Weayonnoh Nelson-Davies – Submitted photo

You are the Executive Director of The Economic Progress Institute. Can you give us an overview of the Institute’s mission today?

The Economic Progress Institute advocates for policies that improve economic security and opportunity for Rhode Islanders.

The Economic Progress Institute – formerly The Poverty Institute – is a nonpartisan research and policy organization dedicated to improving the economic well-being of low- and modest-income Rhode Islanders.

Since the organization was founded by Linda Katz and the late Nancy Gewirtz in 1999, it has become a respected authority on issues impacting the economic vitality of our residents and our state.

The Institute’s Vision and Values website page states, among other things, that “there is a shared responsibility for ensuring that all Rhode Islanders, especially low-wage workers and those who cannot work, are able to meet their basic needs.” Can you expand on that please?

Many Rhode Island households do not earn enough to make ends meet, a circumstance more commonly experienced by Latino and Black households than White households. Across racial and ethnic groups, women without children are much less likely to be able to make ends meet than men without children. In Rhode Island, 75 percent of Latino adults without children earn less than the income required to meet basic needs, as do 72 percent of Black, 60 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander, and 59 percent of White single adults. However, all groups demonstrate gender gaps, with women less likely than men to have sufficient income to meet basic needs (overall, 66 percent of women compared with 55 percent of men). For single-parent families with two children, 59 percent of White Non-Latino earn less than needed to meet their basic needs, while 88 percent of Latino Rhode Island families fall short of that level of earnings. For two-parent households with two children, 19 percent of White Rhode Island families earn less than what is needed to pay for basic expenses compare to 51 percent of similar Latino families. It is important for us to understand and address these disparities to ensure that all Rhode Islanders are able to meet their basic needs.

“A fair and adequate tax structure” is another part of the Vision. Again, please expand.

Most Rhode Islanders share a vision of what the Ocean State should strive for: great schools for our children, safe roads and bridges, vibrant communities, prosperous families, and access to quality and affordable health care, housing, and child care. The primary way we pay for these things is through our taxes.

Tax and budget accountability and transparency are important to Rhode Islanders. We deserve to know both how the state raises revenue, and how it forgoes revenue through tax expenditures including tax incentives, credits and exemptions. We deserve to know and push for a tax structure that is fair and equitable. We also deserve to know whether our tax dollars are being well spent and whether policies that forfeit revenue are achieving their intended result.

The state budget is the most important public policy document in Rhode Island. Decisions about how much to spend, what to spend it on and how to pay for these priorities have a significant impact on families and communities across the state. It is important for Rhode Islanders to understand the budget process and have a powerful voice in the debate over tax and spending decisions.

The Institute holds four core values. Can you give a description of each, starting with Integrity?

The Economic Progress Institute is committed to using objective and thorough approaches to its work while adhering to high standards and accountability. The Institute produces credible and knowledge-based materials and information.

What about Equity?

The diversity of communities, people, and culture are what make Rhode Island a great place to live and work. Decisions are made in the state house that have far reaching impacts across communities in Rhode Island. Too frequently the impact of those decisions is not considered for under-represented communities like people of color, immigrants, disabled, seniors, and children. A future Rhode Island based on equity is good for our families, our children, and our economy.

And Excellence?

The Economic Progress Institute is an adaptive organization committed to work of the highest quality. We work collaboratively and proactively to develop data based strategies and partnerships to address economic and social inequities. Our practices include time for reflection, discussion, and identification of limitations to ensure our work meets the highest professional standards.

And, finally, Active Democracy.

The Economic Progress Institute provides information, training, and opportunities for all Rhode Islanders, especially those who don’t have a seat at the table, to actively participate in public debate and decision-making. We bring passionate leadership and involvement to the issues which we care about.

Needless to say, the Institute is a prominent presence at the State House. Can you list a few recent initiatives with which you were involved and the outcomes?

1. After years of effort, the Protect Our Healthcare Coalition, co-led by EPI and RIPIN, won a landmark victory to codify the protections of the ACA into Rhode Island state law.

2. Thanks to the sustained efforts and leadership of advocacy groups like the Womxn Project, PPV!RI, POHC, and the EACA Campaign, supported by more than 36 organizations, including EPI, abortion access has expanded and become more equitable in RI.

3. The General Assembly passed legislation to create the Hope Scholarship, which will enable more first-generation and low-income college students to graduate from RI College.

4. Last year, the Immigrant Coalition of Rhode Island, of which EPI is a member, led the successful campaign for RI to create Driver Privilege Cards for residents who lack documented immigration status. This year brought more wins, as the General Assembly passed legislation to make the cards more affordable for low-income Rhode Islanders by reducing the fee from $50 to $25.

5. The enacted budget increases the state’s refundable EITC from 15% to 16% of the federal credit, which is the first increase since 2017.

6. Through persistent advocacy in the closing weeks of the legislative session, the RIght from the Start Campaign, of which EPI is a steering committee member, was able to secure $7 million in additional funds for childcare and early education programs in RI, which includes $3 million from federal funds to sustain Head Start and Early Head Start programs.

7. The Raising RI Coalition, co-led by EPI and Rhode Island KIDS COUNT, spearheaded efforts to improve the Rhode Island Works cash assistance program to lift children out of deep poverty

8. For years, advocates, including the Paid Leave Coalition, which EPI leads and coordinates, sought to increase the length of paid leave available, expand the definition of family, increase the wage replacement for beneficiaries, and make the program more equitable for lower-wage workers. This year, these efforts resulted in Senate passage of legislation to expand the Temporary Caregiver Insurance (TCI) program, with a vote of 32-5 in favor.

9. For the first time, legislation to end the special carveout allowing payday lenders to charge an annual interest rate of 260% was brought to the House floor, and passed with 66 votes in favor and only 2 against.

What do you foresee for the next session of the General Assembly, which convenes in January?

The Economic Progress Institute will continue to advocate alongside low- and moderate-income Rhode Islanders to center equity in the budget and legislative process. The state budget is a statement of values and it must reflect the diversity of our residents and represent their beliefs. EPI will continue to protect families and workers by building on the progress of expanding paid family leave so that families can have the time and space needed to care for new family members or aging parents. You can also expect to see EPI continuing to work to close the payday lending loophole that allows lenders to charge interest rates up to 260%.

National legislation and politics, of course, affect Rhode Island. What is your involvement on that level – specifically, with our Congressional delegation?

Recently Congress has been unable to act on the needs of America in a timely and cooperative manner. Rhode Islanders have relied on the state for answers on health care, education, minimum wage, family leave, workers’ rights and more. Our congressional delegation has been paying attention and are ready to deliver the solutions we are developing in Rhode Island to Congress when that institution is ready to act on the needs of America. We stay in close touch with our Congressional delegation to coordinate efforts on the federal and state level.

On your website, you offer a Guide to Assistance Programs. What will people find there?

The Guide to Assistance provides information about government assistance programs and community-based resources that help low- and modest-income Rhode Islanders meet basic needs. The Guide provides a general overview, eligibility rules and application information for each program in the areas of Income Supports, Food Assistance, Health Care, Child Care, Housing, Utilities and Tax Credits. It is a great resource for community members, advocates and agencies. One of our goals is to expand upon the Guide to Assistance by offer trainings on these programs.

Do you see progress in the issues for which you advocate?

Yes, of course we are seeing progress for workers, families, through wage and health care protections and education from early childhood through higher education.

What advice do you have for people who might want to join the cause.

Every Rhode Islander has a voice that needs to be heard at the State House, whether that is in education, voting rights, wage protections, or health care. Your story and experiences are critically important to advancing all of these issues. Everyone is able to make their voice heard by decision makers either through EPI or with one of partner organizations. We encourage people to reach out to us at info@economicprogresri.org, sign up for our monthly newsletter, and join different coalitions fighting for economic justice in Rhode Island. We are always happy to provide researcher and civic engagement, budget and other policy training to give people the tools they need to advocate for themselves and their communities.

Please tell us about your background, starting with your childhood, if you’d like. You have held many distinguished positions in your career.

 I feel like I have lived many lives. I was born in Monrovia, Liberia on the west coast of Africa. Liberia civil war began two weeks after I turned 10 years old and it changed my life forever. My passion for advocacy and justice began in the midst of that civil war and I knew that if I survived, I was going to become an attorney fighting for people who were forced to experience powerlessness and injustice. I immigrated to Rhode Island (my adopted home state) at the age of sixteen and completed high school, college and law school, right in Rhode Island. As an immigrant I struggled to hang onto my dreams and City Year Rhode Island, Rhode Island College and Roger Williams Law School made it possible to fulfill those dreams. I practiced as a legal aid attorney for over fourteen years representing low-income families with housing, family law, special education and access to public benefits matters. I also spent most of my career addressing the systemic issues that create and maintain poverty like structural racism and social determinants of health. I also love to teach and facilitate trainings have had opportunities to do some of that at CCRI, Brown Medical School and many other platforms. I bring all of those experiences with me as our lead the work and vision of EPI.

And finally, two questions: What was the inspiration for your work, and did you have any mentors who helped steer you to where you are?

My inspiration and “why” begins with people. I care about people especially those who have experience so much injustice and hardship in their lives, because I know what that feels like. I am inspired to play a role in changing the world to a place where everyone has access and an opportunity to thrive. Where they have power and ownership over their own lives.

I have had so many mentors throughout my life I wouldn’t be able to name them all. From mentors who made me realized that my voice was a key tool that could make a difference when I was a youth, to those who always believe that I could succeed at anything and pushed me to take on opportunities I felt were too big for me (including leading EPI) to those who have supported throughout my journey. I believe in the power of having people in your corner who are invested in your dreams and want to see you succeed. I try to be a mentor as well to many people in my life whether formally or informally.