Politics & Elections

City Council Ward 9 candidate April Brown on the issues most important to Providence

“We need to center this whole thing around educating the child. Every way that education comes up, that’s got to be our focus. I’m not naïve. I’m not someone thinking pie in the sky. I’m just really thinking, what is the moral thing to do? There is a moral crisis happening in these cities and particularly in Providence.”
Photo for City Council Ward 9 candidate April Brown on the issues most important to Providence

Published on July 30, 2022
By Steve Ahlquist

April Brown officially kicked off her bid the Ward 9 Providence City Council seat on July 7 in Miguel Luna Memorial Park on Sackett Street. Uprise RI spoke to the candidate by phone on Tuesday morning.

April Brown is the Interim Director of the Racial & Environmental Justice Committee in Providence and co-director of the annual Langston Hughes Community Poetry Readings. Brown’s experience also includes being an ordained minister and former teacher, education administrator, artist programmer and college counselor. More specifically here in Rhode Island, she has worked with the state for its drinking water quality initiative; with Rhode Island Black Storytellers and the National Association of Black Storytellers as the African Marketplace director; and with Turnaround Arts: Providence as its local program director.

She is a published poet, acclaimed singer, and actress who has performed in the United States, Japan, and Israel. Brown holds a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree from The American University, in Washington, DC, and a Master’s in Education from the University of Rhode Island.

In addition, she has served as a board member of Community Music Works and is a member of the Special Committee for Commemorative Works for Providence and other boards throughout the State.

Uprise RI: Can you tell me a little bit about your background?

April Brown: Sure. My family has lived in ward nine for about 48 years. That’s where the first house my parents owned together was and when we moved there, it was really a mixed class of folks. It was a sweet place to be a kid. I went to the local school, Roger Williams Park was right there, about a mile away. My brothers and I used to go and play there. That was an adventure for us to be able to get permission to walk to the park by ourselves. It was a very normal kind of background, growing up. The house my mom still owns is the house that I grew up in.

I think that’s the reason why I want to run, actually, because it is my home, the neighborhood has gone through a lot of different changes and I feel as if a thing that has not grown with the neighborhood is the idea of neighbors. I think there’s something about this time where people don’t know their neighbors well, and that’s actually not how I understand my neighborhood. I was a newspaper girl at like the age of 10 and for 12 blocks, I went into people’s homes and a lot of the houses that I passed, I knew the people who lived there. That is not the same sentiment I have now. I know it sounds nostalgic, but I think that it’s actually pretty basic – some of the things that are going wrong in our communities is that we don’t know each other. That’s something that I want to bring back with my campaign.

Uprise RI: I’m sure you’re going house to house and talking to people for this campaign, so you’re kind of getting a chance to reintroduce yourself to your neighbors in this process.

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April Brown: Exactly.

Uprise RI: What are people talking about when you visit? What kind of concerns do people in your ward have when you’re going door to door?

April Brown: A lot of it has to do with city services, keeping the streets clean, making sure that garbage is removed. There’s a conversation about police presence. Do we want more police presence? Do we want less police presence?

But one of the things that the ward hasn’t had for the last several years are neighborhood meetings. I had a conversation with a long time resident about bringing those back and because they want to see their public officials. And one of the things about city council is that that particular position is a place where you should see the neighbors at least quarterly. But that’s not what has been happening. People want to know that I mean what I say, that I don’t just come around at election season, and that I’m interested in what they want to see happen in their neighborhood.

Uprise RI: Between city council, your regular job, and your advocacy work, you’ll be very busy.

April Brown: Let me tell you something. I am a capable black woman and I’m very busy but you want to get something done? Give it to a busy woman.

Uprise RI: Policing is a big deal. I hear all sorts of views on it. But one thing I hear, especially from residents of BIPOC communities, is that they don’t necessarily want less police – they want a police force that works for them the same way it works for white residents on the East Side, for example.

April Brown: Exactly. I just was at a community conversation.

Uprise RI: I was there.

April Brown: Yes. And one of the things that was challenging to me is just the way the structure of police force is, right? I can remember back, maybe 15 years ago, where there was this real effort to have community policing. Community policing looks like people who are in the communities. It’s the same as what I’m talking about in terms of the neighborhood – the police should know the people who are in the community so there’s a relationship there. I feel as if, on every level of humanity, we struggle with the idea of actually being in relationship with folks. 15 years ago, the police would not come in like storm troopers. There were still problems, but they knew who lived at the house. Do you know what I’m saying? There was a different kind of edict about how the police were going to do the work. In the last decade it has really gotten worse. I am someone who believes that police are just like us. They have homes, they have families, they live in neighborhoods and I need for humanity to come from the Providence Police Department. Right now, I think that needs some work.

Uprise RI: My thought on that is most of our police officers don’t live in Providence. They don’t live in the wards or the city they serve. They live in Exeter or East Greenwich or somewhere, and when they volunteer in or learn about a community, it’s not the one they serve as police officers. Let’s say they’re coaching a baseball team or a football team. They’re coaching in Exeter then they’re coming here to police in Providence. How do we get the police to treat our communities like it’s their community? Is it just impossible?

April Brown: I have many opinions about this… Let’s talk big real macro now. The police department is no different than the public school teachers and no different than the people who work in city hall. There is a big disconnect with the people who live in the city, not serving the city. Right? There’s a challenge with that and it’s not new. This is old news, this idea that we should be hiring people from in the municipality to serve the municipality. It’s an amazing disconnect that we have, that we want people to serve from outside of the municipality.

That’s a mindset that has to start from the top down. How do you hire people, and how do you talk about it in a way that we talk about having equity? Because that’s what you’re talking about. This is an equity issue. If you can say that going forward, we are not going to have a workforce in any city service that is not at least a certain percentage of the people who actually live there. That’s one of the ways that you can trigger this idea of being in relationship. I know it sounds like a provincial idea. But when you start talking about how equity works, it makes sense, because here’s a resistance to treat people – who you went to school with, went to church with, who knows your mother, knows your grandmother – in a way that’s disrespectful.

Uprise RI: I think that if you’re a police officer and you run into a kid on the street getting in trouble and you’re also coaching his basketball team, you’re thinking, “I’ve got to give this kid a break. I know this kid, I know where he is coming from. I know what his issues are….”

April Brown: You’re talking about compassion. What you’re talking about has a direct link to what I think is a challenge with public school teachers, right? Yeah. But it’s also has a challenge when you go into city hall and you don’t know anybody. All of these things are connected. A lot of people think the only way to make police understand is through the budget. That’s one way to get at this idea of how do you change systematic problems. But this is not a police chief problem, necessarily, or a police officer problem. This is the way that the public “safety” department operates. And it’s not just a Providence issue. This is nationwide.

Uprise RI: I don’t want to belabor this, but I think this is a really great conversation worth having. There’s also a financial incentive here because when the city pays a police officer or other public official, they take their money – their paycheck – to where they live. They use our money to invest in other communities.

April Brown: If we say, as a council, that going forward, we want to have a percentage of the municipal work force reside in the city, that’s not a big ask. It’s something that we could do and it promotes equity.

Uprise RI: So let’s talk a little bit about education. I know education is out of the hands of the city council for the time, being under state control. So what are your thoughts about the state takeover of Providence schools, about this new idea of a mixed school board, which would be half elected, half nominated by the mayor? And what are, what are your thoughts about education in general?

April Brown: Do we have another hour?

Uprise RI: Let’s keep it to the high points.

April Brown: The school committee, as a body, has had so much of its power taken away from it. It’s been a body that had become toxic because of the systematic way a body works, and I’m not sure that the hybrid model is going to improve education in terms of student centered, family centered, focused public education. I feel like we want to have these contests of popularity instead of having a shared agenda or a consensus that we’re going to center education around the student and that student’s family. Let me just begin there.

I dislike very much that the state is running the Providence school system. It’s just wrong in every way possible. I understand why it happened, but it needs to reverse itself because it’s not a good way to educate Providence students. It’s also asking people who don’t really know what the community is interested in for their student’s education and it feels like a push to do something that is not good for students. It will be great, when we get the new mayor, to bring the schools back so that the parents of these students can have a voice in how their students are educated. That’s the way public school education is supposed to work. I don’t know what the answer is to it, but what I do know is what is currently happening is not working. I’ve worked in public schools for the last 25 years. I’ve worked in Providence schools for the last 11 years. We are not serious about trying to change the systems of how we educate students, and vouchers or something are really ominous.

Uprise RI: I felt, during the early days of the takeover, that it was a step towards the privatization of public schools in some way. That worries me because public schools exist for very good reasons. We need public schools, not privatized schools.

April Brown: I don’t care how parents decide to educate their kids. I just really want for there to be quality at each level. And there is the possibility of having really good quality education at the current public schools, but we have to do a lot of things. One of those things is we need to invest, not just in the infrastructure, the buildings, but in the teachers. We have to investigate. How do we get to the idea of meeting students where they are so that we can get them the best education they can have? It is atrocious when you think about how kids are getting educated right now. Do we not give a damn about these kids? That’s what it feels like.

Uprise RI: Related to this and to policing is the idea of School Resource Officers in schools. What are your thoughts about SROs?

April Brown: I’m never in any kind of understanding as to why there are police officers in schools and not more social workers. I will never understand why we don’t have enough people to offer services to students and families, instead of discipline. I don’t understand that kind of education. I am an old Head Start teacher and this is how the concept of Head Start works. You are not educating just the student. When that student comes into your classroom, you’re educating the parents. You’re educating that community. That’s the job. To be in public education is actually a radical thing and it’s a deep community service. It is not babysitting. It is not a pipeline to a prison sentence. It is deep community service.

This is how I understand it. That’s how I feel, and that’s me being very generous, not cussing or really going off. It’s not rocket science. We have to act like we care about people. And when you care about the people, you work at it. This is deep to me. I’m talking about systematic change. We are not going to talk about a student’s behavior when they might not have had a meal. We’re going to offer them breakfast and then see what happens. Then we’re going to do a home visit because we want to understand why this child has not eaten.

Uprise RI: As to the school buildings: If you want to make children feel they’re cared for, loved and supported, you don’t send them to a school where most of the bathrooms don’t work, where there’s leaking ceilings, there’s mold everywhere, there’s vermin. You send them to schools that are clean and decent, that feel like modern facilities.

April Brown: Don’t preach to the hallelujah choir.

Uprise RI: You got me going though, so I it’s partly your fault…

April Brown: This is the world that we live in, right? When I left the Providence Public School District the superintendent had to cut $6 million from his budget. What the hell is that about? How are we talking about cutting resources to public education? Earlier in the year, they did this tour about how they’re going to up the infrastructure of not all the schools, but a middle school, an elementary school and high school. What kind of ass backwards – and you see got me swearing there because we’re talking about schooling – mindset is that? There should be no mayor asking any superintendent public school superintendent to cut that much money. And you wonder why they’re being sued because they can’t meet deadlines.

It’s a process of mindset. We need to center this whole thing around educating the child. Every way that education comes up, that’s got to be our focus. I’m not naive. I’m not someone thinking pie in the sky. I’m just really thinking, what is the moral thing to do? There is a moral crisis happening in these cities and particularly in Providence.

In Providence, we are actually pretty lucky. We don’t have the kind of crime that other cities do. We don’t have the kind of bad, piss-poor education that other cities do – but we are just a half a minute away from these things if we don’t change the way that we’re doing the work that we do.

Uprise RI: Let’s talk environmental issues. Ward 9 has Roger Williams Park, which you mentioned. But outside that park, along the streets, it could use more trees for instance, right?

April Brown: Absolutely right.

Uprise RI: Then there’s also the industry in and around the Port that’s polluting your neighborhood, contributing to asthma rates. What are your thoughts on environmentally toxic industries?

April Brown: Steve, I thought we weren’t going to get me riled up again.

Uprise RI: I can’t help it. This is the job you’re applying for…

April Brown: Listen, the best part of Ward 9 is, I believe, Roger Williams Park and also the city parks between Roger Williams Park and my house, maybe four or five parks. So I am not going to critique the city and say that they have nothing in terms of greening, because that would be a lie. There are also community gardens and people working very, very hard to keep the city in a space where there are places where people can see green, but we have a lot of work to do. The Providence Tree Plan should be something that never goes away. The Climate Justice Plan should be something that never goes away because those plans were put in place so that we could survive to 2050.

The other part of both of those plans is to lessen the fossil fuels that are in the Port and that’s a real concern. I’m literally looking out my window and looking at the windmills. So that’s not the solution, but it is a good step forward. It only makes sense if we bring jobs into the mix. And not just general jobs, but jobs for the community that the Port resides in. Jobs for those people. I also think that we have to stop acting as if this is not an emergency. The climate justice plan talks about a milestone in 2050. We have to have politicians and community and businesses that are going to get on board and act as if climate change is an emergency.

We still have not put in resiliency hubs in the low lying areas of the city in case a storm comes. There has to be an emergency plan so that the people can be safe. If we had the storm tomorrow, there would be a lot of people that would not make it, because the municipality, the state and the federal government have not understood it as an emergency.

Uprise RI: You’re absolutely correct. I read a very dire reports about low lying areas of Providence and all the chemicals in the soil around the Port. If that area were to flood, contaminants from these toxic areas will be brought inside people’s homes – potentially catastrophic contamination.

April Brown: Exactly. It could make what happened in New Orleans look like a bad rainstorm. Devastating.

Uprise RI: One good storm could completely change Providence forever.

April Brown: I wish someone would hear us.

Uprise RI: There’s only so much we can do. Hopefully it’ll get through to somebody. My last question… What subjects should I have asked about that you think are important that I didn’t get to? Because we only got to hit like three or four subjects here.

April Brown: For me, the quality of people’s life is important. We also have to think about it in terms of jobs. We have to think of it in terms of “how are people living”? When I think about Ward 9, I think about how are we making it so that parents don’t have to work four and five and six jobs so that they can make their lives work – or maybe have to a side hustle that may or may not be legal so that they can put food on their table. I’m talking about equity in terms of jobs, but also equity in terms of pay. What I think about is how are we making it so that people can get access to the money that they need so that they can stay in Providence because we are systematically pushing for people out of Providence because of how we do not pay people.

Another quality of life issue for me is the idea that the least of us can’t get access. So if you are disabled, if you are elderly, then in the next 10 years, if we don’t change the way that we deal with things like home ownership or just having a place to live, we will only have a certain type of person living in Providence, and that is not okay. One of the greatest things about living in Providence is the diversity of it. So we have to figure out ways that seniors can keep their homes in the cold. That’s a municipal issue. How do we make it so that there are services in place so that seniors can stay in their homes? When we talk about the lack of affordable housing, we talk about it in one certain way. It’s a very large idea. We have these ARPA funds that need to go, not into people’s pockets, but to resident services.

Uprise RI: What do you think about the way the ARPA funds have been spent by the city so far?

April Brown: There’s a plan in place and my hope is that they will go to things that are city services related. We need the ARPA funds used in a way that taxpayers can feel the investment and not get the short end of the stick.

Uprise RI: All right. Here’s the real final question. You’re going door to door and you have 30 seconds to make your pitch. What do you tell people to get them to vote for you?

April Brown: What I ask them first is, “What do you want to see from your city counselor?” That’s the first thing I do. It’s not about the pitch for me. I want to know what they’re thinking. And then I talk about how I am running because I believe that you deserve a city counselor who gives a damn about you.

Uprise RI: Thank you so much. This was fun.

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