Nirva Rebecca LaFortune (D) Un-Debate Q&A

Main Questions (200 word maximum answers)

1) What specifically would you do to improve the state of our public schools in Ward 3?

Public education is a city-wide issue and will most likely involve city-wide solutions. As the wealthiest neighborhood in the city, we need to advocate to improve the quality of all schools in the city, not just our own.

Years of delayed maintenance shows in every school building in the city. Addressing this is a large financial commitment. I would encourage unity across the city council and with the school board, so we can have a strong, united approach to the state. Both MLK and Bishop could use better facilities, as could the rest of the city.

We need support for innovation in our schools — I mean a culture as well as resources. Federal mandates have caught urban schools in the grip of regulations designed to support improvement, but that threaten the creativity and flexibility to meet student need. I would also like to see investments in strategies that can help reach students of different learning styles. Our ELL students are not getting enough support and we need more building-level staff who speak the languages our families speak — this is a challenge on the east side and across the city.

2) How would you address the issue of violence, before it happens in our ward, and how would you respond to it after it does happen?

The first step as neighbors is to know one another. A closer community is one way to encourage safety. There are many reasons why violence occurs, and many kinds of violence — physical and systemic. Our elected officials need to be able to reach all parts of the ward to speak with community members to build community.

Our young people need great schools. They need jobs, opportunities to lead, mentors and encouragement. I co-chair the Eastside Community Alliance’s Youth and Education committee. We came together from different east side neighborhood to survey existing youth programs, and we’ll share that information with organizations and families. I’m a member of the East Side YMCA advisory committee, and we want to improve collaboration with the Vincent Brown Recreation Center and expand resources to more families.

When something occurs I would: (1) speak with law enforcement to learn more; (2) speak to neighbors to learn more and see what they need; (3) keep neighbors informed; (4) hold a community meeting. Many of us do these things now, but it would be powerful to come together as a ward to improve communication, advocate to re-open the police substation, and build community.

3) Ward 3 is diverse, and sections of the ward are divided along race and class lines. How do you hope to keep the crossWard community conversation going? Do you support efforts to encourage residents to spend time in other parts of the ward, crossing the invisible borders that separate the various communities on the East Side?

We cannot address the issues that impact our community without building relationships with people who live in other parts of the ward. We need to improve conversation across the ward and encourage existing neighborhood organizations and nonprofits to hold joint meetings and share resources, too.

As a member of the East Side Community Alliance, we have hosted community potlucks at the Church of the Redeemer and Everett Theater. I have attended multiple “Friendly Eights” dinners where people who do not know one another gather for a meal and learn about each other’s cultural and family histories, concerns and triumphs. We hold meetings to discuss community issues and we are working on solutions. We have a group that is pursuing grants to support programs in our community. I hope others will join us in taking action.

One wall separates the YMCA and the Vincent Brown rec center — a wall that divides race and class. This is a great symbol of a lot of the division that people feel in our neighborhood and in our country right now. Do we have the courage to talk about it?

4) Beyond community block grant funds, how would you specifically fund and support the community organizations and programs that do important work in our ward, such as the learning center, food pantry, youth sports, and theater? Will you work to endow these organizations for the longterm, so they can become less reliant on annual grant funding?

The first thing we need is a strong advocate for Ward 3. I know that many of the non-profits in Ward 3 struggle to raise money, and many in Mount Hope are working to meet basic human needs like food. There is no magic wand to create new money in Providence right now, but I do think we could be more organized and more aggressive in competing for foundation and other funds. We have some of the state’s best grant writers in our Ward – would they volunteer to help their own neighbors? We have people with enormous organizational skills — would they help organize an event? During the Un-Debate, Karina Wood suggested that neighbors who do have resources could do more to raise funds for neighborhood groups who need funding. Funders like collaboration — let’s show them that we can work together and that we are willing to invest ourselves too. I’m not sure that we have really tried to do that as a whole Ward. I know great ideas can come from bringing our neighbors together.

5) How would you address the issues of affordable housing and gentrification in Ward 3?

Affordable housing is a pressing issue in Ward 3, and people are getting priced out of a neighborhood where their family has lived for sometimes for generations. Census data suggests that about 55% of Ward 3 households are renters. That surprises a lot of people.

We need to ensure that development is done with community input and meets the community’s needs. Ward 3 should meet with the city and develop a strategic plan for how we want community development to happen. We could also review zoning and density ordinances to consider greater density around main corridors like North Main Street.

We should work with agencies like the Providence Housing Authority, RI Housing and the city to ensure that all available resources, like housing vouchers (section 8), home buyer and repair programs and others are publicized and fully utilized. We should also think about the role the major employers on the east side (hospitals, colleges) could play in building healthy neighborhoods.

We have people living on the east side who are known experts in affordable housing at a state and regional level — let’s get them engaged.

6) How would colleagues describe your temperament, your communication style, your strengths/weaknesses? Is there a specific situation in your professional or personal life that demonstrated what type of person you are?

My colleagues would describe me as professional, patient, adaptable, empathetic and reliable. I’m lucky to have colleagues who live in the Ward and who are helping on the campaign. At Brown I work with faculty, students and staff from many disciplines and parts of the world, and a lot of my work often involves bringing people together to come up with ideas and get them implemented. I think people know I like to get things done.

One of my weaknesses is that I am often 10 minutes late. I am working on it, but as a busy parent, I can’t always get everywhere on time.

Many of my supporters know me from community organizations and meetings. They know I am not afraid to speak up, and they know I will do the work.

I was raised in a working class, immigrant family, and I was the first person to go to college. I worked full-time while attending college, and it took longer for me to finish my degree. I do not give up. This is one reason I am so passionate about education and difference people can make in helping others. Many people have helped me along my journey.

7) What Ward 3 community work and/or groups have you been involved in prior to deciding to run for city council?

East Side Community Alliance (Co-Chair Youth and Education Committee)

East Side YMCA Advisory Board

Mount Hope Community Garden member

Committee of Practitioners advising the RI Department of Education on implementing the ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal law that governs our nation’s public school system)

MLK and Nathan Bishop PTO

Served on the High School Design Team for the Providence Public Schools

Member of Resist Hate RI

Volunteer at Trinity Rep (usher)

8) A complaint is that some city council members do not participate in enough community meetings or events. How will you devote the time to stay involved? Beyond official council business, how will you balance your personal and work life with the unofficial expectations of being a councilperson?

I lead a very active life, and people who know me talk about my energy and passion, and they might know that my home is not always as neat as I’d like. I know that the demands of elected office would be new for me and the other candidates. My children come first, and staying involved is a top priority. People know that sometimes I bring my children to meetings, so they see the importance of community involvement. Can we encourage family-friendly meetings that might include snacks or space for kids to do homework? We need to acknowledge and get creative about the barriers to getting all Ward residents engaged.

I think Ward 3 should expect a lot from its councilperson, but no single elected official can do it alone. We need to work together. While no one can be at every community meeting, I will be at many. We need to work together to share information so that we can all stay updated on the most important issues.

9) As a city councilor, how will you fight corruption, which does both real and reputational harm to our city? Do you think ethics and campaign finance policies could be improved, and if so, how? Or, are they strong enough as they are?

Absolutely, I think the city’s reputation has taken a significant blow. We need honest and transparent government so as a city we can move forward and address the issues that are impacting our communities. We have campaign finance policies in place, and I think we need to do a better job at enforcing them.

I am encouraged that state lawmakers passed a law prohibiting politicians from commingling their personal and campaign accounts.  I think citizens need to expect more and demand more from their elected officials. Shouldn’t we have higher expectations for the people who represent us?

10) Consensus building is important to be an effective councilperson, because legislation can’t be passed with just one councilperson’s vote. Describe a time when you demonstrated skill in creating consensus for change among a group of people.

In my line of work consensus building is something that I have to do on an almost daily basis. One of the reasons that I was hired to my current position at Brown is because of my proven ability in creating consensus for change among diverse groups of people. I work with three faculty director leads for a program that I am overseeing. The point of the program is to provide support students with a wide range of needs. We are in the midst of planning a major university wide event and each group had various ideas. I was able to get all stakeholders to see the main while taking account the needs of individual groups. This is the kind of work I do every day.

11) Please share your thoughts on jobs and business development opportunities focused on Camp Street and North Main Street. More broadly, how would you propose to connect underemployed residents with job opportunities?

Most of the businesses in our ward are small and locally-owned, which is great. Running a small business is not easy, and we need to do more to make systems city and state systems more user-friendly to local businesses. I would want to work with the Hope Street and North Main Street merchants’ associations, which are great examples of what can happen when people get together.

I am so encouraged by the “buy local” movement and the loyalty to local farmer’s markets. I worry about the businesses in Mount Hope, and I’d love to think about how we could do more to help those businesses thrive. Could we have a “Ward 3 First” philosophy of favoring our most local businesses? A map to help people know what businesses exist? What have merchants on Hope Street learned that could help businesses on Camp grow?

The Miriam Hospital is an anchor institution in our Ward. We should work with the hospital to encourage them to recruit and hire Ward 3 residents. There might be other ways that the hospital could invest in the growth of our neighborhood, and I would actively pursue conversations with them about the needs of our ward.

12) Our political parties are going through upheaval and change nationwide. What changes would you make to improve your party as a whole if it was up to you, and why? Policies, strategy, etc.

So many more people are energized about government and politics right now. I am looking for a more transparent and responsive government locally and nationally. I think many Rhode Islanders, including many who are newly politically active, are too. I think all of the major political parties in our country need to think about representation more carefully. Who is at the table? Why are there so few women and people of color in office? How can we rethink the role that wealth and corporations play in elections?  To get to solutions it helps to get close to the problem. I think our political parties would have better policies if people who were directly impacted by them were at the table.

Hot Topic Lightning Round (50 word maximum answers)

1) Did you vote in the recent recall election? Why or why not?

Yes, I voted. I believe it is important to participate in elections (like on July 12!).

2) Providence does not currently have atlarge city councilors. Many other cities do. Do you support the idea of adding atlarge city council members in Providence, and why?

At-large council seats is an interesting idea, and seems to work for other cities. A ward-based system can mean that councilors focus less on the city as a whole. But we MUST make sure that at-large seats do not overly diminish the power of those in the minority. I’m open to exploring options.

3) Are you in support of the overnight parking program in Providence, still technically a pilot program under executive order of the Mayor?

The point of a pilot is to try something and then see how effective it is. Many people do not have access to off-street parking. Others have raised safety concerns about the narrow streets near the hospital. Before continuing the program it is important to understand what we have learned so that we can make sure that we have adequate parking and meet the needs of our community.

4) Smoking ban in Kennedy Plazafor or against, and why?

I do not support the smoking ban. I am not a smoker, but Kennedy Plaza is a public space, and I think the ordinance unfairly impacts the rights of the poor and working class. We must continue addressing public health, but this seems more about pushing out the homeless.

5) Providence Community Police Relations Act (formerly CSA) – for or against, and why?

I strongly support the CSA. I have been racially profiled, and as the mother of a black boy, these issues are very real to me. Both residents and police should have clear systems for accountability. Now we need to make sure that this ordinance is implemented.