Carlon Howard has lived in Rhode Island for nearly a decade, although his roots lie in Georgia, hundreds of miles south of the Ocean State.
In his adopted home, he sees a unique opportunity for change – a chance to “transform” a system that too often leaves children and communities of color behind.
The cause, for Howard, is deeply personal. His parents grew up during the era of Jim Crow laws and legally segregated schools, experiencing first-hand the kind of bigotry and discrimination that continues to permeate society in different forms.
“Oftentimes when we talk about these issues of race, these issues of segregation, we act as if they happened a long time ago, as if they don’t affect us now … My parents are in their 60s, and they can tell you exactly the last time someone was lynched in Georgia,” he said.
But Howard’s parents also came of age during the era of the “black is beautiful” movement – a time when musicians, artists and cultural leaders helped foster a sense of pride among people of African descent, making black identity “something you can be proud of.”
“It’s something my parents instilled in me every single day,” Howard said – and that sense of his own worth, and the worth of his community, has made a significant difference in his life. He currently serves as chief impact officer of The Equity Institute and executive director of Breakthrough Providence, having made the pursuit of educational equity a cornerstone of his life’s work.
“The only way that we’re going to make it better is to actively transform it … We need to get to a point where we can truly can transform the way we do things here in our state,” he said. “The thing I love about Rhode Island is the fact that because we’re so small, we have more potential, in my opinion, than any other place that I’ve lived to really affect change on a big scale.”
Howard delivered the keynote address during Monday’s 37th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Scholarship Breakfast at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet, hosted by the Rhode Island Ministers Alliance. The yearly event serves as an opportunity to honor young scholarship recipients and celebrate King’s life and legacy.
“Your community loves you and we believe in you,” the Rev. Althea Jackson told this year’s scholarship winners.
A host of elected leaders and dignitaries were in attendance for the breakfast – although in a change from years past, they were seated at round tables along with the rest of the audience rather than on the stage.
Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green drew a standing ovation for her remarks, in which she spoke bluntly about the state’s failures in terms of equity. She specifically cited Providence’s public schools, which have been taken over by the state as part of a turnaround effort.
“We have failed. Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream. This was not it,” she said.
She added: “We can talk about justice. We can talk about it in theory. But this is justice for who? I have to tell you that since I’ve come here, everybody talks about ZIP code, very few people talk about race. We want to sweep it under the rug … When you have a child in the ninth grade that reads at a fourth-grade level, there’s no justice there.”
Infante-Green called for unity among the state’s communities of color and urged the day’s attendees to follow the day’s sentiments with concrete action.
“The more we keep talking about it and not naming it, the longer it persists,” she said.
Gov. Gina Raimondo touted her Justice Reinvestment Working Group, the launch of which she announced at the breakfast three years ago. The working group, she said, led to the adoption of a package of legislation focused on criminal justice reform.
On Monday, she said her state budget plan for the coming fiscal year includes a “broad sweep of legislation” focused on additional reforms to the juvenile justice system, re-entry assistance for those leaving prison and more support for school-based mental and behavioral health programs.
“To truly honor [King’s] legacy, we need to do the hard work that is required to bring about justice and equality … And right now, even in our state, let’s be honest, we don’t have true equality and justice,” the governor said. “It still, unfortunately, matters the ZIP code that you’re born into or the color of your skin. And that is not OK.”
U.S. Sen. Jack Reed made special mention of Rhode Island’s Liberian population. Working with the rest of the state’s congressional delegation and others in Congress, he led the push for a new law providing a path to citizenship for immigrants from the West African nation.
“For 20 years, thousands of our Liberian brothers and sisters were caught between an America that offered a sanctuary in the midst of a vicious civil war, and laws that would compel them to leave for an uncertain fate in a still troubled homeland,” he said. “In those 20 years, they became part of our community and gave much in return, but every one of those days was fraught with the fear of an abrupt departure, leaving family and friends behind. Those days of fear are over.”
Among the other state and local leaders in attendance were U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, U.S. Reps. Jim Langevin and David Cicilline, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, Central Falls Mayor James Diossa, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien, General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, Attorney General Peter Neronha and members of the General Assembly and Providence City Council.
This year’s scholarship recipients are Lydia Ademuwagun, Georgerinna Q. Farley, Naliah Golden, George Kubai, Jared Jones, Koyeawon Mendee, Josephina Moore, John Quainoo, Steve Sando, Blessed Sherrif, Shawndell Burney Speaks and Mokouteh Toe.