Providence City Council’s Committee on Urban Redevelopment, Renewal, and Planning Today Voted to Rename the Providence Pedestrian Bridge in Memory of Local Civil Rights Advocate Michael S. Van Leesten
This afternoon Deputy Majority Leader Mary Kay Harris (Ward 11) and Chairwoman of the Council’s Committee on Urban Redevelopment, Renewal, and Planning announced that they have voted to rename the Providence Pedestrian Bridge in memory of Michael S. Van Leesten, who was a long-time resident of Providence and passed away on August 23, 2019, at the age of 80. The Resolution to change the name of the Pedestrian Bridge was sponsored by Council President Sabina Matos, and Co-Sponsored by the Full Council.
“I worked closely with Mr. Van Leesten over the years, and his loss has left a hole in the fabric of our city,” stated Deputy Majority Leader Mary Kay Harris. “I can think of no better way than to honor the memory of a man who built bridges within the community than by renaming the Providence Pedestrian Bridge in memory and in honor of the significant contributions he made to this City and our State.”
Mr. Michael S. Van Leesten was a graduate of Hope High School. After graduation, he served his nation as a communications specialist in the United States Air Force, and upon discharge, he attended Rhode Island College, where he was a star basketball player. After he graduated college in 1965, he became active in the Civil Rights Movement. He participated in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Summer Conference on Community Organizing and Political Education Project (SCLC SCOPE) in Choctaw County, Alabama.
City Council President Sabina Matos (Ward 15) shared, “Mr. Van Leesten was a giant amongst men, and he did so much for our city, state, and nation. I commend my colleague Chairwoman Harris for pushing this forward. When young and old cross that bridge, may it be a reminder of the good that can be done when you do the work like Mr. Van Leesten did.”
At SCLC SCOPE, 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.” He believed that singular experience made him a better person, a better husband, a better father, and a better community leader.
“I want to thank Chairwoman Harris for bringing this important matter to the committee,” stated Vice-Chairman Nicholas J. Narducci Jr (Ward 4). “I was proud to be a Co-sponsor, along with all my fellow members on the City Council. His life’s work deserves to be remembered and honored.”
Van Leesten served as the Executive Director of Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC) of Rhode Island, which he helped found, for more than 15years. He had a successful consulting business, and also served as the Director of Planning and Development for the City of Providence. Additionally, he then went on to be the Director of Public Affairs for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe from 1994 to 2006, eventually returning to the role at the OIC from 2006 until his passing in August of 2019.
He was a board member of numerous organizations, including the Board of Regents, Peerless Precision, and Fleet Bank. He was also awarded honorary doctorate degrees from Roger Williams College, Rhode Island College, and the University of Rhode Island.
Mr. Van Leesten is survived by his former spouses Natalie E. Brown, Andrea G. Van Leesten, and Paula Van Leesteen, and his loving children Jill, Michael, Ayyub, Andrew, Jordan, and Alexis, and his beloved grandchildren Aliza, Aaron, Az-Zubair, and Huria, and his siblings Rashad Munir, David Van Leesten, Lisa Van Leesten, and Dorothy “Dee Dee” Van Lesten, and was predeceased by his brother Karriem Muhammad (ne Hendrik Van Leesten Jr.) and both his beloved parents.
Michael S. Van Leesten was and will continue to be a beloved and admired member of the community, and his energy and smile have been missed by all that knew him. Upon passage from Committee, it will go before the City Council, where it will be voted on by the Full Council. Then it will be sent to Mayor Elorza for his signature.