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After a decade as executive director, DARE’s Fred Ordoñez passes the torch



After leading DARE (Direct Action for Rights and Equality) for over a decade, executive director Fred Ordoñez is stepping down, passing the torch to a pair of co-executive directors, Kiah Bryant and Christopher Samih-Rotondo. At a ceremony/celebration/fund-raiser at Lang’s Bowlarama, all four of the previous executive directors were on hand to present an oral history of DARE’s three-plus decades of anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-capitalism and anti imperialism activism on behalf of poor and working class families, people of color, oppressed nationalities including immigrants regardless of documentation status, women, LGBTQ community members and youth.

Kiah Bryant and Christopher Samih-Rotondo

The sometimes emotional event was emceed by Justice Gaines:

Mark Toney was the first executive director of DARE, serving in that role from 1986 to 1994. He flew out from California to be at the event, where he is the executive director of TURN (The Utility Reform Network). Toney was 25 years old when he first led DARE.

“What’s most exciting to me is all the new faces and all the new people that I’ve met tonight, because it means that DARE is a vibrant organization,” said Toney. “It means that DARE is an organization that continues to grow, that continues to evolve… I dedicated eight years of my life on this dream. This dream of building the power of community leaders to speak with their own voices, to lead organizing campaigns demanding social justice, to win concrete victories that make a difference every single day…”

Shannah Kurland served as executive director of DARE from 1994-2000.

“One of the traditions that many of the executive directors have shared is the idea of science fiction, of looking at a world of what it will be,” aid Kurland, “so I want to borrow some words from Octavia Butler, from Earthseed:

Unifies us:
It focuses our dreams,
Guides our plans,
Strengthens our efforts.
Defines us,
Shapes us,
And offers us

“What each of you has brought to this room,” continued Kurland, “what each of us has tried to give, and what I know Fed has given so much of himself to share, and what I know that Chris and Kiah are going to try to help us all achieve together, because there is no choice, is purpose. And we will fight on, and we will continue to fight that fight, and we will dare to struggle and we will dare to win, and we will remember to dig deep and give everything we can, including or contributions tonight…”

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Sara Mersha was the executive director of DARE from 2001-2009. Mersha said that she learned five main things while working with the people at DARE.

“One is love, being at the center of everything,” said Mersha. “Two is building consciousness and [three is] practicing democracy, trusting the people. Four is family… those connections, that we are all a part of this together, and an extension of that is [five], seeing our broader relations, the connection with other groups, like PrYSM, like AMOR, like international movements and movements around the world.”

Mersha then led attendees in singing a famous quote from Assata Shakur:

“It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

Justice Gaines:

“DARE has been empowering low-income communities of color for over 30 years in areas of criminal justice reform and affordable housing,” said DARE board chair Antoinette (Toni) Wallace. “Fed has been with us for over ten years. He has brought so much to the organization… He has many, many victories since he’s been here, such as Ban the Box, Just Cause, the Providence Housing Authority, fighting for policies for people who have criminal records to get affordable and fair housing. He has fought for voting rights, unshackling pregnant prisoners, the STEP UP Network, the Community Safety Act, and supporting AMOR…

“As God moves you into your next chapter, I hope you will bring the blessings to others that you have brought to us…”

Fred Ordoñez led DARE from 2009-2019.

“As people said, this work is not easy,” said Ordoñez. “Community led organizing that centers the leadership and development of folks who are the most marginalized to address the root causes of the most difficult problems that there are, that other communities only manage to push out of their communities, is a super human task.

“Where’s the homelessness shelter in Barrington? Where’s the public housing in East Greenwich? How affordable is it to live in Charlestown? What’s the unemployment rate in Portsmouth? What are these communities doing to solve all these issues that we have around housing, unemployment, crime, public education, public transportation, besides keeping their communities segregated and keeping these issues out of their own communities?

“and as most of you know, you can drive to these communities, but you’ll be pulled over instantly. ‘What are you doing here?’ And they ain’t about to build any affordable housing their places. They’re not hiring people from our communities…

“It’s not that we endeavor to do this work because we’re such noble folks that we want to go into a poor community and help out. We don’t have the privilege, or the choice,” continued Ordoñez. “Because it’s our fathers with the criminal record, our sisters that are in prison, our kids that are brutalized by police, our aunts that are homeless, our uncles that are trans sex workers, our mothers being evicted, our parents being deported, our neighbors who suffer through gun violence, and our friends and families who live in poverty…”

Kiah Bryant and Christopher Samih-Rotondo are the new co-directors of DARE.

“I’ve been a part of DARE, in and out, since I was nine years old,” said Bryant. “When I think of DARE I think of family…”

“When I came to DARE… I was totally new to this world and this work,” said Samih-Rotondo. “I really just owe Fred a huge debt of gratitude. I really can’t repay that but the patience he showed me, the lessons that I learned… lessons in being the organizer that I really want to be…”

Shannah Kurland, Sara Mersha, Kiah Bryant, Mark Toney, Fred Ordoñez and Christopher Samih-Rotondo

All photos this page (c)2019 Selene Means

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About the Author

Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.