Letter to the Providence Journal Editor

I’m writing to comment on Mr. Grimaldi’s article in the Providence Journal, entitled “In R.I., 10% of the state business is supposed to go to minorities, women, but it doesn’t”, dated Nov. 20, 2015 (http://www.providencejournal.com/article/20151128/NEWS/151129349/11669/NEWS).

Most issues and topics on fairness and equality are always very contentious and Rhode Island’s Minority Business Enterprise law is no exception. Three decades ago, the RI General Assembly enacted this General Law (RIGL) 37-14.1 entitled Minority Business Enterprise (MBE), for the purpose to carry out the State’s policy of supporting the participation of minorities, women, social and economic disadvantaged business owned and controlled businesses in state purchasing of goods and services, as well as state funded and directed programs. This law was to remedy the unintentional, (arguably, at times intentional) unfair, unequal and racial discrimination practices in awarding state and municipal contracts, as inferred in the 1998 Brown University disparity report by Prof. Hilary Silver. Despite the dismal progress thirty years later, made in the areas of equality and fairness in the State, there still is a lot to be done to implement this general law to the full extent of its original intent.

The core challenge we face regarding this subject, today, simply put, consist of two main issues: First, is a deficiency in our ability and capacity to adequately assess the current status of the minority business enterprise sector and; Second, is the willingness and commitment to effectively enforce and re-calibrate existing law to meet the needs of a diverse twenty-first century community, without having to resort to tactics and arguments of the nineteenth century. These factual issues, as stated are not divisive, and I think its fair to say that the majority of reasonable minded Rhode Islanders agree on this. In my opinion the divide ensues when it comes to “How” as a diverse people, and simultaneously as a united state, go about discussing and implementing effective and efficient tools to remedy residual, unintentional and intentional discrimination within the system. These statements are not meant to instigate the blame game but to contribute a solution-oriented approach.

I commend the State’s Associate Director of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Opportunity, Cheryl Burrell for her diligent work, thoughtful recommendations and relentless commitment, under both the Chafee and Raimondo administration, to overhauling an institutional habit of under minding (through lack of appropriate staffing) or neglect (through lack of prioritizing the minority business sector) in the state of Rhode Island. Amongst the different strategies and tools Ms. Burrell is working on, in concert with the leadership of the Raimondo administration, a disparity study is arguably one of the most urgent proposals that needs to be realized. This study will be able to do the following: First, determine existing barriers that impede ready, willing and able MBE’s from participating in state contracting opportunities. Second, determine whether any barriers exist, due to discriminatory practices and/or lack of government enforcement and oversight procedures that impede ready, willing and able MBE’s from participating in state contracting opportunities. Third, determine whether the contracting market is fair and equitable to all parties involved. Empirical evidence from other state and city studies have strongly suggested that a disparity study can also improve the economic growth, create contracting opportunities, increase business development, increase tax revenue and add to the jobs market for not only participating MBE’s, but the entire state.

Also, Urban Ventures (www.urbanventuresri.org), a Rhode Island non-for-profit organization, has been working closely with Sen. Juan Pichardo, Ms. Burrell and Practico Innovation to research and proposed solution to micro business challenges in the state. A large percentage of micro businesses are owned and controlled by minorities, women, social and economic disadvantaged persons. Urban Ventures believe that tackling both issues simultaneously only provides for more sustainable and effective approach. In the coming weeks, Urban Ventures intents to invite and engage stakeholders in the state for the purpose of identifying and drafting complementary recommendations to existing laws, regulations and policies.

Creating a fair and competitive market environment for all businesses in the State is the ultimate goal, and we collectively also believe that customized programs and tools, generally referred to as incentives are necessary to maintain and promote a viable and competitive market. For minorities, women, social and economic disadvantaged businesses, the MBE law is more than just a law requiring a 10% allocation, but a commitment and a contract with its citizens to an inclusive economy for all.

Jr Neville Songwe (Executive Director)