Tonight the City Council will introduce a resolution to honor the life and legacy of Michael Van Leesten, a Providence native and a pioneer in the Civil Rights Struggle of the 1960s.
Mr. Michael Van Leesten was a graduate of Hope High School, Rhode Island College, and was a veteran on the United States Airforce. Upon his graduation from Rhode Island College, he became active in the Civil Rights Movement and participated in SCLC SCOPE Project in Choctaw County, Alabama. He along with six other college students, worked doing community organizing and voter registration in rural Alabama during the height of the Civil Rights Struggle. He spoke of his time in the Movement as a “defining moment in my life,” and he believed that this singular experience made him a better person, better husband, better father, and better community leader.
“Michael Van Leesten was my friend, and a ray of inspiration and hope to many. We would talk over the phone and laugh and before we hung up he would also say ‘Nirva, I am so proud of you,’” stated Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune (Ward 3). “He was more than a board member, the executive director of OIC or a father, he was a community citizen, someone who was aware of and understands the broader issues that our community- and his place in the community and his role in effecting change. He was all of these things because he was a community citizen first and took an active role in his community and the people of his community. He was a bridge builder, an architect of connections and that is why it would be appropriate to name the bride after him. Like the new Pedestrian bridge he bridged gaps and created a platform for all to pass through and that gave others permission to do the same.”
Mr. Van Leesten served as the Executive Director of Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC) of Rhode Island, which he helped found, for more than 15years. He was also a consultant and the owner of Van Leesten Associates, and also served as the Director of Planning and Development in Providence. After which, he went on to be the Director of Public Affairs for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, and then in 2006 he resumed his role at the OIC until his passing. He was board member of numerous organizations including the Board of Regents, Peerless Precision, and Fleet Bank, and was awarded honorary doctorate degrees from Roger Williams College, Rhode Island College, and the University of Rhode Island.
Deputy Majority Leader Mary Kay Harris (Ward 11) stated, “Mike played a very important role in my life. Through his vision as the Executive Director of Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC), he was essential to me becoming a welder. Giving me a profession and career that helped me raise my children and provide them with a quality education. His life’s work was ensuring that those living in poverty could find a way to rise up, learn a trade, and we are all better for having had him in our lives.”
Many community members have been working on several different ways to honor Mr. Van Leesten’s life and legacy, and the City Council and its members wish to make that process more cohesive. The resolution that will be introduced tonight and will be sent to the Council’s Committee on Urban Redevelopment, Renewal, and Planning, which is chaired by Deputy Majority Leader Mary Kay Harris. There the Committee will work to bring all the relevant parties together to discuss the most meaningful and fitting way to honor Mr. Van Leesten.