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Wangari Maathai charter school approves lease with John Hope Settlement House over community objections



At a meeting held late Friday afternoon inside the eighth floor law offices of Barton Gilman LLP, the Wangari Maathai Community School Board approved the lease to take over parts of the John Hope Settlement House for their school on a 7-2 vote. The executive session, where the decision was made outside the view of the public, lasted about an hour and the board voted unanimously to seal the minutes. (See: Video 16 below)

About 21 people, including members of the group Save John Hope were in attendance. Much of the testimony centered around the community’s distrust of the process, which has excluded them, and the lack of openness from both the Wangari Maathai Community School Board and the John Hope Settlement House Board.

Save John Hope

The meeting began with public comment (See: Videos 2-12 below).

The current leadership at John Hope, pointed out Ray Watson, has not been diligent in reaching out and involving the community it is supposed to serve, raising issues of trust. “My concern is this,” said Watson, “If this is the way they treat the community they’re supposed to be servicing, what’s the business relationship going to be like?” (See: Video 8 below)

The most emotional testimony came from community member Valerie Clement. (See: Video 10 below)

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“I’m kind of hurt,” said Clement. “I have so many feelings about this… We got kids shooting each other out there. These kids don’t have nowhere to go…” Fighting back tears, Clement continued, “The people that you’re dealing with at John Hope, they don’t care. They don’t feel. They just want to make this deal.”

Wangari Maathai Executive Director Siobhan Callahan

Then Board Chair Karla Vigil read a prepared statement (See: Video 13 below).

“We appreciate your comments, your comments, your thoughts,” said Vigil. “We respect your opinions and know that we are listening to you. We are listening to what’s been said and we hope to use this information so that we can move forward in developing ways to build with you all.”

Vigil recalled her roots in the West End and her memories of camp and ball playing at John Hope as a youth. “This is exactly why our board presented John Hope the idea to open a school. We felt a deep sense of commitment to contributing to such an important and historical site in the West End.

“We envision students from the neighborhood and other surrounding zip codes coming together to learn in a space with such rich culture and heritage.”

Vigil maintains that the charter school will bring resources to John Hope, and that the school will not interfere with programs currently under way at the community center.

“No programming will stop,” stressed Vigil. “That is not our intention. Your children will continue to go there. That is not who we are.”

The Wangari Maathai Community School will pay the John Hope Settlement House “significantly more” than $125,000 a year, said Vigil. “Investment to the building will be made to revitalize a certain side of the building.

“We are renting approximately 5,478 square feet in the space, which is currently unused,” said Vigil. “The total space that Wangari will use is less than 14 percent of John Hope. About 13.5 percent.

“The day care and programs and services at John Hope will not be affected or changed and will be respected and supported by us.”

Vigil ended her statement with a nod towards the community’s fear of gentrification, recognizing that “people from this community have been at the whim of political and economic agendas that have led to the disinvestment in their community for decades.”

Calling for the community to work with the Wangari Maathai Community School and not against it, Vigil then said that she would not answer any questions individually.

“We do plan to have a community forum,” said Vigil.

“After this decision is done,” pointed out Servio, one of the leaders of Save John Hope.

“I will not [respond to] your comments,” replied Vigil.

But Servio is right. After the meeting, I asked when the board would reply to a series of questions i have about the deal, the process and the school.

“Soon,” said Vigil and her lawyer Chiully.

“How soon is soon?” I asked. “Are we talking days, weeks, months, years?”

“Not years,” said Chiulli.

Attorney Alex Chiulli

While the Wangari Maathai Community School board meeting was under way downtown, the John Hope Settlement House Board was also meeting. Members of Save John Hope and other community members were not allowed to attend the meeting, and were told that they were trespassing on private property.

The John Hope Settlement House Board released the following statement:

The following seven board members voted for the lease:

Chair Karla Vigil
Vice-Chair Jill Davidosn
Seth Zeren
Ayoko Takase
Vanessa Wong
Yovanny Vargas
Amber Day

The following two board members voted against the lease:

Vilma Peguero
Vivian Saleh-Hanna



Alex Chiulli and Karla Vigil

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Steve Ahlquist is a frontline reporter in Rhode Island. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.