Seven years ago a movement was formed in Rhode Island based on a JCPA teleconference to cut poverty in half in ten years. The national program was called Reducing Poverty With Faith. The day of the teleconference call at the Jewish Alliance, over 50 faith leaders, from virtually every denomination was in attendance. It was decided at that meeting to form a group to help reduce poverty in Rhode Island, while also trying to assist people living at, and below the safety net. Seven years later The Rhode Island Coalition to Reduce Faith is a community group with a voice.
The Coalition is totally integrated. It includes on its steering committee statewide faith leaders as well as directors of advocacy organization in RI s on the full range of poverty issues. All partners share the common goal as the Coalition, to reduce poverty in the state. As an advocacy agent, the Coalition relies on its partners for input about possible legislation as well as statistics and other important information needed that can help reduce poverty. The Coalition meets frequently at the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island to discuss strategy and set goals as well as how to implement activities.
The Coalition holds an annual retreat each summer to lay the ground-work for the upcoming legislative season as well as provide an update on the state of poverty in Rhode Island. This includes possible challenges that the Coalition may face.
The Coalition has two primary events; an annual vigil that is held at the Statehouse rotunda and an annual Reduce Poverty Conference.
To date, the Coalition has held seven annual Interfaith Vigils to reduce poverty and seven Reduce Poverty Conferences. The vigil is held on the first working day of the General Assembly in January. The vigil includes an up-hill march from a close-by church to the Statehouse. Members from a meal site provide drumming. Marchers also hold a 12ft plus banner with the Name and logo of the Coalition. Once inside the Statehouse, three Rabbis blow a Shofar to gather the attendees to the direction of the vigil at the rotunda. Elected officials, which include the Governor, the Senate President and the House Speaker bring greetings to the people attending the vigil. Each year a faith leader provides a keynote address on the issue of poverty in the state. This is then followed by a Responsive Reading, authored by a local Rabbi who is recognized in the community for his social justice position. Everyone attending the vigil, usually over 150, participate in the reading. This includes the Governor and other elected officials. Finally, faith leaders call out names of all the elected officials. This continues until every elected officials’ name is called out, including the President of the United States, our Congressional delegation and as well as mayors and all members of the RI General Assembly. Our elected officials are asked by our faith leaders to govern with wisdom and compassion, and not cut any programs that effect our most vulnerable.
In 2014 Maxine Richman, co-chair of the Coalition, and JCPA board member emphasized that the vigil was being held on the 50th Anniversary, January 8, the day Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty during his State of the Union Address.
The vigil has become an annual media event, covered by radio, television and the newspapers.
The Reduce Poverty Conference is held to discuss the issues, often legislative that confronts poverty. The 2015 conference focused on “an economy for all Rhode Islanders, providing a hard look at injustices faced by minorities.” The keynote speaker was Rev. Sekinah Hamlin of the Ecumenical Poverty Initiative in Washington DC .The 2014 conference included the nationally recognized leader in the fight against poverty, Sister Simone Campbell, who focused on a personal engagement with poverty.
Past speakers include Rabbi Steven Gutow, Imam Mohamed Hagagid Ali and Rev. Peg Chamberlin who engaged in an interfaith discussion on poverty. Issues discussed at the poverty conferences include homelessness, hunger, access to quality education and healthcare, and decent wages. Advocacy partners always lead session on the State of Poverty in RI and brief the attendees on the latest statistic of the numbers of Rhode islanders living in poverty.
Inspires creative initiatives for other communities
An interfaith coalition to reduce poverty in a community produces positive results. The coalition is recognized at the Statehouse for its advocacy. Members of the coalition provide insightful testimony during legislative hearings on the issue of poverty. Legislators often speak of the fine work the coalition is doing on behalf of our poor. Once the coalition was formed, a spirit of energy was created as well as a spirit of community. A by-product of the Coalition is a spirit of family and community.
During the kidnapping and murders of innocent children in Israel and the west Bank, the RI community was able to gather immediately and held a peaceful service to condemn all forms of violence. Over 125 people attended this program that was organized in less than 48 hours. The same was true when an Islamic school was terrorized with obscene graffiti. Rabbis, Imams and clergy from the Christian faith as well as a leader of the Hindu spoke at a press conference to condemn this action. Simply put, the Coalition has become a model for inter-faith interaction, understanding, and action.
Advances the goals of the Jewish community relations field
For over eight years Rhode Island has had the dubious distinction as one of the states leading the nation in unemployment. As such a clear goal of the RI CRC in the area of social justice is to do work hard to help reduce poverty in the state. Only through coalition building can the RI CRC be effective in helping people living at and below the safety net and at the same time provide strong advocacy at the statehouse level. As such, the Interfaith Coalition is led by members of the RI CRC. Maxine Richman, Marty Cooper, the CRC Director and two Rabbis, who are members of the CRC, sit on a steering committee of approximately 22 people.
This year the Jewish Alliance of Greater RI instituted a “Living on the Edge” program to help members of the Jewish community who are in need. The CRC has become a primary resource of information and leadership. Maxine Richman is a member of the committee as is Marty Cooper.
Could serve (or has served) as a model for other communities
While managing a coalition can be a sometimes rigorous task, the outcomes certainly outweigh the work that goes into making it successful. Many communities have made inquiries of how to create one in their area. During past plenums, Maxine Richman, a member of the CRC and a JCPA Board member, has presented our unique model of statewide faith leaders and advocacy partners working together to reduce poverty . Of course we are only too happy to assist other CRCs in creating an interfaith coalition to reduce poverty. The model is in-place. It is successful and a respected organization throughout the community.
Encourages new ways of thinking and have the potential to energize the local Jewish community
The Coalition has become a way to introduce new Rabbis to the faith community. Each year a majority of the rabbis in the state participate in the vigil and attend the poverty conference. This past year, the RI State board of Rabbis strongly suggested to its membership that poverty in the state be discussed during their sermons for the High Holidays. The local Jewish newspaper reports news and events on issues relating to poverty as does the statewide newspaper, “The Providence Journal”.
Unfortunately there is no cure for poverty. To address poverty the Coalition must address new issues every year. It can be a new legislature. It can be new legislation to reduce poverty or increasing poverty. Or it can be legislation that may make the lives of people living in poverty worse. The issue of poverty requires new ways of thinking. It could be developing a social media campaign. It can be providing a different method of addressing the legislative body during testimony. It could be a different way to get the synagogues involved. The positive outcome however, is that the Coalition has the means and support to address new ideas and methods and implement them effectively.
Additional Information or Comments
The Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island employed researchers from Brandies University to study poverty in our state. The study included interviews of every Rabbi in the state as well as meetings with Jewish social agencies, the Jewish Day Schools, and non-profits who are dedicated to the reduction of poverty. The result is an initiative to help eradicate Jewish poverty in the community and be a safety net for the vulnerable population. The program is called, “Living on the Edge.”
This initiative intersects with The RI Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty which recently was awarded a grant to hire an interfaith coordinator to build on its mission to reduce poverty in RI. The grant is from the prestigious Rhode Island Foundation and validates the importance of the coalition’s work and its success since inception. The interfaith coordinator will be based at the Jewish Alliance‘s office where the grant award will be held for the RI Interfaith Coalition.