Providence's Alternative Source!

Local heroes
The Phoenix salutes six individuals whose efforts make Rhode Island a better place

Frank Shea / Photo by Richard McCaffrey

Frank Shea

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 and Development.

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 Olneyville.

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 Palace.

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 transformation.
-- Rudy Cheeks

Mary Reilly / Photo by Richard McCaffrey

Mary Reilly

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 organizations.

"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 minority."

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 going.

"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 trenches.

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 Project.

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 (, 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 accountable."

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

Roger LeBrun

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 make.

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 talents."

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

Nellie Gorbea

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 way."

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 boards.

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