Politics & Elections

Interview: Nirva LaFortune has a vision for Providence, and wants to be your mayor

“People want to live in safe neighborhoods,” said Councilmember LaFortune. “But with public safety, many folks throughout the city, particularly in marginalized communities, are also talking about what type of investments can be made in our neighborhoods to prevent some of these crimes, to better support our young people, to give them pathways to opportunities, to make sure that they have spaces to go to where they feel safe and can get services.”
Photo for Interview: Nirva LaFortune has a vision for Providence, and wants to be your mayor

Published on October 6, 2021
By Steve Ahlquist

Nirva LaFortune is the Providence City Councilmember serving Ward 3 on the east side who recently declared her candidacy for Mayor of Providence. Current Mayor Jorge Elorza is term limited, and the election is over a year away. LaFortune is from an immigrant Haitian family. If elected, LaFortune would be the first woman and first black person to hold the office of mayor in the City of Providence. The interview was conducted over Zoom and has been edited for clarity.

This is the second in a series of interviews with Providence Mayoral Candidates. See also:

UpriseRI: When you’re out there talking to people, door knocking, explaining yourself as a candidate, what are the issues that come up the most? What are the top two or three issues that you’re focusing on right now?

Nirva LaFortune: The top issues that come up are education, and surprisingly, whether someone has children in our public schools or not, that is an issue for many people living in the city. Whether you’re a retiree or you have children who are school age – that’s one of the top priorities for many of our residents.

Public safety. People want to live in safe neighborhoods. But with public safety, many folks throughout the city, particularly in marginalized communities are also talking about what type of investments can be made in our neighborhoods to prevent some of these crimes, to better support our young people, to give them pathways to opportunities and to make sure that they have spaces to go to where they feel safe and can get services.

And with everything that’s happening throughout the world and the nation around climate change, that’s a major issue throughout the city as well because in Providence we have this port where real environmental mitigations get done because we passed this comprehensive environmental legislation, Act on Climate. People are concerned because they want to make sure that we have a Providence for our future generations and we are not flooded and impacted by rising sea levels. It’s a critical issue.

People also want to make sure they have safe sidewalks – you know, regular, back to the basics city services. They want to have their sidewalks fixed so they’re not waiting 20 years for a sidewalk that’s been cracked or is dangerous to be resolved – or for potholes to be filled, their trash to be picked up on a regular basis or the streets to be swept. Those basic municipal services – they want to make sure that they’re getting them and they’re getting them on a regular basis because they’re taxpayers.

UpriseRI: You mentioned the Port of Providence and I remember you being somewhat involved against the LNG expansion. Now there’s a proposed LPG expansion from a company called Sea 3. There’s a lot of lobbying money being brought to it. Sea 3 is really pushing hard. What are your thoughts about the Port of Providence in general? What are your thoughts about getting the pollution in the Port under control? Because we know it affects young lungs in the communities surrounding the Port.

LaFortune: As you know, when I was testifying at the CRMC [Coastal Resources Management Council] hearings against the LNG expansion, I talked about my sibling being born with respiratory issues. My parents lived on the south side, in the Washington Park community. My parents still live around there. And when you look at that particular community, it has one of the highest chronic respiratory illness rates in this area, and the communities that surround the port are mostly communities of color. So it’s communities that are already disadvantaged that are now being impacted by poor air quality. It’s causing chronic illness among their children. So my overall vision for the Port is to have some real environmental mitigation, to look at how we can partner with our federal legislators to get some federal dollars into the city to do some real work, and to make the Port cleaner and safer.

This is also an opportunity for us to create a robust port where we can actually bring in jobs for our city residents – clean and safe jobs that are environmentally friendly. There are some amazing environmental justice groups in the city that are doing some exceptional work. Let’s partner with them. Let’s create a vision for the Port of Providence. Now don’t get me wrong – we’re not going to resolve the Port issue quickly. I mean, think about the Boston port, it took over 30 years – but there was a mayor who had a vision and he built the foundation. Now Boston has one of the most robust ports on the east coast and in the nation.

My vision is, thinking about Act on Climate, how can we hold the people who have businesses along the Port accountable? How can we ensure that there is some real environmental mitigation being done to make the Port safer? I think that’s the baseline. We have to make the Port environmentally safer – more resilient – and also start thinking about what are some investments that we can make in the Port and how can we bring jobs to our community members and train them. I think there’s an opportunity there. But we need to come together.. We need to create policy. We need to think about what partners we need and what partnerships we can cultivate to make that happen,

UpriseRI: I think the Port is such a waste of beautiful land.

LaFortune: Think about Johnson and Wales Bay Campus. We should be partnering. They should be a part of the conversation and that’s a way to connect their bay campus to their downtown campus. Again, you have to bring all the stakeholders to the table and create some real policy. We have state legislation that just passed. Thank goodness to Dawn Euer, who was a leading force in that. We have this foundation, now let’s utilize it to reimagine and think about how we can make it into a robust port for the City of Providence that benefits Providence residents.

UpriseRI: When I go to the Save the Bay campus and walk out to the water, I can look out straight and to the right, and see how beautiful the Bay is maintained there. But if I look left, it’s a monstrous pile of scrap metal and chemicals and all the worst kind of fossil fuel industry sprawl. Imagine if we could just take what’s on the right and mirror that on the left – The area could be a beautiful place where you’re not afraid to take a deep breath.

LaFortune: I chaperoned one of my daughter’s school trips before the end of the last school year. She went to Vartan Gregorian, and one of the trips that she took was with Save the Bay. We walked from the school down to India Point Park and they got on a boat. This was a practical learning experience that’s cultivating young people to care about the environment and to become advocates. This is one way to make sure that our young people are part of the conversation, their voices included – but it’s also teaching them so they can grow up to understand the importance of the environment and see how the Port area could be utilized for their benefit and for learning opportunities as well.

UpriseRI: Since you mentioned Vartan Gregorian, let’s move right into education. The state takeover of Providence Schools is still happening. How do you rate the takeover so far?

LaFortune: I’m quite disappointed with the state takeover, because what was presented to us was that this was going to be more of a collaborative effort. We were told it wouldn’t be so top-heavy and that the community – the parents, the students, teachers and administrators – would be part of the decision making process. As we can see, that has not been the case. It’s disappointing because Providence could be a strong school district and it has to be a strong school district because our schools should be part of the economic development conversation. We need to be able to provide our kids with a quality education so that they are ready to go to college or go into the workforce. The way the state takeover has been going, it’s just been filled with controversy and it’s completely unfair to students. It’s unfair to families. It’s unfair to everyone who’s part of the educational system, including my own child.

UpriseRI: My children also went to public schools in Providence.

When the state took over, we did so knowing that there had never been a really successful example of a state takeover of a municipal school system, ever. Maybe Lawrence, Massachusetts, but even there…

LaFortune: Lawrence, Massachusetts is the example that people tend to use, but even with Lawrence I don’t think we should necessarily say that was a success story. Because we just don’t have enough information and data. I’ve looked throughout the nation. There isn’t any perfect model for a takeover. In fact, what a lot of the researchers have said is that in order to really reform school districts or reform educational structures, it requires a partnership where people who are most impacted are part of the decision-making process and everyone plays a role. I would like to see a plan to get our school district back.

What actually could work is if the State of Rhode Island sets an educational plan for the whole state, taking into consideration the needs of some of our marginalized districts where students have higher needs, whether it’s English Language Learners, students who receive free and reduced lunch (which might be an indication of poverty), or other types of services, including special education. I mean, just the challenges I struggled with with getting my son a 504(B) plan. We need to set an educational plan and understand that districts look different – they have different needs. We need to give districts the tools and resources they need to rise up to it, and also make sure we stick to that plan so we can build on it.

What we’ve seen is multiple changes in leadership – that doesn’t work. One of the things that happened in Lawrence was that the leader played a vital role in stabilizing the educational takeover reform, and brought those partners to the table. But when you change leaders on multiple occasions, there’s a lack of continuity. And our students deserve continuity. They deserve a plan that we can stick to and also the investments that are needed so that they are successful.

UpriseRI: All right. Let’s move on into policing. One of the issues that Providence has is that we are unable to pass our own laws regarding guns. The state has taken that power away from municipalities. Guns are a a huge part of why the violence is so terrible, because people aren’t punching each other, they’re shooting each other.

LaFortune: As you know, I’ve been at the State House testifying for us to pass stronger gun sense laws to get guns off the streets and to make high capacity guns less available or just ban them in general. It is bizarre that we can’t pass stronger legislation. One of the things we need to think about is that we don’t have any policy that requires guns to be registered. Someone could purchase a gun and then resell it. This gun goes from one hand to the next, and it’s hard to track that gun. We’ve seen those guns used to take lives away. We need to pass stronger legislation to make sure that the wrong people do not have access to guns.

But also, what are some things that we can do to prevent young people from choosing that path? How can we make the necessary investments in our neighborhoods to make sure that we have community centers and recreational centers that are clean, safe, and have resources for after school or summer programming? We need job development opportunities for our youth, which is why I’ve been a strong supporter of our summer youth programs and now also a year round program. How do we make sure that we have a robust mentorship program for our young people while also working with community partners who are in the neighborhood because they’ve already cultivated that relationship?

Back when Barack Obama came out with the community policing model, Providence was one of the municipalities that signed on. We can implement some of those strategies because the blueprint is already laid out for that. We also need to think about how can we utilize some of our community partners like the Nonviolence Institute, so that they can intervene when there’s an issue. One of the things that I’m working on is trying to create an ambassadors program where community members can be trained on deescalation practices. Over the weekend, I was talking to a good friend, who’s a mental health practitioner and they were saying how they have to get deescalation certification and they have to go through a training. What if that was accessible to these community ambassadors so if there’s something happening they can intervene or call in the Nonviolence Institute to help out.

To address the violence in our city, we need all hands on deck. You can’t police your way out of it, but we need police officers who are cultivating relationships with our community through community policing and walking our streets. They need to know the communities they’re serving, and be from the communities they’re serving. We also know that we have limited resources. What other interventions or partnerships can we create to address the violence in our city? We know that there’s been an uptick of violence due to the pandemic throughout the nation. This is not unique to Providence. People are hurting, people have experienced trauma.

We have people who are stuck in the house on the internet. Feuds are started there and now they’re rolling out into the streets. Our kids need something to do. I think about my own life. I’m from the south side of Providence. I come from a working family. Both my parents worked multiple jobs. I’m the oldest of five. By the time I was in middle school, I could cook a full meal for my siblings, but I was also involved. I played sports. I was in an arts and theater program in my middle school. I was a City Year Young Hero. I was a Feinstein leader. I was working at the soup kitchen and creating food baskets at John Hope Settlement House. We were meeting with the mayor at City Hall, proposing policy. I was engaged.

I was involved and that kept me busy. We need to keep our young people busy. We need to provide them with options because the difference between someone from a struggling family versus someone who comes from a more affluent part of town is options. It’s resources. How do we make sure that we are making the necessary investments in all of our neighborhoods to ensure that our young people have options – positive options – that can lead them to a path of success?

UpriseRI: Okay, but the flip side of public safety is holding the police accountable for their actions. Take Sayles Street, for example. Mayor Elorza wants to repeal the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights (LEOBoR). What your thoughts on that, and also about holding police accountable in general?

LaFortune: I actually passed a resolution asking for us to basically repeal or reform the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights. LEOBoR provides an additional level of due process for police officers. When a police officer does something that’s not professional or inappropriate, we need to hold them accountable. There has to be a level of transparency and accountability. That’s also part of community policing – building trust. If there’s no accountability, if there’s no transparency, how do you expect the community to trust you and to report a crime when it’s happening? We need that because these officers take an oath to serve our community – and serving our community means treating people with dignity and respect – in a professional manner – period.

Accountability does not mean that you’re against the police. It means that you’re holding these individuals accountable because they have a very important job. They play a very important role in the community and trust is critical. If they don’t have that trust, they won’t be able to do their jobs. So in terms of LEOBoR, that needs a full overhaul. And if you think about that additional level of due process, the taxpayers are paying for it, so we should have a say in that.

UpriseRI: I know that when I was working full-time for public facing companies, if I had ever treated a customer the way that several police officers have treated people as seen on several videos now, I would have been fired immediately. Public facing services need to have a public face that can be at least respectful, even when a customer is out of control. One of the things you touched on is that we need police officers who are in the community, who come from the community, but we don’t really have that in Providence. I’m not sure what the numbers are, but very few police officers of any rank or experience live in Providence anymore. They all come from neighboring or even distant communities. And even when we hire a new batch of officers, many of them are kids coming in from other communities.

I was at a community forum where new officers were meeting community members. A new officer was asked why he wants to serve in Providence rather than Coventry, where he lived. The officer answered that he wanted to “go where the action is.” I was like, wait a minute, what are you talking about? Action? This is where we live. I remember the person asking the question taking the officer to task for his response, saying, something to the effect that this isn’t a TV show. This is real life. Our lives.

We have laws that say you can’t impose residency’s on police officers. How do we handle that? Because it’s not easy to imagine a police officer pepper spraying white children in Coventry where he lives and maybe he’s a baseball coach, but it clearly happens in Providence all the time.

LaFortune: Thank you for that question. When my parents moved to Washington Park, it was right before residency requirement was lifted. On our block, we had a police captain, and in fact, there were many police officers who lived in our city. I’ll tell you something – [Former State Representative] Joe Almeida is a retired police officer. He still lives in Washington Park. Joe Almeida ran an after school year-round basketball program. He used to pick up my brothers to take them to basketball practice. He served as a mentor to my brothers and other young, black and brown boys throughout the community. They knew him. If he saw one of those kids in the streets, he knew their name. He could say, “Hey, what are you doing?” He could talk to them.

If there was a conflict he could intervene and figure out what’s happening and help them navigate that challenge or conflict. On our street, we had a police captain who was a Caucasian man. And I remember there was a time I was riding my bike and my chain just came off. He came out and he fixed my bike. He would be out there playing basketball with the kids. He was there. I used to walk to the library with our Washington Park librarian. There is a difference when you live in the community because you’re invested.

The legislation that ended residency requirements was passed at the state level, but I think there are things that we can do to encourage more officers to live in the city. Other municipalities throughout the nation have these forgivable loan programs. If you live in the city that you work in there are these loan programs that help you purchase a home. There are incentives that can be used to encourage more police officers to live in the city and also some direct recruitment. I know someone that I went to high school with who’s currently a police officer, and it’s great to see that person in the community because when you see them, you know they grew up here.

Some of them coach football with Mount Hope, some of them are in the community. You see them at community events, but it’s a different type of interaction and people trust them. We need to do more of that and more recruitment. Now, to be fair, I will say we’ve seen in these past few police academies more police officers of color. But we need to be mindful of the percentage that actually live in the City of Providence. The other thing that we need to do is to think about additional training that needs to be embedded in the training curriculum and not just happen once a year, but throughout the course of the year.

For all recruits, while they’re in the academy, there should be a component where they’re in the community.They should spend at least twice a week in the community, engaging with the community. There should be some sort of project that they’re working on with the community that they’re assigned to, just to make sure that they’re getting to know the community they’re assigned to before they get there. Because you’re right. For someone to say, “I want to be where the action is” — No. We can’t gamble with people’s lives. These are real people, real vulnerable people.

Before the pandemic, every semester I would co-teach a class with a dear friend of mine who was a professor at the ACI. We would focus it on Langston Hughes‘ poem I Too. I remember there was this one time I went in the class and there were two people that I went to school with, either in middle school or high school, incarcerated. I was shocked. I remembered them being really smart and handsome – outgoing, very popular. And when we were in that room speaking to everyone, some of them said that they had made one mistake. One mistake that led them on that path. Then they found themselves going back to prison over and over again. One mistake. I know sometimes if you don’t have the right lawyer to get you out of a situation, or you find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time, or sometimes in the heat of the moment you’re not thinking, and there are consequences.

Yes, we should be held accountable. But there are also opportunities. I have a friend who lives in the Maryland / DC area. I’ll never forget when they shared how, they had experienced a loss in their family, which really hurt them. And they choose this path where they were selling drugs and they got caught and they went before judge and the judge gave them two options. The judge said that they could either go to jail or go to college. And the person was like, “Well, I’m going to go to college.” The person ended up going to Penn State getting their graduate degree and is an accountant.

UpriseRI: That’s a much better outcome.

LaFortune: Exactly. We have to have options and create pathways for opportunities because our young people are really vulnerable. But we also need to make sure that those who are serving them understand the community, are from the community, and trained not just in bias training, but real cultural competency training around understanding identities, the intersectionalities of identities, and being immersed, from the very beginning, in the communities that they are to serve.

UpriseRI: Okay. Switching gears. What are your thoughts on the pension liability? No mayor, even in two terms, could solve the pension problem. Those big, silver bullet solutions, like selling the water, won’t work. What do we do?

LaFortune: Yes, no mayor can solve the pension problem in eight years, but what they can do is set the foundation so that we can start addressing it. I was part of the pension working group with some city council colleagues and we outlined recommendations about how to address the pension liability. I hosted a community conversation and talked about the pension liability so that people understand what it is and how we got here. It took years to get to where we’re at right now. It’s going to take years to get us out. It’s not a one strategy solution.It’s going to take multiple strategies. There are a couple of things that we need to consider in addressing this pension liability that range from thinking about a path to transition to the state pension system and thinking about how we can grow our our tax base. That’s important for bringing jobs, opportunities and businesses into our city, as well as people who are going to invest in the city and pay taxes.

It’s a multi-strategy approach. We have to start implementing those strategies because if we don’t address the pension liability, it’s going to impact our municipal services. We need to generate the revenue we need to pay into the pension so that retirees receive their benefits, but also think about how can we create a new model with the workers at the center.

UpriseRI: My last big question before we finish up is about Kennedy Plaza and public transportation. Kennedy Plaza is still under threat of being closed or seriously downgraded. They’re still working on this multi hub plan, spreading bus service across the downtown area, making it more difficult for riders to transfer, especially the elderly, people with disabilities, and families with small children. What do we do to save Kennedy Plaza? How do we keep public transportation vibrant downtown? How do we make sure that people can use public transportation to get to their jobs and the services they need without having to walk a mile in the snow and rain between bus depots or have an extra third or fourth bus transfer every day of their lives? What do we do about this?

LaFortune: The only form of public transportation we have is the bus and almost every bus route comes into Kennedy Plaza. The community has said that the plan they’re trying to push forward is not the plan that’s going to work. There’s no data that shows that it’s going to increase ridership. There’s no data that it shows that it’s going to cut down commute times. There’s no data that shows that it’s going to be more environmentally friendly for our city. A few years ago, the city worked on a hub plan. Whatever decision is made should be made through a community process.

I walked through Kennedy Plaza quite often. I take the bus. Occasionally I run through Kennedy Plaza. It’s one of my one of my routes. The way it looks right now – there’s not enough investment in it. There’s trash on the streets sometimes. It’s not clean and robust. You can’t go into an area to buy your tickets, et cetera. We need that for when visitors come to our city. It’s important. And also for the people who live here, it’s important to have a bus hub they can go into, purchase their tickets and wait for the bus that’s it’s safe and clean. That should be part of our city center. Finding the right location requires community input. If that location is Kennedy Plaza, then we need to make the investments. If you’re going to change that location, then we need to make sure that the community is in agreement with that change, because those are the people who are riding the bus. I am completely against anyone making any type of decision around Kennedy Plaza without community input and an open and transparent process. And it must answer answer those critical questions. Will it increase ridership? Will it be more accessible? Will it address climate or environmental issue?

UpriseRI: All good questions. Right now, right now, there’s nobody on the RIPTA [Rhode Island Public Transit Authority] board who takes the bus regularly.

LaFortune: That has to change.

UpriseRI: Is there anything I should have asked but didn’t? Any final points?

LaFortune: As I enter this arena, I want to make my community proud. Providence is my home. We have what it takes to be a truly robust city, one of the best cities on the east coast. We have all the essentials to make that happen, but we need a leader with a vision who’s going to implement that vision through strategies, ideas, and policies. I am confident that I am that person. I am someone who’s willing to do the work. I’ve worked really hard as a city council person and as a community member and we need someone who’s from the community and understands the community. For too long we’ve just been settling for the status quo. We need a robust leader We need a leader with innovative ideas. When we talk about progressive – progressive is moving forward, right? That’s what we need. I’m working really hard to build that foundation and to build that momentum because this is a grassroots, bottoms up campaign and it’s our campaign.

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