held in Cranston.
“You will notice that I asked you to sit in specific places so that you all get to meet someone new,” said Neil Steinberg, the Rhode Island Foundation’s president and CEO. “We don’t want people coming in and walking out not meeting anyone new.”
Guests were allotted 45 minutes to respond to three questions at their tables followed by a sharing session at the end of the night where all groups presented their top answers. The questions asked individuals what Rhode Island’s biggest strength was, what Rhode Island’s biggest opportunity was and what challenges individuals and their community face day to day. If people completed the questions early, there were three additional questions they could work on.
Many of the groups shared common answers. For example, as for Rhode Island’s biggest strength, many said the state’s size – being so small individuals can travel to a lot of places in a short amount of time and the state’s size allows easier access to the state’s elected officials. Others cited Rhode Island’s level of diversity. One of the state’s strengths and opportunities is offshore wind. Graichen countered that the vibrations affect dolphins and birds, furthering the discussion.
As for opportunities, one group discussed the creation of a town square/community space for all of Rhode Island that people can go to.
“There really isn’t one place in Rhode Island that we can all gather and learn from each other and connect intergenerationally,” said Ivy Swinski.
Another group suggested breaking the community space into something smaller and encouraged neighborhood block parties so people could gather and get to know one another. Some of the challenges individuals said affected their daily lives included public transportation, never-ending infrastructure projects, increases in rents and utilities, providing better after school programs and safety in schools and mental health resources.
Following the program, individuals filled out a survey, informing the foundation how the experience went.
Rebecca Garland, the associate director of the nonprofit called Beautiful Day which helps refugees adjust to life in America, said the Together RI experience was wonderful. Everyone brought a unique perspective to the table and came from different places which she said lent itself to a richer conversation.
Johnston resident Christine Dwyer thought the following of the event: “Hearing opinions from my fellow Rhode Islanders was mind-opening and enlightening. I was made aware of issues and circumstances that I previously was unaware. Great food for thought. Meeting new people is always fun, and having them get to know me is also a plus.”
Casey Gartland offered his perspective on the event from a business standpoint.
"As the Executive Director of West Bay RI, an agency that supports adult with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Warwick and Johnston, attending the Together RI session allowed me to meet and brainstorm with people invested in the well being of all Rhode Islanders. Building community is a mission that we demonstrate daily as we connect people we serve with their neighbors and businesses and an opportunity to expand that is welcomed,” said Gartland.
The 2022 round of Together RI community dinners started this past July and will come to a close on Nov. 15. Following the program’s completion, the Rhode Island Foundation will compile all community members’ responses and share the results with state leaders. The foundation said the results will be available early next year.
The Rhode Island Foundation will host two more Together RI events. One dinner will take place from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 10 at the Hope Artiste Village (999 Main St., Pawtucket). The last dinner will take place from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the East Providence Senior Center (610 Waterman Ave., East Providence).
“Now more than ever Rhode Islanders need a place for listening, reconnecting and inspiring constructive, civic and civil dialogue,” Steinberg said. “Every voice in Rhode Island deserves to be heard. Grab a friend and join other engaged folks in your area for a free meal and positive discussion to highlight opportunities in your community and our state.”
The public can attend any of the sessions regardless of where they live; capacity is limited. Visit rifoundation.org/togetherri to register for a community event.
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