For those who may not be familiar with Alisha Pina (and that is surely a small group!) please give us some of your background. A lifelong resident of the Ocean State, you grew up in East Providence, correct?
Yes, and I still reside in East Providence! I am a proud Central Park (now named the Onna Moniz-John Park) kid all grown up and thriving with God. My father, James Pina, of Cape Verdean descent, sued this city in the 1970s to become one of the first Black firefighters. My mother, Penny Pina, with Indigenous and Southern roots, raised me and I am forever grateful. She is my best friend.
When times as a teenager were tough, such as with all the -isms that still exist in this world, I found solace in music, singing, dancing, poetry and sports – mainly gymnastics and track & field. Although you won’t find me doing back handsprings anymore, all remain sources of my joy now.
When did storytelling first interest you. We see on your website, https://www.innerwingspan.com/, mention of a classroom assignment, “How the Cat Got Its Tail.”
I am sure the adults in my early life will confirm I was an overly inquisitive child – always asking who, what, when, where, how and why. People fascinated me, and I needed to learn more than just the surface of their lives. And in the 80s, there were so many good cartoons, movies and tv shows to also transport me into others’ worlds. Every person has a story worth telling. As for the classroom assignment, for which I received an A, it was my creative answer to how cats received their tales.
We understand you also began writing poetry when you were young. What inspired you to poetry?
My father wrote poetry in his militant, college days, but I have never read any of his pieces. Nonetheless, I think that was the spark. My book of Maya Angelou poems is worn, studied thoroughly and full of pen marks and notes. She had a way of creating images and sharing experiences, pain, Black living and emotions on transformative levels that I also wanted to reach. In explaining her desire for a man in one of her pieces, for example, Angelou says, “I greedily consume your presence.”
What were some of your topics?
My early topics were racism, bullies, my innocent view of love, and how to articulate emotions without getting in trouble by adults.
And you were 17 years old when you landed an internship at The Providence Journal, is that correct?
Yes, I believe that is the correct age. It was an internship that was supposed to teach young students of color the newspaper business, but when I arrived, I didn’t think it was accomplishing that. My views and others were shared, and we together came up with a program that allowed the remaining participants to shadow, write and learn all the cogs of the business.
What college did you attend?
I went to Boston University, the school that offered me the most financial assistance. It was also close enough for me to go home on the weekends to still work at Projo. I also cleaned houses on Beacon Hill, managed a D’Angelos sandwich shop, worked at a late-night café on campus and was a Providence nightclub promoter. The hustle and struggle were real, but college was worth it. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and met amazing teachers and fellow students who helped further hone my writing, storytelling and soft skills. Boston was also the perfect environment to meet many more people from different backgrounds, and truly experiment and live life to the fullest. When you live life like you are drawing without an eraser, the lessons and blessings are numerous.
After graduation you became a staff writer at The Journal. What work there are you most proud of?
There are so many that come to mind. Being a creative, I once wrote an entire piece about the Rhode Island Red, our State bird, using primarily the lyrics of a CD where each song was an ode to the bird. I spent a year with families with children with disabilities who attended Melville Elementary School, in Portsmouth. The award-winning series showed how the school, which had a large population of students with disabilities, embodied true inclusivity. I am most proud of the Race in Rhode Island series that won a national award from the National Association of Black Journalists. It exposed and confirmed the many systematic inequities that have long existed in Rhode Island – from housing to education to hiring and the economy. It explained how, why and the effect as well as some solutions to improve our State and advance equity. Many reporters and community members of color – a needed sounding board given I was the only chocolate chip reporter at the paper for many years – helped with this year-long series, and my favorite piece that I wrote was about the N-word and how language (how we speak to each other) can either divide or unite people.
What mentors have you had along the way?
Beyond my parents and Maya Angelou, the mentors in my life are numerous and I continue to have seek them. My stepfather taught me the value of patience. Projo legend Carol Young taught me about paying it forward. My uncle Mike Van Leesten, of which the pedestrian bridge in downtown Providence is named after, taught me to fight for our marginalized communities and to pause and think before simply acting on emotion. Bishop Jeffery Williams continues to teach me God is bigger than anything a human can do to you, and that one’s motives speaks volumes about their character. My fellow participants in the Equity Leadership Initiative at the Rhode Island Foundation have taught me how to fight imposter syndrome and let the haters hate. All and more people have kept me humble and grounded. Their presence and wisdom have allowed me to love and be me. I am enough as is, and always will be.
Finally, I am nothing without God – my ultimate mentor. As one of my poems says, He is “my needed fixture, spark plugs, source of gentle hugs, the avenger and the attender. He is that paper clip, the glue and even my light switch because everything and anything, He can fix.”
In 2017, you left The Journal to become Chief Public Affairs Officer for the Rhode Island Department of Human Services. You were there almost five years. Tell us about that experience.
It was a trial by fire experience, and I am grateful for it. The Department is one of the most important in the state and assists our most vulnerable residents. I helped re-brand them, give them a new website and tackle several of their criticisms – valid and invalid – to serve our residents better and with more transparency. I also helped Governor Raimondo with her then-Equity Council as well as her and Governor McKee’s responses to COVID, primarily with reaching and communicating effectively to neighborhoods of color.
Two years ago, you founded your own business, Inner Wingspan. Tell us about it.
Every career, chat with a stranger, lesson and talent God supplies me with prepared me to launch Inner Wingspan. It is a full-service marketing, communications and consulting firm for anyone looking to elevate their business, brand, or image. I am also an empowerment speaker who mixes vulnerability with singing and poetry to speak life into others or drive home a point, need or truth. Clients, cities, nonprofits, politicians and others have hired me for a variety of reasons, including strategy and crisis communications. I am equity-focused, therefore all my clients share the belief that diversity improves every aspect of life. The sky is big enough for all, so it is a privilege to help others soar.
On the site, you state that you “advocate for Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI) and create a better understanding and healing between age groups, cultures and communities.” Can you expand a bit on this important work?
Everyone needs to be a JEDI, especially with today’s climate where hatred and divisiveness are rampant, and the current Supreme Court is moving our Country backwards. As I wrote recently in a Take of the Week column, I and many other Black and Brown people BELONGED AND WERE QUALIFIED even without affirmative action, but we live in a world that TRIES to repeatedly keep us unqualified because of our race. Affirmative action made sure the qualified did not become unqualified because of race. Healing comes with learning and acknowledging we have more similarities than differences, but those differences are a bonus for us all. I love me, but I wouldn’t want to live life with just me or a bunch of clones of me. Boring.
Along with your many other talents, you are also a vocalist. What do you sing – and where?
I have performed either poetry, singing or speaking all over New England, and sometimes twice a week. I have been featured at multiple events this year alone – including Tell Your Truth, Juneteenth RI, SWAP (Spoken Word and Poetry) Meet, #TurnUpRI, and the Sista Power Conference Festival Boston. I am currently in a karaoke competition at The Local, in East Providence. The semi finals are July 26, beginning at 9p.m., and the finals, which I plan to make, will be on August 2nd.
And we see that you are writing a novel. Can you give us a hint about the theme?
My main character, Nzuri, is a successful Black woman struggling to find love. Her problem is she isn’t aware that she doesn’t love herself and because of that, she endures one bad date after another. It is very much my journey with some of my awful dates as inspiration, but it is a fiction novel. I would describe it as inspirational and funny, and I believe many will relate to Nzuri’s love rollercoaster.
What advice would you have for young people who aspire to be storytellers, in whatever medium?
Try and explore multiple things, people and environments because inspiration can be everywhere. Make mistakes. Take chances. Stand up for yourself even when it is difficult. And embrace all of you. There is only one of you, and your voice and talent is needed.