Weayonnoh Nelson-Davies: A Voice for Change at the Economic Progress Institute

In a powerful interview, Weayonnoh Nelson-Davies, the executive director at the Economic Progress Institute (EPI), shares her inspiring story and vision for the organization. From advocating for vulnerable populations to addressing structural racism and poverty, Nelson-Davies is determined to make a lasting impact in Rhode Island.

Rhode Island News: Weayonnoh Nelson-Davies: A Voice for Change at the Economic Progress Institute

April 25, 2023, 11:40 am

By Uprise RI Staff and Steve Ahlquist

Weayonnoh Nelson-Davies took over as executive director of the Economic Progress Institute (EPI) in January of last year, and has set some ambitious goals for the 24 year-old organization. EPI, which describes itself as “a nonpartisan research and policy organization dedicated to improving the economic well-being of low- and modest-income Rhode Islanders” is often the lone voice of economic sanity in General Assembly committee hearings dominated by insincere lobbyists working to increase profits for their corporate masters.

Uprise RI relies heavily on EPI’s research, so we were pleased to finally get the opportunity to interview Nelson-Davies after she’s had a year to find her footing in this new position. Uprise RI was present when Nelson-Davies delivered her first ever State House testimony before the House Committee on State Government and Elections. She was testifying on a bill that would mandate equity statements for all future House legislation, that is, a judgment as to the disparate impacts legislation might have on people based on their race, ethnicity, gender and disability.

This interview was conducted about a month ago, and has been edited for clarity.

Uprise RI: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and what brings you to this work.

Weayonnoh Nelson-Davies: I think most of my life’s journey has brought me to this work. I’m an immigrant from Liberia. At the age of 10 my country went through a civil war. By the age of 12, as a young person, I had this anger and wanted to do something about why this was happening. The children and people had no say. We were the victims of the war while people were fighting for power. I was very quiet as a child. I have this deep voice that I inherited from my father. My brothers have it. I hated it as a little girl, I got teased because I had a very deep voice.

Then the war happened and a comedian started gathering children from middle school and high school to act in skits and share a message to child soldiers that we saw them as victims too, and as we were preparing to go back to school, we wanted them to join us. And something in me said, “I want to be a part of that because I agree that children, including the child soldiers, were victims.” So I started acting in these skits and started getting the reaction back that people will stop and pay attention. I was like, “Oh, this voice is something I can use to send messages about things I care about.” During that time, Nelson Mandela was my hero, so I started connecting the dots between using my voice as a tool and getting into a career that would allow me to advocate for vulnerable populations, like children and women and families who were killed, including two of my brothers, who were killed during the war.

That was when I decided that if I survive this war, I want to be an attorney, because knowing the law, knowing what can hold leaders accountable, is the way to create change and the future we want. That’s where my journey began, as a 12-year old girl. When I immigrated to the United States, that continued. I still wanted to be that type of social justice attorney, but I didn’t have the funding because of my immigration status. I was on temprorary protective status for a while, but I was able to save some money doing AmeriCorps’ City Year, got a full scholarship to law school, and this dream became a reality for me.

I worked for 14 years at Community Legal Aid representing low-income families who could not afford an attorney with housing and family law, domestic violence issues, access to benefits issues, medical-legal partnerships, and connecting health and law. And throughout that, the cycle of poverty was very strong. You would see the same clients over and over again because the issues they’re dealing with do not go away because the system is created to keep them fighting within it. So during my 14 years at Legal Aid, I made a connection between structural racism and poverty. The connection between how the systems intersect and how policy influences how they intersect. After 14 years working in Massachusetts and living in Rhode Island, I wanted to do more of that in Rhode Island. But I wanted to do it in a way that impacts this cycle, breaks it at a systems level. That led me to the Economic Progress Institute, which is, sort of, a full circle for me because that’s where I started this journey. I wanted to hold leaders accountable, to make them do right by their people, and to make sure they’re impacting the lives of the people in a positive way.

Uprise RI: EPI has always worked on issues of poverty, it was founded as the Poverty Institute after all. Under your leadership, how do you see the organization evolving and changing? Or is it going to change?

Weayonnoh Nelson-Davies: I don’t take credit for the evolution of EPI because I think that before I even got here, and one of the reasons I was hired, was to create a vision that looks beyond, and I think this started with the change of the name. Because it was focused on poverty, but we wanted to focus on how to get people to progress. I think my vision lines up with that. There are two pillars of EPI. One is making sure people are able to navigate poverty and have their basic needs met. The other piece is, how do we get people out of the cycle of poverty? How do we move them towards upper mobility?

I think EPI is focused on basic needs policies, but how do we, for example, include small businesses? We haven’t done a lot with small businesses before, but we serve low and modest income Rhode Islanders. Small business owners are low and modest income Rhode Islanders, especially business owners of color. So now we’re focusing on how we think of systems that can close the racial wealth gap to make sure people are able to progress. What do workers need to be able to get to that upward mobility and what do small business owner need not just for themselves, but also to help the economy and help to provide employment for our families? I think we’re looking towards that.

We’re also looking towards how the community informs this work. How can the community tell us what they need to get out of poverty? What do we need to advance? I think our vision is to be led by that community and build the power of community so it’s not just us representing or advocating on their behalf, but us helping them with the tools they need to be able to do that for themselves

Uprise RI: I think it’s vitally important to include people. There’s this phrase you hear at rallies that resonates with me, “Nothing about us without us.” I often feel that the State House, for instance, does things without people’s input. Legislators say, “Here’s what you need.” Well, maybe I need something else. Maybe I need more money or more food or better education for my kids.

I noticed in the Providence Journal today there’s a top of the fold report about the General Assembly ending payday loans which is something EPI has advocated for, for at least 13 years. Do you have anything to say about this effort?

Weayonnoh Nelson-Davies: That’s one of our priorities because one of the things EPI is figuring out is how to center equity within the policy work we do. Because we touch on almost every type of economic security policy, equity has to be in the center of all of it, because there are certain communities who are being left behind when certain policies are enacted. Payday lending is one of those areas where we’ve been fighting for reform. Payday lenders do not have the same [interest] cap that most financial institutions have in the State of Rhode Island, which is a 36%. Payday lenders can go up to 260%. These lenders are in low-income communities of color and targeting vulnerable populations who are in desperate need of funding, and in desperate need of meeting their basic needs.

We’re excited that there’s a lot of attention on payday loans this year. We’re hoping it passes because that will impact the community in a way that we’ve been trying to advocate for. I’m hoping more of the public can be aware about what’s happening and lend their voices to this effort. I’m excited that it’s getting the attention it needs now, and we’re hoping legislators are paying attention. We’re hoping we can get it on the floor because we haven’t even been able to get it out of committee before and then we’re hoping we get the vote we need to get it passed this year.

Uprise RI: I want to talk about the minimum wage. We have a path to $15 here in the state, but it’s a little slow. It won’t reach $15 until 2025. I don’t see a lot of movement at the State House to do much about it, even though last year inflation took away the gains of the 75 cent increase. How do we make a better case for increasing the minimum wage?

Weayonnoh Nelson-Davies: Every two years EPI releases the Rhode Island Standard of Need reports and in that report we look the cost of living. What does it cost for Rhode Islanders to meet their basic needs? Last year, in 2022, we released a report that shows that single adults – that’s the name we use for people who do not have children or who are not in a two person parent household. Single adults in Rhode Island, in order to meet their basic needs, and we’re talking about housing and food, needed about $34,914 to meet their basic needs in 2022. That means that they need at least $16.74 an hour to meet their basic needs. So last year we were already behind what people needed to meet their basic needs. Then, when you talk about a parent with two children or two parents with two children, it is even more than $16.74..

So we should have been at $16, at least, last year. And if we’re looking at upward mobility, that’s probably closer to $23. So really, for people to be able to just meet basic needs and be able to provide for themselves and family, $15 isn’t enough. So by the time we get to $15, in 2025, we’re going to be way behind where we should be. In answering your question about how we make the case, legislators have to be using the data. They have to be looking at what our families and individuals in the state of Rhode Island need, and thinking about how can we create policies that address those needs instead of throwing out numbers that don’t affect or impact people the way they need.

The federal poverty level is a measurement that hasn’t been changed since 1960, so most of the time that measurement doesn’t tell the true story of what is going on. I’m hoping legislators can pay attention to what the numbers are saying. I’m hoping they can pay attention to what the people are saying: That we cannot provide food for our families and we cannot afford rent. Legislators need to pay attention to that and be informed by that when they create policy. I’m hoping they listen, I’m hoping they meet with and talk to the community – and talk to advocates who have the data – and then together create solutions that will impact people’s lives in the way that’s needed.

Uprise RI: Right now there’s a lot of talk about housing. What is EPI’s contribution to that conversation? How is EPI engaging with the issue of housing?

Weayonnoh Nelson-Davies: There are a few different policy organizations within the state of Rhode Island. Rhode Island KIDS COUNT, for example, focuses on K through 12, so EPI has not, in the past, focused on K through 12 educational policy. We focus on childcare and early learning. Housing is another area where we have HousingWorksRI and Homes RI that focus on that policy. So EPI has not been a leader within the housing world. However, there’s no way you can do economic security issues without understanding the impact of housing. Over the years we’ve done the Make It Happen report with the Rhode Island Foundation. Our policy director and executive director at that time worked on that Make It Happen report.

In another report we said the American Rescue Plan Act needed to invest in housing because we had a crisis in Rhode Island. That was one piece of that report. Though we’re not leading the advocacy efforts in housing, in our Standard of Need report we said that for people to meet their basic needs housing subsidies are very important. We did an equity review of the Governor’s budget and highlighted housing as an issue where not only does it need more investments, but investments in a way that impacts the community. For instance, we need to know who is homeless within the State of Rhode Island and highlight that in the budget. We have about $280 million allocated to housing, but we also need to understand how it will be implemented. Cities and towns need to be held accountable to provide the minimal level of housing needed to make sure that they are providing resources for homeless populations within those cities and towns.

I think EPI is trying to figure out how can we lend our voices, as economic security experts, in this area – to say we cannot deal with anything if there’s not stable housing for people to be able to progress. We’re looking at that. We’re also highlighting history. When ARPA funding came about, I went back to the New Deal era where we had an opportunity to create housing subsidized by the government. Over a 30 year period, from 1934 to 1962, we spent about $120 billion in housing subsidized by the government. Less than 2% went to non-white families. I’m concerned. We have $280 million in the State of Rhode Island. We need to figure out where that money is going. Is it addressing the homeless issue? Is it going to communities of color who are not homeowners? Is it addressing housing issues in certain communities? At EPI we need to pay attention to the implementation and we need to lend our voices, saying, “If we don’t do this the right way, we may repeat history in an inequitable way that will stop us from progressing as a state.”

Uprise RI: That is a real issue because I’ve heard the Secretary of Housing asked several times basic questions like, “How many units of housing can we expect out of the initial $280 million investment” and he doesn’t have an answer. We don’t even know how many units might be built, never mind who is going to benefit from that investment. t’s a quarter billion dollars and nobody knows…

Weayonnoh Nelson-Davies: We need to know…

Uprise RI: We do. It’s very scary to think that we don’t have any idea because I think that means there’s a possibility that the money is going to slip away.

Weayonnoh Nelson-Davies: I agree. And thank you for your coverage of that issue, uplifting that, because it’s important to see.

Uprise RI: You mentioned equity. There are several equity bills in the General Assembly that EPI is supporting and that I think are excellent. Can we talk a little bit about that? You spoke about the way that money historically was spent on housing: the exclusion of black neighborhoods, the way we systematically destroyed black neighborhoods in order to build a highway system and so on. When we talk about something as seemingly innocuous as building a road, there are equity concerns as to where we build that road, what that road is like and who benefits from that road. There are equity concerns when we spend money on a road at all, as opposed to buses for public transit, because people who have cars use roads for free, but people who use buses pay money to use those roads. Can you speak to me about the importance of equity and the importance of these bills to measure equity in legislation? And did what I just said make sense?

Weayonnoh Nelson-Davies: It does. I think one of the reasons we are concerned about equity is because if we want to eradicate poverty, if we want our Rhode Island community to be able to thrive, you cannot do that without focusing on those being left behind. There are words that are used to divide us when they should unite us to progress as a state, as a country. Equity is one of those words. What equity means for me, and I think for EPI, is that before we do anything, we take a pause and think about what are we trying to accomplish and how we get there. Equity is about looking at the fairness of the policies we create and looking at the data that tells us.

For example, we just – I don’t want to say celebrated – acknowledged – Equal Pay Day. Equal Pay Day shows us that women make 84 cents to every dollar a men makes. When you create a policy that says, for example, that in order for everyone to meet their basic needs, they need to make a $1.25, and you create a policy that adds 25 cents to everyone’s pay, that’s not equity. For those who are at a dollar, the 25 cents will get them to a $1.25, so the impact of your policy is helping them. At 84 cents that policy gets women to $1.09. As a black woman, at 67 cents, that 25 cents will get me to 92 cents. So if your goal is getting all of us to $1.25 but you do not center equity, you think a policy of 25 cents is enough.

It’s about the goal. Where do we want to get as a state? We have to know where people are and make sure we’re giving them what they need to get there. That’s why equity is important – to understand the history of why certain people are not at a dollar yet. What have we done in the past to stop people and what do they need to get to that $1.25? That’s on example of thinking about policy through an equity lens. The goal is to make sure Rhode Islanders can thrive and if some Rhode Islanders are stuck in back, we need to understand why and we need to make sure our policy is not expanding that gap but closing it – and getting all of us to what the ultimate goal is as a state.

Uprise RI: What other big initiatives is EPI working on, besides the ones I already mentioned?

Weayonnoh Nelson-Davies: Besides centering equity in all of our policies we have specific equity impact bills. Most of the work EPI does is understanding the intersections of federal and state tax and budget on public policy. So we have two bills we’re working on with Senator Jonathan Acosta and Representative Terri Cortvriend on centering equity within our budget, making sure the governor will look at the budget through an equity lens and do a review of where equity is centered to make sure the money we’re spending is spent in a way that is equitable for certain communities that have been [historically] left out of the budgets.

Revenue for our state is also important to us. EPI talks about how to invest in our families, but we also look at where we need to create revenue to invest. For years we’ve been pushing for tax fairness within the State of Rhode Island to make sure that the top 1% pay their fair share – but also that we generate revenue for the state. In the proposal we have this year, when we talk about the top 1%, we’re talking about 5,000 Rhode Islanders. We’re talking about people who make over $500,000 paying their fair share because the lowest income Rhode Islanders spend more, across the board, when you talk about taxes. That would create over $169 million in revenue for this state. So that’s important to us.

Paid leave is also a very important priority for EPI. Rhode Island was the leader on paid leave 10 years ago. Now we’re behind the nine states and DC that also have paid leave policies. We’re at six weeks – we want to get to 12 weeks for families – but we also want to make sure, through an equity lens, that low-wage workers can take advantage of that. At 60% of wage replacement they cannot. So we need to get them to almost fully what they’re making in their jobs in order for them to be able to take care of their families when they are needed at home.

Rhode Island Works is always a priority of ours because children are living in deep poverty when you look at Rhode Island Works benefits. So we need to get them to a place where they can provide for their families. We also need to include legal permanent residents within that, because they are a part of Rhode Island right now and they’ve been excluded. They have to wait five years and we do not see the need for that wait.

Then I’ll go quickly. Childcare again – increasing eligibility for childcare. Healthcare is a big issue for us, making sure that we codify the Affordable Care Act to protect people because we know from Roe v. Wade that not having state protections could be dangerous for people. The Equality in Abortion Coverage Act (EACA) is an important issue for us. Again, it’s an equity issue to make sure those on Medicaid and state employees can take advantage of the protections we have for abortion care.

Those are our top priorities. I don’t think I missed anything. And payday lending we already talked about.

Uprise RI: This is exciting. I’d love to see it all happen. I think every year we hope to get one big thing but this year there’s a possibility of maybe getting two or three big things. I’ve noticed that this is a different General Assembly than has been around in years past. There seems to be more of an appetite to do the big things necessary to make the world a better place. So what I’m trying to ask is, what’s your sense of optimism about the future here?

Weayonnoh Nelson-Davies: I will say this Steve, and again, I think it goes back to my life’s journey. I always, even in the war, used to say that, “Once there’s life, there’s hope.” I lead from hope, and you have to, right? Because if you don’t, you give up. Things may not change if we keep fighting, but things will definitely not change if we do not fight. So for me, the way I lead is that we have to keep at it, because if we don’t, then nothing changes and we’re still living where we are. Even if we don’t see what we hope for during our generation, I’m hoping children can see it. In this role at EPI, I lead from hope.

Obviously I’m not naive, but I enter every session saying, “Why can’t we have it all?” We come from this scarcity perspective that we have to choose and sometimes we have no choice. But when I go in I’m asking for all of it because our communities deserve all of it. I’m hopeful that as we keep pushing, as more people keep hearing these stories, as more people look at the data, we will keep getting what we need for our communities. I’m not giving up and we’re going back next year. We’re going to come back the year after because we have to hold onto to that hope and not give up. If we give up then nothing will change and we’ll not have the policies we need for Rhode Islanders to thrive within this state.

Uprise RI: That is great. Thank you so much for your time.