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.
Councilman Pedro Espinal (Ward 10) introduced a resolution at tonight’s City Council meeting urging the State of Rhode Island to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) to any individual who tests positive for COVID-19. Additionally the resolution urges the State to provide individuals with information regarding PPE, self-isolation and best practices to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus translated into the individual’s native language.
“As we have all seen, the COVID-19 virus has disproportionately affected minority communities and communities of color,” stated Councilman Pedro Espinal, “Many of the Rhode Islanders in these communities may not speak English and are unable to self-isolate properly due to a lack of information, resources, PPE or space in their homes,”.
Self-isolation is key to keeping individuals who have tested positive with COVID-19 from spreading the virus. However, self-isolation can be very difficult when an individual lives with other people in their home, especially in close quarters. Further complicating this issue is the lack of translated information on health and safety for non-English speakers.
“Facts, data and PPE have been some of the most important factors in our fight with COVID-19. Personal Protective Equipment and reliable information on how to keep yourself and those around you safe must be made available to anyone who has tested positive with COVID-19; especially our neighbors who may not speak english,” continued Councilman Espinal.
Upon passage, copies of this resolution will be sent to Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo and Director of the Rhode Island Department of Health Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott.
Tonight, the City Council’s Committee on Urban Redevelopment, Renewal, and Planning (URRP) passed a second round of Community Block Development Grant (CDBG) Funding to help local agencies in the fight against COVID-19.
“This evening the URRP Committee ensured that 33 Providence-based social service agencies shared in the allocation of over nearly $3 Million in funding to assist in the fight against COVID-19,” stated Chairwoman of the Council’s Committee on Urban Redevelopment, Renewal, and Planning Mary Kay Harris (Ward 11). “The CARES Act which was passed by both the United States House of Representatives and the Senate, and championed by our own federal delegation, allocated nearly $3 Billion in funds for local municipalities across the Country in the fight against the COVID-19 crisis. I am so grateful that we could help use these funds to support organizations like Meals on Wheels, DORCAS International, and Federal Hill House to name just a few. Each of these 33 organizations are doing critical work in every one of our City’s neighborhoods, and I am so proud of the work my Committee has done.”
In addition to the $3 Million in additional CDBG funding, the Committee had recently approved the allocation of more than $5 Million in CDBG funding for organizations that provide essential services in our community.
Vice-Chairman of the Committee on Redevelopment, Renewal, and Planning Nicholas J. Narducci Jr. stated, “It has been a difficult process to allocate this important funding to our neighborhood agencies. Each and every applicant was deserving, but with only limited resources, I believe we were able to make the most impact in our City. I thank each and every organization for their dedicated work to the residents of our City.”
Chairwoman Harris continued, “I want to thank the work of the Committee, City Council Chief of Staff Erlin Rogel, and Director of Community Development Emily Freedman of the Department of Planning and Development for their dedication and hard work in ensuring that we were able to maximize the allocation of funding for the residents of our City.”
The two CDBG budget allocations will go to the full Council for vote and passage.
At tonight’s City Council meeting, Council President Sabina Matos (Ward 15) put forth two resolutions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic; one regarding an expansion of SNAP benefits and the other regarding anti-Asian sentiment in the City of Providence.
The first resolution, sponsored by Council President Matos, Council President Pro-Tempore Michael Correia (Ward 6), Councilwoman Helen Anthony (Ward 2), Councilman Pedro Espinal (Ward 10) and Councilor Rachel Miller (Ward 13), urges the Federal government to expand SNAP benefit services in Rhode Island to include online and delivery services.
“The Council is confronting this crisis head on and is working with our partners in government to help the most vulnerable amongst us,” stated Council President Sabina Matos.
Currently, SNAP recipients must physically travel to the grocery stores to purchase food items. This has been identified as a possible reason for racial disparities in the COVID-19 pandemic, as these SNAP recipients are forced to leave their homes, possibly exposing themselves to the COVID-19 virus at a greater level than those who are able to have food delivered to them.
Council President Matos continued, “It is vital that as Councilors we advocate for all residents, not just in our respective Wards but across the City. Increasing ability for SNAP recipients to use third-party grocery services, and providing access to other ways in which to use them is important to creating healthy communities.”
The Council urges the Federal Government to expand SNAP benefits to include delivery and online services in Rhode Island and throughout the country. Currently, the only states with these types of services are New York, Nebraska, Oregon, Iowa, Alabama and Washington. Upon passage, this resolution will be sent to Governor Gina Raimondo and members of Rhode Island’s Federal delegation.
The second resolution, sponsored by the same five Councilors, denounces xenophobia against the Asian community in Providence due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The United States has sadly seen an increase in racial profiling, hate crimes and violence against Asian Americans since the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
The World Health Organization has made clear that the COVID-19 virus is not affected by ethnicities or borders. The use of geographic descriptors is reductive and has led to unfounded profiling of the Asian-American community.
Any person who has witnessed or experienced racial profiling or bigotry due to the COVID-19 pandemic is urged to contact authorities for a proper investigation.
“Our Asian community is an integral part of our City. They contributions they have made culturally and economically are numerous and priceless. This resolution should put everyone on notice that hatred or discrimination has no place in our City,” continued Council President Matos.
In Providence, 6.1% of the population is of Asian heritage. The Providence City Council reaffirms its commitment to the well-being and safety of Asian-Americans in our community, denounces any case of anti-Asian sentiment in the City of Providence, and is willing to take steps to combat any crimes targeting the Asian community.
Council President Matos added, “This is the time to lift our neighbors up, and not tear them down. This disease has touched the lives of over 10,000 Rhode Islanders and knows no race.”
At tonight’s City Council meeting Councilman Pedro Espinal (Ward 10) along with his colleagues, Councilwoman Helen Anthony (Ward 2), and Councilwoman Rachel Miller (Ward 13) introduced an amendment to the City’s Zoning Ordinance that would eliminate incinerator or waste facilities from being able to open in the City of Providence.
“As a City Councilor it is not my intention to stand in the way of bringing new businesses to our City,” stated Councilman Pedro Espinal. “That said, earlier this year a developer wanted to open a solid waste facility in the area around the Port of Providence that would have potentially caused serious consequences for the environment and the well-being of my constituents. I believe that this type of industry would only serve to harm our residents, and create more air and water pollution. There is no viable place for such facilities in a City as densely populated as Providence, and by removing this from our Zoning Code we can ensure the health and safety of our residents.”
In addition to the Ordinance, Councilors Espinal, Anthony, Miller and Councilman David A. Salvatore (Ward 14) introduced a resolution calling on the Providence Planning Department and the City Plan Commission to expand their distribution of written notices to abutting property owners and residents from 200 feet to at least 1,000 feet for any major land development projects.
Councilman Espinal continued, “We know that any major land development can have far reaching effects on residents further than the current 200 feet rule. By expanding this to at least 1,000 feet, more residents will be able to be notified and take part in the robust discussion that happens around these developments.”
Major land developments in the City of Providence undergo an extensive review process, which includes multiple public hearings prior to any approval by the City Plan Commission. Extending the distance for property owner notification for such projects would help to create more community engagement and ensure that more residents are notified about projects being planned in their neighborhoods.
Councilman Pedro Espinal (Ward 10) will introduce a resolution at tonight’s City Council meeting requesting that Governor Gina Raimondo pass an executive order to suspend immigration enforcement at COVID-19 testing and treatment sites.
“There are many residents in Providence and around the State that are afraid to go get tested for COVID-19 due to their immigration status,” stated Councilman Pedro Espinal. “In the face of a global pandemic, we should ensure that every person, regardless of their immigration status, be able to access testing and treatment without fear of being arrested by a United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer. Through the Governor’s power of an executive order, she can help ensure the safety of our immigrant population, and give those residents the confidence and security they need to seek testing or treatment. This community is at greater risk of communal spread because of fear and lack of understanding. We must do all we can to protect every resident of our great State regardless of their nation of origin or their immigration status.”
Testing for COVID-19 is critical in stopping the spread of the virus as it assists healthcare professionals in quarantining positive cases and contact tracing to identify other individuals who may have been exposed. The fear of immigration enforcement has a chilling effect on the immigrant community coming forward to be tested, thereby increasing the likelihood of positive cases remaining undetected and spreading the virus further than it otherwise would.
Councilman Espinal and the members of the Providence City Council is urging Governor Raimondo to pass an executive order preventing any immigration enforcement activities in and around COVID-19 testing sites, hospitals, or other healthcare facilities. By doing so will give residents that knowledge that they are safe in coming forward for the testing that is foundational to protecting the public health of all Rhode Islanders.