PAWTUCKET – Located in downtown Pawtucket, a new center dedicated to showcasing African American excellence is coming together as leaders work to create a library and host programming for the Black community.
“This being here in downtown Pawtucket is significant for the entire African American community of Rhode Island,” Bernice Morris, policy advocate with Black Lives Matter Rhode Island, told The Breeze about the African American Innovation Center, run by BLM RI, which opened May 1 at 225 Main St. “We want this to be a place where people come to learn, share, get help, celebrate.”
“Although we are a very inclusive organization, we stay focused on creating opportunities for and uplifting the Black community,” she added. “Our mission is about creating equity for Black people.” Asked why they chose Pawtucket as the home of the Innovation Center, Brother Gary Dantzler, founder and executive director of BLM RI, said the city has the highest percentage of African Americans living in the state, with a population of 13,000, according to 2019 U.S. Census data. Dantzler has lived in Pawtucket for more than 30 years and his children attend Pawtucket public schools.
His goals for the space are to “bring Black excellence to the community (and) education primarily to the African American community,” he said.
Dantzler has been a BLM activist for many years, and after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis last year, Morris said they began having meetings under Dantzler’s leadership and spent the summer of 2020 protesting in Providence and other communities around the state.
“That got us to a place of wanting to do more than just protesting,” she said. While protesting has its place, she said work needed to be done around creating opportunities for Black people. “How are we going to push for policies that create more equity for Black people?” she said.
Working with partners and receiving grant funding helped the group build the first African American library in R.I., Morris said, noting that Dantzler has a very keen focus on education. “Having the library is just another vehicle to provide education,” she said. “So much of what we hear and know and learn about Black history and Black people gets filtered.”
The library contains only books written by African American authors, from children’s books to biographies to fiction and nonfiction, Morris said. “That’s what makes it unique.”
While shelves are currently being filled, the organization is looking for more donations. “Every book on the shelves right now is a donation,” she said, noting that they’ve been working with school groups, teachers’ unions, and other community organizations.
Once the library is complete, it will be open to the public to borrow books. There’s also room at the center for people to stay and read, she said.
The hope is that school groups will also be able to visit and tour the space. “We want to let every student/person know that it’s here and that it’s a resource,” Morris said. “It’s a place to celebrate the excellence of the African American community.”
In addition to the library, BLM RI has hosted and is planning to host different programs and groups. “We do a lot of other things in the space,” Morris said, adding that “it’s been awesome” these past few months since opening.
Over the summer, they hosted a six-week music therapy program for children, she said.
They’re also running a technology training program, funded through the Department of Labor and Training’s Back to Work R.I. initiative in partnership with Career Devs. Currently 80 participants are learning how to code for free and are also receiving small stipends. Another cohort is starting this month.
The center is also running two mental health support groups, led by a Black clinician, Morris said.
In the future they also hope to host author events in the space, she and Dantzler said.
“I want some exciting things to happen,” Dantzler said of the space and potential opportunities.
The space is “not 100 percent there yet but the progress we made, that’s what keeps us going,” Morris said. “The reason why we’re here is because we are sick and tired of hearing about … another unarmed Black person being killed by the police.”
The ultimate goal is unity, she said. “We feel that level of responsibility to do something meaningful and important for the African American community and the whole community,” she said. “We all have to learn and grow together.”
The African American Innovation Center is open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
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