Arts & Culture

Stages of Freedom sells books, saves lives

Bookshop’s revenue funds swimming lessons for youth of color, combats systemic disparity

By
Contributing Writer
Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Ray Rickman and Robb Dimmick of Stages of Freedom bookstore encourage Brown students to purchase the donated books that they sell. Last summer the bookstore funded swimming lessons for 400 children of color. Their goal is to fund lessons for 2,000 children.

It’s near silent in Stages of Freedom, a quaint bookstore on 10 Westminster St. The only sound that fills the store is the soft and rich timbre of the voice of Ray Rickman, Stages of Freedom’s executive director.

For Rickman, Stages of Freedom is a sacred place where no arguing is allowed. It is a space for people of all walks of life to purchase cheap books, learn about African-American history and confront the fact that black children are more likely to lose their lives to drowning than white children.

Rickman and Robb Dimmick, Stages of Freedom’s program director, started the nonprofit four years ago and moved to Downcity June 1, 2017. All of the books in the store are donated and all profits help finance swimming lessons for children of color at YMCAs around the state, Rickman said.

Rickman prides himself on keeping his word. Five years ago, when Rickman worked as a Rhode Island State Representative, a woman whose son had just drowned at Lincoln Woods State Park in Lincoln, R.I. asked him if he could help persuade the coroner to release her son’s body. With Rickman’s help, the coroners eventually did so.

“(The coroners) said it was superfluous and useless to do an autopsy,” Rickman said. “The mother was already in unbelievable pain” and to add to her pain would be unethical, Rickman said. “In the parking lot, I told the mother that I’d do something about this problem of black children drowning, and I’m very happy in myself in that I keep my word.”

Stages of Freedom’s mission is to confront a difficult stereotype and reality for many African-Americans — a stereotype stemming from slavery.

“During slavery, 50 percent of all plantations were on a river or lake, so (there was) no swimming for black people at all (because they would) swim away to freedom,” he said. “After that, 80 percent of black people lived in the segregated, racist South in which there are no swimming pools, no Y(MCA), no nothing.”

Now black children drown five-and-a-half times more than white children, Rickman said. Furthermore, a large percentage of black and Latinx people lack the income to pay for a membership and swimming lessons at the YMCA, Rickman added.

“(Swimming) is just not their first priority,” Rickman said. “First priority is rent and food and transportation — and swimming would have to be number 10 on your list, if you were even interested.”

Last summer, Stages of Freedom paid for swimming lessons for 400 youth of color. However, Rickman and Dimmick’s goal is to eventually put 2,000 children into lessons.

“(Children of color drowning) is a health disparity in which the government takes no interest, in which the (Alpert) Medical School takes no interest,” Rickman said. “No one has ever done this. I doubt anyone has even put 10 kids into pools. So we’re successful. We’re just in a hurry.”

Stages of Freedom also organizes events, exhibits and lectures about topics ranging from the history of runaway slave ads to black churches. Their next event is a free and open reading of Maya Angelou’s “And Still I Rise” March 25 at 2pm at 75 North Main St., the First Baptist Church in America.

Rickman and Dimmick participate in advocacy as well. In November, the pair proposed that the city change the name of Magee Street, named after a slave ship captain, to Bannister Street to commemorate 19th century local black activists Edward and Christiana Bannister.

“As the South was taking down statues of Confederate soldiers, we seized on the moment and dedicated the street to an extraordinary African American couple,” Dimmick said.

Rickman and Dimmick expected to see droves of students flock the bookstore, but after nine months of being open, they have yet to see such numbers.

“All we need is Brown students to show up and spend 10 bucks three or four times a year. Do you know how much money that would be?” Rickman said. “The world can change, and it can change for the better.”