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Looking ahead to a better normal – by Neil D. Steinberg, RI Foundation

By Neil D. Steinberg, President and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation

In these extraordinary times, there is evidence of hope and generosity all around, just as there is uncertainty – and urgent, extreme need. We are facing an unrivaled health and economic threat, the long-term effects of which we are only beginning to contemplate and plan to address. In Rhode Island we are grateful for Governor Raimondo and Dr. Alexander-Scott’s leadership, as well as that of their colleagues in administration, commerce, labor and training, and across state government. Soon, legislative leaders will turn their attention to the most difficult budget they’ve tackled in their careers – we are grateful for their service as well.

Leadership through crisis is both art and science.  

As Rhode Island’s community foundation, we will work diligently with leaders across the state to encourage creativity, pragmatism and to be bold in ensuring that all Rhode Islanders emerge better off over the long term than they were before this crisis began. 

In the midst of disruption and loss there is opportunity for positive change. There are absolutely no replacements for the loved ones, economic security, or time lost to this crisis. It has exposed our deepest fault lines. So, the goal – no, the obligation – is to do better, to be better. To honor those most affected, we must plan for and work toward a better future for each and every Rhode Islander. There is much discussion of the “new normal”, but the truth is that the “old normal” left too many people behind, especially in underserved communities and even in very good times. We must not settle for just a “new normal,” but focus on a “better future” for all. 

It will take a combination of back-to-basics and innovation to move us successfully into the future. For example, we have a renewed appreciation for front-line workers, recognizing how dependent we are on their invaluable contributions. And, this crisis has reinforced that we are a small business state, proud and supportive of local manufacturers, retailers, restaurants, tourism and agriculture. There is also a renewed appreciation of creativity, community, culture, the environment, family, friends and togetherness. And most importantly, more focus than ever on the necessity of having a job with an adequate steady paycheck, a better education for our children, and accessible and affordable healthcare. 

We cannot afford to lose our focus on the basics as we emerge from this crisis. Many of the critical problems that existed under the “old normal” are amplified now. Zip codes have determined outcomes – whether those outcomes are related to economic prosperity, access to food, educational attainment, a safe place to live, individual health, or – quite frankly – how a person might fare during a pandemic. 

And yet we also see innovation in the midst of crisis that shows promise for those most in need. Distance learning is connecting students and teachers in new ways – giving educators a window into what their students need to thrive at home in order to thrive at school – and connecting families to resources they may not have had access to prior to this time. Telehealth is another example – a streamlined way to connect more readily with care providers to monitor chronic conditions or manage behavioral health. Innovations like these, combined with getting back-to-basics, may allow us to provide the better, more equitable, future that we all want – particularly as we strive to permanently eliminate achievement gaps in education and health disparities once and for all. 

We have a collective opportunity, and obligation, to look and plan long term – with a focus on equitable access for all Rhode Islanders to economic security, education and health. What are the tough questions we might ask, and tackle, in the coming months? Can we do a real assessment of vulnerable populations and finally structure a more efficient, cost effective and customer friendly way to meet the needs of the disabled, the elderly, the chronically sick and others who will always require our support? Can we analyze and rationalize the delivery of education at the public K-12 and higher education levels in an efficient, and results oriented structure? Can we explore and have the courage to push for health and healthcare reforms that take us forward with new organizational structures and payment models that are best for the state?  Can we skill-up at scale a future work force? No doubt these could require big change and disruptive new models – but would they produce more equitable outcomes across Rhode Island and more success and prosperity for all Rhode Islanders? Quite possibly, yes. And it is our responsibility to do what it takes to work toward a better a future. 

At the end of last year, the Rhode Island Foundation presented the exciting work of two long-term planning initiatives – one focused on PK-12 public education and one on health. The plans that were developed were the result of more than a year’s worth of work by two committees, filled with highly regarded, experienced Rhode Islanders. And, the plans were presented to state leaders just before the COVID-19 crisis broke.  These plans establish a vision and strategies that could serve as a blueprint as we plan for a better future. In fact, the same social determinants that have been exacerbated by this current crisis are a focus of these long-term plans, and some of the tough questions raised here are addressed. We continue to stand ready to support this work going forward – with even more vigor and commitment to seeing it through and to working toward a better future for all Rhode Islanders. 

At the Rhode Island Foundation, we are willing to use our voice and resources for the greater good and to embrace the size, strength and diversity of Rhode Island. We encourage the same for our state, local and industry leaders, and for each and every resident of the state. Focus and engage together in civic and civil dialogue. Be willing to prioritize the success of all over the success of few. Get back to basics and innovate simultaneously. Ensure that the plans we make and the actions we take reflect where we want to be – not where we have been. We can do this. We’ve endured so much – and there is more to come – but hope abides, and a better future awaits.

Neil D. Steinberg is president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation. In 2019, the Foundation awarded a record $56 million in grants to promote educational success, healthy lives and economic security among other issues.

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