As the sun set Saturday, hundreds of visitors and Providence residents gathered at the Providence River to watch WaterFire, a community gathering and fire-lighting performance routinely held from summer to the end of fall. The Oct. 16 performance was the first WaterFire to celebrate Black, Indigenous and People of Color.
The event was sponsored by Papitto Opportunity Connection, a Rhode Island nonprofit organization that aims to invest in “education, job skills training and entrepreneurial ventures” for the state’s BIPOC communities, according to the organization’s website.
Apart from the long-held tradition of the fire-lighting and the presence of numerous local food vendors, participants also had the chance to view dance performances and learn about different initiatives sponsored by Papitto Opportunity Connection.
Peter Mello, managing director at WaterFire Providence, told The Herald he was grateful for the opportunity to host the “first BIPOC-themed WaterFire, where we’re celebrating Black, Indigenous and People of Color in arts, business and culture in the state of Rhode Island.”
“The WaterFire event has been going on for 25 years, and a big part of what happens at WaterFire is that we celebrate what is the best of Providence and Rhode Island — the people, the organizations, the culture, the history,” Mello said. He noted that local organizations often use the platform WaterFire provides “to engage their audiences” with social issues relevant to the community, so they were “super excited to be working with (Papitto Opportunity Connection) to create a special evening” uplifting BIPOC community members.
“Every event is a little different,” Mello added. This week’s WaterFire included performances from BIPOC community members and demonstrations of Capoeira, a Brazilian form of martial arts that incorporates dance and music.
A number of local organizations were invited by Papitto Opportunity Connection and spent the evening informing bypassers about community initiatives aimed at supporting BIPOC Rhode Island residents. One of these organizations was Southside Community Land Trust, a nonprofit organization that aims to help Rhode Island’s low-income neighborhoods access organic food.
“We've been around for 30 plus years already,” said Chandelle Wilson, SCLT education program manager. “Our hope and focus right now is to support a lot of immigrant and migrant farmers, people coming from other countries, and our hope is to connect more with BIPOC people.”
Throughout the event, SCLT discussed ongoing food security initiatives and passed out produce such as “chayote squash, kale or collard greens, fresh lemongrass (and) dried onions” to community members in attendance, Wilson added.
“We’re here to connect people with space to grow their own food,” Wilson said. All the produce distributed was “grown here in Providence and in Cranston.”
Allison Cavallo ’24, who attended WaterFire for the first time Saturday, appreciated the performances and music. Given that it was Family Weekend at the University, “my mom kinda dragged me (to the event), but I’m having a good time,” she said.
“I was surprised by the amount of activity and tents and music,” she said. “I had no idea that they did all of that. I thought it was just fire and water, but I like the festival aspect.”
Lisa Tutaj, a physician assistant from Chicago, attended the event while visiting her stepdaughter for Family Weekend. “So far, it’s been a lot of fun,” Tutaj said, emphasizing how much she enjoyed one of the evening’s dance performances.
The COVID-19 pandemic significantly impacted WaterFire, and the first lighting and performance since the onset of the pandemic was held Sept. 4 in honor of those who served as essential workers during the pandemic.
Mello noted that, despite challenges posed throughout the pandemic, events like Saturday’s WaterFire show the organization’s renewed commitment to supporting local arts. “This is probably the most complicated fire we’ve done,” Mello said.
Mello remains confident that WaterFire will stay important in uniting members of the community in the coming weeks and years. “There’s no special language you have to know to experience this. There’s nothing intimidating,” he said. “It’s a visceral experience.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Waterfire would occur biweekly until Dec. 4th. The Herald regrets the error.