Deputy Majority Leader Mary Kay Harris (Ward 11) and the Providence City Council has teamed up with the Providence City Archives to create a Black History Month Online Exhibit and online panel discussion to honor the life and legacy of Michael S. Van Leesten entitled “Michael S. Van Leesten: Bridge Builder.”
The panel discussion will take place on Monday, February 15, 2021, at 7:00 PM. The discussion can be viewed on the City Council Facebook Page, YouTube Channel, or individuals can join the conversation on Zoom. Pre-registration is required: https://bit.ly/PVDBHM
“Every year, I am proud to work with the City Archives to create a Black History Month Exhibit that showcases the numerous contributions that people of color have made to our City. Michael S. Van Leesten was a rock in our community for so many years and touched the lives of everyone he worked with and advocated for. When I was a working single mother, Mr. Van Leesten’s support helped me to build a career as a welder. Later, I had the honor and pleasure of working with him as a community organizer. I am so excited to be honoring him this year and so grateful to his family for sharing so much with us so that we could share his inspiring story with the world,” stated Deputy Majority Leader Mary Kay Harris.
The panel will include: Deputy Majority Leader Mary Kay Harris, Ms. Mary Harrison, Mr. Jordan Van Leesten, Mr. Frank Santos, and Mr. Ray Rickman and will be moderated by City Council President Sabina Matos (Ward 15). The discussion will range from his long history as a freedom fighter to his dedication to education and workforce development. In addition, Mayor Jorge O. Elorza will provide welcoming remarks, Superintendent of Providence Parks, Wendy Nilsson, will join us to give an update on the renaming of the Providence Pedestrian Bridge after Mr. Van Leesten, and City Archivist Caleb Horton and Ziggy Giles from the Providence City Council will discuss the companion online exhibition.
Caleb Horton, Providence City Archivist, shared, “For the past six years, I have had the pleasure of working with Deputy Majority Leader Harris to tell the story of the black community here in Providence using items from our archives. Past exhibits have highlighted both the struggles and the successes of the fight for equality in our City. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic did not allow us to have an in-person gathering as we have done in years past, but it forced us to think outside the box. Working with Ziggy Giles, Abigail Appel, and Jill Van Leesten, we have put together what I believe to be one of the best exhibits we have ever created. It is interactive, moving, and tells an icon’s story – Mr. Michael S. Van Leesten. I look forward to sharing this special project with the community.”
The exhibit will feature photographs and stories from the decades Mr. Van Leesten spent as an activist for racial equity in voter registration, workforce development, and education reform.
The Van Leesten family has generously shared photographs, articles, and personal stories to help build this exhibit highlighting his lifelong devotion to the City of Providence and social justice throughout the country.
“Mr. Van Leesten’s lifelong dedication to activism and public service will forever serve as a model to all who want to effect positive change in their communities. I am humbled by the many stories of bravery, leadership, and integrity that he left behind. As we celebrate Black History this month, and throughout the year, let us remember those who came before us; the men and women who built the bridges that we have walked across,” stated Council President Sabina Matos (Ward 15).
Michael S. Van Leesten was a graduate of Hope High School, Rhode Island College, and was a veteran of the United States Air Force. He was active in the Civil Rights movement and participated in voter registration efforts in rural Alabama. He later founded and served as the Executive Director of Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC) of Rhode Island. Additionally, Van Leesten was a consultant and the owner of Van Leesten Associates and served as the Director of Planning and Development for Providence. Van Leesten also went on to serve as the Director of Public Affairs for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe. In addition to this expansive career, Michael S. Van Leesten was a board member of numerous organizations, including the Board of Regents, Peerless Precision, and Fleet Bank. Van Leesten sadly passed away in August of 2019, leaving behind five grown children and four grandchildren.
“It has been an honor for our family to take part in this event to show the community his passion around his family, friends, and work,” stated Ms. Jill Van Leesten. “He was an amazing and humble man. We miss him dearly and pray that his level of kindness and positive way of being will continue within us and be a gift to share with others. We want to thank the Providence City Council for all of their hard work and dedication. It has been such a pleasure working together on this special project.”
In June of 2020, the Council’s Committee on Urban Redevelopment, Renewal, and Planning (URRP), chaired by Deputy Majority Leader Mary Kay Harris, voted to rename the Providence Pedestrian Bridge in honor of the late Michael S. Van Leesten. As a man who spent his life building bridges for future generations to succeed, it is only fitting that this Providence landmark be named in his honor. In continuation of the Council’s gratitude to Mr. Van Leesten, this Black History Month exhibit was created to share the story of his dedication to the cause of racial and social justice in our City.
Visit the Providence City Council and the Providence City Archives on the web to view the online exhibits and look out for social media posts highlighting Mr. Van Leesten’s life throughout the month. The Michael S. Van Leesten: Bridge Builder online exhibition will permanently remain on the Council and Archives web pages and will continue to be updated with new stories of the rich history that people of color have built in the City of Providence.