Politics & Elections

There’s a progressive slate running for City Council in Woonsocket: Here’s an interview

“The council does not represent the majority of the constituents here,” said first-time candidate Charmaine Webster. “With that being said, we have to run in order to be represented. I feel like it is my responsibility to be here. It is my responsibility to demand a seat at the table. It is my responsibility to make sure that not only

Rhode Island News: There’s a progressive slate running for City Council in Woonsocket: Here’s an interview

July 13, 2020, 11:43 am

By Steve Ahlquist

The council does not represent the majority of the constituents here,” said first-time candidate Charmaine Webster. “With that being said, we have to run in order to be represented. I feel like it is my responsibility to be here. It is my responsibility to demand a seat at the table. It is my responsibility to make sure that not only are we heard, because I’m not into just being heard, but to make sure that we are in the places that we need to be, to have our concerns addressed properly.

Incumbent Alex Kithes has joined with first time candidates Charmaine Webster, Marlene Guay and Vaughan Miller to run as a slate of progressive candidates for Woonsocket City Council. Woonsocket, located in the northern part of the state, has many of the same issues as the cities that make up Rhode Island’s urban core – Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls – but has long been a place run by conservative politicians supported by a conservative local media.

That began to change with the arrival of Councilmember Alex Kithes, a progressive who won a special election last year and has really stirred things up on the council. (See below for links to previous articles on Woonsocket.) Woonsocket has also been a place that has seen a sudden rise in public protests, in response to the police murder of George Floyd and the ascendant movement for Black lives taking place nationwide. Young people in Woonsocket are organizing, and getting politically involved.

Alex Kithes is the incumbent City Councilmember, He’s also an organizer with Sunrise Providence and Climate Action RI.

Charmaine Webster is a lifelong Woonsocket resident and a committed mother whose family is active with the Boys & Girls Club of Northern RI and the W.A.T.C.H. Coalition an organization of concerned community members who got together to address the violence, racism, and discrimination in the city of Woonsocket.

Marlene Guay is an educator and staunch advocate for education, mental health, and equity at The United Way.

Vaughan Miller, a principled, disciplined, and compassionate student of political science at the University of Rhode Island, devoted to the furtherance of the American Dream.

With all this, and more, in mind, I spoke with Alex Kithes, Charmaine Webster, Marlene Guay and Vaughan Miller. Here’s the interview:

Woonsocket City Councilmember Kithes: I was first elected last summer. I ran because Woonsocket is such a great, diverse, vibrant community of working class people who deserve so much better than their existing municipal government and the people who typically occupy that municipal government. There are so many big problems that we have faced for a long time, the same problems that are faced by people everywhere and problems unique to our city. I saw our city government not looking at those problems and not not even trying to fix them, such as dealing with our part of the climate crisis and decarbonization and moving towards a Green New Deal that’s based on justice, or really looking at systemic racism, sexism, homophobia and all forms of systemic oppression, or actually spending tax money in a way that would lift people out of poverty, improve people’s lives, grow our local economy, protect the local environment and provide for strong public education.
None of these things are priorities of the vast majority of people who hold city-level office in Woonsocket most of the time, so we need to change that. We need champions in our city government who are willing to fight for a higher quality of life for the working class people in our city and for the future in terms of the environment and in terms of justice more generally. We need people who are willing to be transparent and accountable to everybody in the community. That’s why I ran last year. I am delighted at the opportunity to be running with three amazing and like minded candidates who together, when we all win in November, can start on the work of fixing this place we all call home.

UpriseRI: So how did Alex rope the rest of you into this?

Vaughn Miller: I first met Alex when he was organizing for Melissa Murray. I heard someone knock energetically on my door and my first thought was, ‘Oh, someone’s trying to break into my house.’ So I opened the door with a baseball bat in my hand and Alex is just like, ‘Hi ,do you know Melissa Murray, she’s running in your district?’ My only question was, ‘Is she a Democrat?’ And he was like, ‘Yes, very much so.” And I’m like, ‘Cool, she’s got my vote,’ and closed the door.

Marlene Guay: I personally had been following Alex for a little while, with a lot of the sometimes disturbing instances that had been happening at the city council and seeing some of the challenges that he’s been facing. Honestly, I had previously thought about running, but doing that independently against the very strong status quo and seeing some of the horrible negativity that has come out from some of our elected officials, it’s been disheartening and not necessarily something that I was a prepared to do alone, or to drag my family through, my kids through. It’s a major decision.

The mockery that was made by the city council concerning the resolution denouncing white nationalism and the blatant actions taken to make sure that everything that is being done is inaccessible to the average person were concerning to me. I own a home. I’ve lived in Woonsocket for 25 years. I’ve raised both of my kids here. Over time, I saw less and less of an opportunity for my kids and I just got to the point where, instead of just being like, “We really need to fix this”, it’s like, well, why can’t I be the “We”? Why not do this with other like minded people, with three candidates who have not been in office, or at least in office for long?

Even though we have so much in common, it’s really our differences that are our strengths. We all have different communities we identify with. We all have different lived experiences that we identify with. And I think that our ability to be able to listen to other people’s perspectives presents a different, refreshing opportunity for people to be able to see politics the way it really should be.

Charmaine Webster: I was approached by Alex by way of our relationship through the internet. He saw some of the feedback that I would give in our local chat rooms as it relates to Woonsocket and he reached out and asked if I would like to run for city council. My first thoughts was, he’s got to be kidding me, but he wasn’t kidding. When he asked again, I started to think about the approach that I have taken over the past 20 years with my circle of friends, and just decided that I wanted my big voice to be bigger and broader.

Black women here in our city don’t even think of themselves as being able to run for the political office. It made me question. Why wouldn’t I take on the opportunity before me? Instead of me asking Alex, who I know has my and every other disenfranchised part of the community’s best interest at heart, why couldn’t I have my voice speak my truth to get the answers as it relates to me in a community that looks like me? I decided, to reiterate what Marlene said, why not me? Why not do all that I can to make sure that tomorrow is better?

I see things that are wrong with the community, but I look at it with a ray of hope. I feel like we can do this. This energy, this momentum, the fact that I’m even running – it’s proving that we can get this done because there is a tomorrow. We can get this done because we are coming together. The four of us being in a room would not have happened unless Alex had come and approached us, and unless we had said yes to hope. We see problems, but we know that there is that there is a way to get through them. And that’s what we’re all here for.

UpriseRI: To your point earlier, right now, right now Woonsocket doesn’t have the most diverse city council. I think there’s one woman and everybody on the council is white. Is that representative of Woonsocket as a whole?

Webster: The council does not represent the majority of the constituents here. With that being said, we have to run in order to be represented. I feel like it is my responsibility to be here. It is my responsibility to demand a seat at the table. It is my responsibility to make sure that not only are we heard, because I’m not into just being heard, but to make sure that we are in the places that we need to be, to have our concerns addressed properly.

Guay: In response to your question about representation, the fact is that all of us represent a different dynamic, which is again, part of that lived experience. The other thing we bring to the table, that I have to highlight the current city council does not have, is empathy. While I may not know what a lot of these community experiences are, I can lean on other people who are here as part of the slate to be able to explain and get me to have empathy, or give me an opportunity to understand a different point of view or perspective, so we’re all welcoming and open to listening to other people’s lived experiences and understand that situations happen, or that we need to be able to handle things in a different way and be reflective.

Right now, particularly because it is predominantly white, middle class men on the council, they all have a harder time understanding where the challenges are. For instance, while they might have an idea about the challenges of the LGBTQ+ community, do I feel like they have empathy for it? Probably not, or they would not have done what they did with the Pride flag. None of them took the opportunity to defer to Alex in that situation and say, please explain to us what the ramifications of moving the Pride flag are. Empathy, responsibility, and communication to constituents, to your fellow city councilmembers, to the public about decisions that are being made, I think that is one of the things that is lacking in our public officials right now.

UpriseRI: I’ve noticed that the council members seem to make things personal with Councilmember Kithes during meetings. And though some of that may be that they are opposed to Alex’s politics, there’s a layer of it that seems personal, a layer that seems to lack empathy or understanding of Alex’s points of view.

Guay: I joke all the time that on paper, I should be a supporter of the majority on the city council. I’m white. I’m a homeowner. I’m college educated. I am middle-class. But I am also a single mother. I have two disabled parents. One of them is an immigrant. I am a cancer survivor. My ex husband is a victim of the opioid crisis. I have two children who have suffered from mental illness. There are so many layers to all of these things that give me an opportunity to say that while on paper I may be one thing, I can empathize in a way that many people would not understand or even express. If somebody was having issues with say, PTSD from military service, I would have a conversation with Vaughan, who has been in the military. I would try and figure it out, and defer to other people. I would take an active role in trying to understand it instead of dismissing it.

Kithes: For too long very little has been done by, and asked of, the municipal government in terms of big changes. You see people like former councilmember and now State Senator Melissa Murray, who got all day kindergarten passed. Progressives who have been on the city council have faced retaliation. Murray got recalled as a result of passing all-day Kindergarten, or at least an attempt to recall her. Woonsocket has a deep “political class” – not to use Bernie’s language – but that’s honestly what it is.

There is a political class here that is very comfortable doing very little and using city resources simply to build a name for themselves, or have developer type interests or some more insidious financial interests. So me getting elected last year – it was like the community fighting back, saying, ‘No, we’re actually going to start asking more of our government. We want candidates who are talking about doing more.’ And our campaign this year is that times four. It’s four people who are actually thinking about how there are problems and how these things need to be solved. Over the last ten months, I’ve represented an electoral threat to the existing council majority as I force them to either choose to do more and listen to their community or get the heck out. That’s why it has been personal. We represent something very different in the city and we’re something the city wants.

Zainabou Thian and Jaliyak Joseph from Silence is Violence: 401

UpriseRI: I’ve also been up to Woonsocket recently for at least three different Black Lives Matter type protests, which I thought were really amazing because for the first time it seems these protests moved out of downtown Providence and into the rest of the state. What are your thoughts on that and what are your thoughts on the movement in Woonsocket particularly, where the protests seem to be led mostly by a neighborhood coalition and by the youth?

Miller: The youth organizing these protests is the main thing I noticed. The people behind these actions are 13, 14 – I think one might’ve been 17. They’re so young and they’re already getting politically active. They’re doing more than I saw kids doing when I was their age. There’s some traction here – generational uprising…

Kithes: I think it’s because the young people in our community, and specifically the young people of color, have seen seen the effects of systemic racism and other forms of oppression and this generation is so incredibly, inherently accepting and affirming of everybody. I can’t believe, since I was in high school, how much more liberal the kids are, to be honest. We’re seeing a diverse working class community, with a very liberal base of young people who understand the effects of all of these issues playing out on the national stage, right here in our community. I think it’s horrible that they feel that they have to organize rallies instead of enjoying their childhoods, but they’re really powerful. They’re building a lot of power…

UpriseRI: In response to these marches and to these rallies, it looks like the Woonsocket City Council passed a resolution creating a committee to look into systemic racism. However, reading it, I noticed that it was written in a way that seemed to cast doubt on the very idea that there might be systemic racism in Woonsocket. So I would like to ask you all a dumb question. Is there systemic racism in Woonsocket?

Webster: Absolutely. But the idea that there is going to be an advisory board put together by the city council without the input of the organizations and the people of the community who are most affected, who are the reason for the need for the advisory board to be put together in the first place, is just beyond me. The WATCH Coalition tried to give our input and ultimately our input was stifled and it was stifled because they didn’t want to hear what we had to say. It was stifled because they were offended by the fact that we were asking for the board to look like the community. That offended them. So during the council meeting, where the WATCH Coalition concerns were brought up, they couldn’t even get to the other ideas on our list because they were so offended by the suggestion that the community may not trust that the city council would consider the best interests of all parties involved when making up what the board would look like. In fact, if the city council could be trusted, the board wouldn’t be necessary in the first place.

It’s white fragility to its core. When you see a problem, the answers to the problem lie with the people who are being oppressed. It’s an advisory board, so it’s going to advise the white men on the council, who will then do what they want with the information They couldn’t even get past the fact that the advisory board needed to look like what it needed to look like in order to get to the real truth of the matter. Because again, as you can see, even in the wording, it was kind of brushed aside that there was even really a problem here in Woonsocket, as though we exist in a bubble.

UpriseRI: I can’t remember exact wording, but the resolution used words that cast doubt on the assertion that racism could actually be a problem in Woonsocket. I don’t know what you call it, like passive aggressive maybe?

Guay: It’s all microaggression. Putting “potential racism” literally in quotation marks, that is systemic racism. The city council, as it stands, is quintessentially systemic racism. If you want to fing systemic racism in Woonsocket, that’s one of the first places I would point to. If you go into city hall, you are not going to come across a person of color. All of the positions there are being held by white people. And that is not the demographic of the community. You can not go into City Hall and find a Latinx person able to speak to a family in Spanish or Portuguese or Creole or any other language, because that is not what we offer. We’re extremely un-inclusive and unwelcoming.

We are in a pandemic. We have the city council voting down money for books for our libraries. They have zeroed out our book budget. We’re in a pandemic. Our young people’s education has gone drastically downhill because not everybody has access to resources. Our library is a hub, a place for so many people. Some are people experiencing homelessness, or single parents, or people who cannot afford computer systems or access to the internet. And the city council just decimated a resource in a community that desperately needs it. And to do it during a pandemic is doubly oppressive. They did it did it out of spite because it was something that Alex brought up. This is what perpetuates things. These are the challenges that our community as a whole is facing.

Look at our entire education system, how that is designed, funded, organized – It’s systemic racism. The way we have underfunded a community, what we’re able to provide services for, who we serve, how we serve when we serve, and who has access to what is theirs. I cannot say that systemic racism does not touch any part of this community.

Webster: It really speaks to the tone deafness of the city council to imply that racism doesn’t exist in Woonsocket when these very young children organizing rallies and creation of the WATCH Coalition are directly related to experiences of the people of the community. They were formed because of what’s happening in the community. And for the city council to not to take a look at, understand, or listen to them, and to imply that those things don’t go on here, that they don’t exist – At every single event people have gotten up and spoken their truth, told their stories of what’s happened to them by the police department or within the school system.

It’s heartbreaking, but it also fires me up to make sure that I stay in it for the long haul. I’ll lose a few arguments along the way so that I can keep my eye on the bigger picture, because it’s really not about winning any specific argument. It’s really about making sure that I have myself in the right place so that when decisions are being made and and choices are being put on the table, we are speaking with the community so that the community is heard and represented in our political agendas.

UpriseRI: When the City Council passed the resolution to create the committe to examine racism, they did so really fast. When the WATCH Coalition came in with suggestions, they were told that sending these in 15 minutes before the Council meeting was too late. But why did this resolution need to pass so fast? Why not take a few weeks, or a month, and work with the WATCH Coalition? Why the rush?

Guay: Right. They not only do not believe that racism actually exists, this committee is going to have two months to review every policy, every procedure, every rule, every regulation in the entire city, to be able to say if there’s potential racism in here. To the city council, racism is a checklist. They’re going to check the box. We created a committee, this committee found no racism, and we’re fine. Everything’s good.

Webster: The idea of forming the WATCH Coalition – We are not looking to just tell some people off. There are some hot button issues that we could have just spoken to in the moment. We are being extremely careful to make sure that we’re speaking to the issues and not to the moment. We’re trying to make sure that the effects of whatever happens with us locally are long term and able to be felt by future generations. We are making sure that we are not speaking to any one moment, because this is not about a particular moment. So to try to rush that process and to try to rush a group of people that were formed out of necessity is simply to paint your agenda in the light you want it to be painted. It has nothing to do with trying to make sure that we get to the answers and solutions of why we’re here in the first place. The community will make sure that we take the time to give this process the respect that it deserves.

Kithes: One of the most pervasive examples of systemic racism and intersectional to systemic classism and systemic sexism is this undercurrent of political normalcy in the city, which is perpetuated by WNRI [a local, conservative radio station.] The radio culture is perpetuated by sitting elected officials. Then it’s perpetuated by certain processes within city hall – The idea that the normal person that should be engaging in politics, including running for office, should be somebody with generational wealth who owns a home. Not renters, just people who speak perfect English, who have time and resources, money to spare. That comes in the form of a constant barrage on the radio about the idea that renters shouldn’t be running for office, the idea of, “the element” is what it used to be called. It’s not so much used anymore, but the poor community, poor communities of color in Woonsocket, that’s what “the element” means.

UpriseRI: The element?

Kithes: Yeah. It’s kind of fallen out of use in recent years. It’s othering people. It’s a thing that comes in various forms here. But this stuff has actually been said by elected officials. Multiple times [City Councilmember] Jim Cournoyer has brought up the idea that because I don’t own a home my opinion is not valid, I deserve to be ridiculed, whatever. That comes from the systemic opposition to anybody who doesn’t have generational wealth, which is a huge systemic racist construct (though in this case, I am white). That’s just the accepted political culture here, the idea that the people who should be engaging in public life are white, wealthy, mostly men, and own property. Unfortunately, you even sometimes see that with people who would consider themselves liberal – the idea of the gentrifier, where they want to create what is just a thinly veiled, white recreational society.

Our entire political culture is contextualized in this idea of what ‘Woonsocket used to be,’ the ‘real Woonsocket,’ all these phrases that they use to lock people out of power and public life. That’s a pervasive example of systemic racism. How that manifests is that on a large number of occasions, is that when I asked a person of color to run with us, part of the reason that they said no was because of the toxic culture towards people who look like them in the city, by the government, and by the media. So that that’s an access problem. That locks people out of running for office because they don’t want to put themselves through it. I can’t blame them, but also, this has to change.

UpriseRI: The media in Woonsocket has a conservative bias, I think. Not just WNRI, but the two papers up here as well. When I write about things up here, like the bill denouncing white supremacy, I think if I didn’t have recordings, no one would believe it.

Miller: I actually spoke at that meeting. I remember I was sitting there thinking, this is straight out of the neoliberal playbook. It should have been one of those easy resolutions everyone can vote on, look good and pat themselves on the back for. That’s all it had to be. And then it just devolved into a screaming match over what really shouldn’t have been that controversial.

UpriseRI: Unless the resolution hit somewhere deep, emotionally. One of the things I was thinking about was the way the political culture up here seems to be both changing and not changing at the same time. I mean, you guys are obviously dropping a big rock and making a splash, but I know Mayor Lisa Bedelli-Hunt just announced she’s running for reelection and she’s running against Jon Brien, a Republican and the present Vice President of the city council.

Kithes: It’s technically a nonpartisan race, but it’s just Republican infighting in my view.

UpriseRI: The other one I thought was interesting is Representative Michael Morin is not running for re-election in House District 49. What are your thoughts on that seat?

Kithes: The Democrat who the mayor recruited is Steve Lima. He worked in the planning department. He’s a very conservative Democrat. And then an independent, Vincent Bono, who owns/manages the the Boston Surface Railroad Company. I’m not sure if the candidates would be happy for me to say this, but I think Bono is more liberal than Lima in a lot of ways. I don’t really know how he would classify his views, but I think Bono’s much more willing to listen to people who are explaining their experiences of systemic oppression and listen to them and act on it. I don’t see that from conservative Democrats.

UpriseRI: Moving on from that entirely, there are at least three different crises going on. They’re all related and interwoven. Black Lives Matter is a response to a crisis. COVID-19 is a crisis. There are economic problems, which Woonsocket and every city and town in the state is facing. Then there are the old crises, like climate change and the opioid crisis which nobody is seems to pay attention to anymore. This is like almost like triage at this point. What are your priorities? How are you assessing this? What do we do? How would we approach this?

Miller: An important aspect of that would be reprioritizing aspects of the budget. Essentially, we should put more of an emphasis on city sustainability and make sure that we’re minimizing our environmental impact because we’re in Rhode Island -if the water starts going up we’re underwater. I think it’s important to create a much more robust, sustainable, and equitable society. Essentially we should be structuring so that as a whole, cities are much more self sufficient. The best way to improve a city is to increase its ability to sustain itself.

Kithes: I think that what this is going to look like is a municipal Green New Deal. It’s something that we’ve talked a lot about. The Green New Deal is first and foremost a process of community engagement and bringing people to the table, creating a table big enough for everybody and bringing people in the community to the table so we have an actual understanding of what people need and what society needs to look like to better serve those who are underserved. From there, designing policy in line with community organizations that accomplishes the goals that all elected officials should have, which is to decarbonized on the timeline demanded by science and rebuild our local economy. The economic boom that we can create through this process will lead to municipal redesign, expanded public transportation, and many other good things. Then we need to make sure that the new economic resources are distributed appropriately.

UpriseRI: In what ways are economic resources not distributed appropriately?

Kithes: Public education is funded by property taxes but Woonsocket is a property tax poor community. We need to make sure to use new tax revenue that would come from a Green New Deal to fund our educational system. We need to find alternate forms of community public safety and and make sure that our public employees are actually being paid fairly. Then, through the process of community engagement, we need to be hearing the voices of people who are typically stifled. That informs and directs how we’re going to redesign things like public safety and undo systemic racism, because we’re ready to redesign whatever we need to.

Guay: I think that all of those things are multiple layers and while they’re all separate crises, each one of them have highlighted a lot of major issues. The COVID pandemic has highlighted major inequities across so many things. There’s going to be emergency situations and we are going to have to be very reactive in regards to the economic crisis. That is going to require being very knowledgeable and welcoming to the community as being able to help support in the process of recovery.

Not only individuals, but many nonprofits within the community do not feel welcome or accepted by the current administration. If nonprofits are going to be the backbone of being able to serve the greater population here, whether that is meals, transportation, health services, educational services – these are all really integrated. I think that a city council that is willing to be able to work with nonprofits who are looking to be able to apply for grants and services or have access to federal or state dollars through the CARES Act or any other funding sources that come down, going forward we need to be thinking about what that looks like and ensure that that is happening in a fair and equitable way.

Thinking about our education system, how are we ensuring that all of our families have access to the internet? That our families for whom English is not a primary language or are not technologically savvy have the ability to be able to access education for their youth? There are a lot of things that will need to be addressed. There are the long term considerations of making sure that our government is accountable to the people and that they feel welcomed o be part of it, having opportunities to work and partner with the community.

To come back to something you mentioned earlier, you said ‘had I not recorded it, nobody would believe that something like that was being said up in Woonsocket.” think that it goes both ways. People who are saying that are not realizing that as a result of us being a community that has some of the lowest rental costs in the state, we have attracted a very young population who have had a unique experience with finances, student loans, raising families, trying to find a job. And most of the people in that position have leaned towards a politically progressive stance.

The Woonsocket political class doesn’t realize that the base of this community is actually young working class families and that going back to being a mill town is not going to happen. We have space in the city to do development. Why are we not looking at creating parts for solar plants? We need jobs that pay a living wage, with benefits where families can grow. We want small businesses to thrive, but we’re not, we’re not focusing on that.

We have to think of it as many different layers. We have to do some triage work in regards to COVID, in regards to dealing with some of the real issues of systemic racism, which has been highlighted so much because of COVID. People who are Black and Brown experience exponentially higher rates of getting COVID, hospitalizations and mortality. We have to say why. It’s not a checklist. It’s not something that’s going to be solved in two months.

Webster: It is an exciting time. I say that because I have to have enthusiasm. I have to have hope because my main reason for running and for being the voice of the community that I’ve been thus far is because of my children. Some experiences that they have had that re detrimental to to becoming the human beings that theyare supposed to be. I have to make sure that going forward I am helping to grow a community in which they can thrive. Woonsocket is a melting pot, and that is exciting. That is exactly what you would want your community to be. Imagine living some place where you have different foods, you have different cultures that are all thriving.

We have that here. It’s just a matter of accepting the beauty and what Woonsocket is and making sure that going forward we’re using progressive ideas to ensure that all parts of our community are spoken for. There are no easy answers and there isn’t going to be just one answer to solve a plethora of problems. But empathy opens minds. If Worcester could do it, we can.

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