Brown University

An Interfaith Forum with Mayor Elorza: Engaging Faith and ‘Uncooperative Localism’ in Providence by Zach Witkin @ Brown University

The Interfaith Forum, organized by Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza’s One Providence Initiative, united around two different ideas of “faith.” For organizers and attendees, there was not much faith in the Trump administration; while faith in God, or a lack thereof, was seen as a way to connect otherwise disparate religious communities to act against the rhetoric and policies of the current administration. On November 1st, 2017, about 75 people, from many different communities, faith-based and not, gathered in the cafeteria of the Providence Career and Technical Academy to discuss how religious communities could better serve the needs of marginalized communities in this current political climate. In the unveiling of the One Providence Initiative, Mayor Elorza explained that “we cannot stand idly as members of our community are bullied, targeted and scapegoated on the national stage. With so much uncertainty ahead, it’s important that we come together as a city to support one another, in every way we can.”

This forum served as a platform for Mayor Elorza to inform communities of measures that the city is taking to resist Trump’s policies and rhetoric. It also served as a productive community building and learning experience, encouraging uncooperative localism through community cooperation. Attendees of the forum agreed that faith communities must do a better job of supporting one another, emphasizing that wealthier and whiter communities must serve as allies for more marginalized ones, and act as an important conduit between the community and city government. However, we did not come away with any concrete action plan on how to initiate a sustainable support structure.

Opening the night, political, religious and law enforcement officials from the Providence community gave brief remarks expressing their desire to build stronger bonds between diverse communities within the city. Imam Fareed Ansari, a senior imam and member of the Muslim-American Advisory Board in Providence, blessed the meeting by reciting al-Fatiha, the opening of the Qur’an, in English. He discussed how the misrepresentation and misinterpretation of Islam is pervasive in society, and explained that we must educate youth about questions of diversity at an early age to transform these perceptions as a community. Following Imam Ansari were Councilwoman Mary Kay Harris and the President of the RI State Council of Churches, Chantelle Washington, who spoke on the importance of coming together through faith communities and acting as agents of change. While not concrete ideas for how to actively counteract the Trump administration, the speakers set the stage for a short speech by Mayor Elorza.

Acknowledging the importance of interfaith unity and how we must recognize our own internal biases and privileges, Mayor Elorza welcomed attendees by discussing measures that the city of Providence is undertaking to combat President Trump’s attacks on many different marginalized communities. In an announcement last spring, Mayor Elorza pronounced Providence a ‘sanctuary city.’ The First Unitarian Church of Providence also passed a vote to declare itself a ‘sanctuary church,’ volunteering space to any individual or family looking for refuge from deportation because of documentation status. On both levels of community, these measures are textbook examples of what Heather Gerken and Jessica Bulman-Pozen describe as ‘uncooperative “localism.”’ They write that lawmakers, and communities, can refused to participate in the federal government’s initiatives, such as the enforcement of the Patriot Act and federal immigration law. In Providence’s case, Mayor Elorza and Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré instructed officials not to aid federal officials by sharing information or collaborating, unless there was substantial evidence of criminality. They cited that Trump’s policy, enforced on a municipal level, would “destroy a fragile trust with the community – particularly with undocumented immigrants who fear to report crimes.”[1]

Another bold step to counteract hate filled rhetoric and policy of the Trump administration that the city of Providence took in recent months was to create municipal identification cards for all community members, regardless of immigration or housing status. Elorza remarked that the IDs enable beneficiaries including undocumented residents, homeless populations, the LGBTQ+ community and youth without drivers licenses, to access public services like law enforcement, education and libraries, serving to legitimize their place in the community.[2] One difficulty Elorza and Commander Henry Rivolina, a district police commander also in attendance at the forum, described was undocumented communities’ distrust and lack of knowledge of law enforcement. They hoped that the municipal ID program would serve as a way to establish and sustain a positive relationship. While perhaps not explicitly like that of the sanctuary movement, the municipal ID program is another example of “uncooperative localism.” It seeks to resist the current administration’s efforts to further marginalize communities by asserting communities’ legitimacy to belong and actively participate in the city. City officials are hopeful for this program, yet a challenge remains in the city’s ability to spread messages about new initiatives, like the IDs and the sanctuary initiatives.

Agreeing on the importance of the challenges upon which the local leaders spoke, in small groups, we discussed ways in which faith communities can act to support each other, and especially support underrepresented communities. For most of the discussion, Mayor Elorza sat at my table, listening to our group, asking pointed questions on the way in which we can engage across communities and identities. Ideas common across all groups included having interfaith worship services, and inviting faith leaders to take part in services of other faiths in order to break the metaphorical ‘bubble’ that encapsulated faith communities. Additionally, we unanimously regarded having a central communication mechanism as one way in which faith communities could collaborate with each other and the city. However, at the conclusion of the meeting, there was no concrete plan to how we would go about devising this system.

Introducing communities to actions that the city is taking to support marginalized communities, through uncooperative localism, was the most vital outcome of this night of dialogue. But to engage in more sustainable and active resistance, communities must meet regularly, either together through follow ups to this forum, or meetings organized by other stakeholders, in order to design this sustainable network of communities upon which we talked about at such length.

[1] Ziner, Karen Lee. “A Sanctuary City? Here’s What It Might Mean for Providence.”, Providence Journal, 9 Mar. 2017.

[2] McGowan, Dan. “Providence Moving Forward with Municipal ID Program.” WPRI 12 Eyewitness News, 9 Aug. 2017


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