“If you live in Smith Hill, your life expectancy is 6 years less than if you live on College Hill,” said Jennifer Hawkins, Executive Director of One Neighborhood Builders, introducing the mayoral candidate forum on Wednesday evening. “And that has nothing to do with seeing your doctor or taking your medications. It’s about issues in the neighborhood about whether you have access to affordable housing, quality jobs, and good education. These are things that are not only important, but they actually impact your ability to live. Those are the issues that we care deeply about and we are the backbone of this initiative called the Central Providence Opportunities: A Health Equity Zone, that works with a bunch of community organizations and residents to address those social determinants of health.”

Central Providence Opportunities: A Health Equity Zone is a location-based, comprehensive initiative aimed at increasing economic mobility and health equity across nine neighborhoods in the 02908 and 02909 ZIP codes of Providence. It brings together residents, more than 60 community-based organizations, health professionals, local businesses, elected officials, and others to address root causes of health disparities and to improve neighborhood conditions.

The forum featured the three candidates for Mayor of Providence, including Gonzalo Cuervo, who has served as Chief of Staff under Mayor Angel Taveras and as Chief of Staff and Deputy Secretary of State under Nellie GorbeaNirva LaFortune, the Providence City Councilor for Ward 3; and Brett Smiley who has served as Chief Operating Officer under Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza and Chief of Staff to Governor Gina Raimondo.

Before getting into the mayoral forum, it should be noted that the Providence Public School System, and in-turn those in state government, Rhode Island Governor Daniel McKee and Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, denied the forum access to the Harry Kizirian Elementary School. Since the state takeover of Providence Schools, decisions of this nature rest solely with state leaders. After telling One Neighborhood Builders they could use the school, the PPSD rescinded permission.

“They said no,” said Jennifer Hawkins, explaining why the event was taking place outside in a public park rather than in the school building. “I was like, ‘no, it’s not electoral politics, it’s civic engagement’. There is no better place than opening up school doors for civic engagement so that residents can learn, meet one another and the candidates. So let it be on the record that I am highly disappointed in their decision.”