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‘I’m not the same as they are’: Civil rights veteran Ray Rickman runs for state senate

Former state rep. runs in the District 3 primary on an education-focused platform

<p>Candidate Ray Rickman hopes to accomplish significant reform of Rhode Island public schools. The vote will take place Nov. 2.</p>

Candidate Ray Rickman hopes to accomplish significant reform of Rhode Island public schools. The vote will take place Nov. 2.

Ray Rickman never thought he would run for office again after a decades-long career in Rhode Island politics. But in August, the former state representative and civil rights veteran tossed his hat in the ring once more and announced his candidacy in Rhode Island’s District 3 State Senate primary. The vote will feature a slew of progressives, the winner among them ultimately poised to win the general election as well.

It’s not so much the thrill of an election or government that interests Rickman. In fact, it’s far from it. “I hate campaigns,” Rickman said. “Every day, someone calls me and gives me information on candidates, but I’m not doing it.” So, what’s got him on the ballot? Education.

“When I go out, I ask people to vote for Ray Rickman on behalf of the 23,000 schoolchildren of Providence,” Rickman told The Herald in a recent interview. “When I was arrested in 1966 marching for Civil Rights in Mississippi,” he said in his campaign announcement, “it never occurred to me that in 2021, the largest school district in Rhode Island would be failing thousands of students of color.”

Rickman acknowledges that there is work to be done on other issues such as COVID-19, marijuana regulations and the environment, but rather than pour his effort into writing his own bills on those topics, he will instead vow to support his fellow progressives in their efforts. His single mission will be lobbying the caucus on public education reforms.

“When I met Ray, I was not looking for a job on a campaign,” said Alexander Gim-Fain, Rickman’s campaign manager. Gim-Fain initially met Rickman to help him work on a promotional campaign video, but after the project was done felt he wanted to do more. 

“As I listened to what he said in the video that I did, it became clear that he was doing this because he cared about one issue more than anything else,” Gim-Fain said. “A candidate who’s running to accomplish one issue is probably going to get it done.” 

Rickman’s foray into the world of Providence public schools began when a constituent came to him with the concern that her son’s high school was not taking strong enough action against his bullies. As Rickman looked further into the complaint, he realized the problem was not just bullying but, in essence, chronic neglect of the education system by state legislators.

“People at Hope (High School) have no resources and no choice,” Rickman said. Among a number of other issues, Rickman pointed out in particular property degradation at the school as well as the deteriorating quality of the education within the state’s public school systems.

“I’m going to improve — and I’ll be shocked if I cannot keep my word” — Providence public schools, Rickman said. His plans to keep his promise include creating an educational endowment and integrating Hope High School. While he works on those bigger goals, he plans to ask the legislature for money to “spruce up” the schools.

Driving Rickman’s campaign is his confidence in his ability to return on his promises. “I’m a worker, I’m a doer and I’m structured,” Rickman said when asked about how he compares to his fellow District 3 candidates. “I’m not the same as they are.”

Rickman’s biography reflects that self-assessment. His political career began in Detroit, where his mother signed him up to be a volunteer at a nursing home. He’s been working for his community ever since.

Rickman’s list of community ties runs long and deep. His first state legislature election was, in fact, tied closely to the women of Brown University, whom he relied on to vote for him as a pro-choice candidate. He credits them with his first rise to victory as state representative.

In addition to legislative work, he’s also launched a number of non-profit efforts such as Shape Up R.I., Cornerstone Books and, more recently, Stages of Freedom.

Stages of Freedom in particular does work to aid and educate Black children in Rhode Island. The organization has two main goals: to teach youth of color in Rhode Island how to swim and to promote the history and culture of the Black community. 

The first goal arose for Rickman after an incident in which multiple Black children drowned at a nearby lake. He later found out Black children were, nationally, five times more likely to drown than white children. The second goal emerged from Rickman’s work at Cornerstone Books, where they brought Black cultural icons such as James Baldwin, Jamaica Kincaid and Maya Angelou to Providence to help “galvanize both Black and white communities through literature” and “do extensive work in exploring African American history in Rhode Island, which is very deep.”

“Particularly at this time in American life and political life, it’s really important that we elect people who come from a place of incredible understanding … that (they) share the same experiences as the common American,” said Robb Dimmick, a friend of Rickman’s and his co-founder at both Stages of Freedom and Cornerstone. “That’s the kind of experience, passion and commitment Rickman brings because it comes from personal experience, personal commitment, rather than just something to fill time or add to a resume.”

Dimmick has known Rickman for nearly 40 years, and, through it all, has seen his commitment to his work.

“He has a mission. He’s driven. It’s a mission that really comes from his own childhood where he fought for better schools, integrated schools,” said Dimmick. “He marched with James Meredith in 1966 at the March Against Fear and was nearly killed by sheriffs in Santa Clara County.”

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Brian Heller, a Providence citizen and longtime friend of Rickman’s, shared similar sentiments.

“There’s nothing in it for him, what he’s been doing all these years,” Heller said. “He sees where there is a need, and then he doesn’t make a big deal about it. He just goes about addressing the problem. That’s the way he’s worked, as far as I can tell, all of his life.”

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