For all the changes Rhode Island has experienced in recent decades, its overall population has remained roughly the same for some time. Indeed, since the 1970s, the Ocean State has been home to approximately 1 million people.
That population has, however, grown much more diverse.
Demographic data point to the significance of the shift. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Ocean State’s African American, Asian American and Hispanic populations all increased dramatically between 2000 and 2010. The Pew Research Center ranks the state’s Hispanic population the 12th largest in the nation by percentage. The upcoming 2020 population count is likely to show an even greater increase in the state’s racial and ethnic makeup.
Amid these changes, it is vital that our communities work to ensure equality of opportunity – economically, educationally, civically – for all people. Having public institutions, workforces and elected leadership that reflect the diversity of our communities is an important aspect of this mission.
Rhode Island and its cities and towns are not alone in encountering challenges in realizing a vision of inclusion. But an effort underway in Cranston offers a hopeful example of a path forward.
The Cranston City Council recently approved a resolution introduced by its president, Michael Farina, calling for the creation of a new Diversity Committee. All nine council members co-sponsored and voted in favor of the measure.
The diversity panel – which will include city leaders, members of the public and representatives of civic organizations, including the Providence branch of the NAACP – will focus first on the city’s Police and Fire departments. Both have worked to foster inclusion through recruitment efforts in recent years but experienced limited success.
It is worth noting that Col. James Manni, superintendent of the Rhode Island State Police, has said working to diversify the ranks of the agency is among his top priorities.
Farina, in an announcement regarding the Cranston resolution, said the Diversity Committee’s focus on inclusion would extend to “different races, ethnicities, genders, ages, religions, disabilities and sexual orientations along with differences in education, personalities, skill sets, experiences and knowledge bases.”
“In Cranston, we want to ensure we foster a collaborative, supportive and respectful environment that increases the participation and contribution of all employees and residents,” he said. “Engagement, inclusion and social equity are pillars of this environment.”
Farina touches on an essential point in terms of participation. Beyond the moral imperatives of striving toward greater inclusion in our institutions and public life, there is a practical consideration – ensuring continued public involvement, which is the very heart of our democratic system.
It has been well publicized that Rhode Island is on course to lose one of its seats in the U.S. House of Representatives following the 2020 Census. It would be the first time the state sent a lone representative to the House since the late 18th century, and the implications could be significant politically and fiscally.
Ensuring that an array of perspectives and experiences are represented will make our public discourse and institutions stronger. Likewise, finding ways to make our elected bodies and public workforces more reflective of the communities they serve will yield enormous dividends.
We applaud Cranston’s City Council for taking this important step and urge other state and local leaders to take note. Fostering inclusion is not only the right thing to do – it is a key piece of securing our state’s future.