I don’t have a defined answer for improving community relations between college students and local residents, but if we stop fooling ourselves and acknowledge the effect that genuine, substantive actions can have, maybe then we’ll be able to find a rightful place in Providence.
When I first sat down to write this article, the only thing that I was certain of was that I wanted to write about Providence. My previous three columns have either been about the University or national news, and seeing as Providence is my home for the time being, why not give her some of the attention she deserves? I flipped to The Herald’s metro section, saw that local candidates are gearing up for next year’s mayoral election and thought, “Perfect! I’ll write about that.” As I searched for background on Mayor Jorge Elorza and his possible opponents, I soon realized the problem: I knew very little about Providence’s government and the inner workings of the city itself. Like so many others, I had been tempted to use Providence as my temporary object of interest rather than a place on which I can leave an actual impact. If we students on College Hill want to actually consider ourselves part of Providence, we should engage with this city in a way that is neither superficial nor patronizing.
I’ll be honest, before coming to Brown, the only thing I knew about Providence was that it was somewhere on the East Coast tucked between Boston and New York. And yet here I was a year later, ready to give my two cents on the “right” candidate in a local election whose impact will be felt long after I’ve graduated. I had heard mixed reviews on Elorza’s performance as mayor, and of course heard the stories about crooked former Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, but after only eight months on College Hill, I was by no means the right person to publish that kind of political opinion.
At first as I was thinking about this column, I didn’t care. Despite my lack of knowledge, I felt entitled to write about Providence because I’m a Brown student and I should be writing about Providence. Isn’t that the point? To indulge our savior complexes and supposedly “give back” to the city we’re constantly profiting from?
In reality, the act of getting off College Hill and interacting with the community has become a shallow trend, which more often than not fails to translate into meaningful action. We look to Providence’s public events and organizations as charity cases desperate for our participation. Certain classes at Brown include walking tours, mandatory volunteer hours or fieldwork with government agencies and noprofits as part of their curricula. If you Google the terms “protest” and “Providence,” in several articles you’ll find a quote about a Brown student or faculty member’s involvement in a local demonstration. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — protests need the physical presence of people in solidarity to make an impact — but at what point are we contributing to the city rather than taking away from it?
This past summer I, along with four local Rhode Islanders, traveled to San Francisco to represent Providence at an international slam poetry festival. We were the youth team of ProvSlam, a competitive slam organization that holds bi-weekly open mics at AS220, which was established as a space specifically for local Providence artists during Cianci’s “Providence Renaissance,” which called for skilled artists and creatives seemingly from everywhere but Providence itself. When I first made the team, I couldn’t stop thinking about off-campus experiences I was about to enjoy. It wasn’t until after I heard my teammates talk about life in their neighborhoods that I began to question my rightful place in the group. I was the only Brown student and the only non-Providence native, taking up a space that was intended for underprivileged youths to represent their hometown.
In spite of all our flaws, students on College Hill have contributed some amazing additions to the city of Providence. After graduating from Brown, Barnaby Evans ’75 created WaterFire, the famed urban ritual that brings thousands of people to the heart of Providence several times a year. On the other side of the city is the Steel Yard, an industrial arts center founded by privileged Brown and RISD graduates. The nonprofit organization provides low-cost courses, workspaces and tools available for anyone living in the Providence area with a desire to improve their neighborhood. What sets these former students apart is that they invested time and energy into the city, without seeking anything in return. These projects are not intended to change the face of Providence; they are small-scale contributions meant to celebrate, not just benefit from, the Ocean State capital. That is how you give back to a community.
If our only interactions with the city are meant to boost our own egos, what’s the point of leaving College Hill in the first place? Did I feel good about being on the ProvSlam team? Yes. But at what cost? I was proud to be taking up space that was never mine to begin with. I don’t have a defined answer for improving community relations between college students and local residents, but if we stop fooling ourselves and acknowledge the effect that genuine, substantive actions can have, maybe then we’ll be able to find a rightful place in Providence.
Bami Oke ’20 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds to email@example.com.