Since their inception in 2021, the Christiana Carteaux Bannister Awards have recognized individuals delivering change to all areas of Rhode Island life, from education and the justice system to government and the medical field to advocacy and the arts. This year is no different, with a diverse range of winners recognized for their efforts to create a more equitable Rhode Island where all individuals might grow and succeed.
It’s a class worthy of its namesake, the inimitable Christiana Carteaux Bannister, whose accomplishments left a lasting legacy on all she touched. Whether through her business savvy as a salon owner; in the experiences of the elderly women of color who lived in the home she helped found; in the work of her husband, artist Edward Mitchell Bannister, whom she supported; or in the descendants of those they sheltered as part of the Underground Railroad, Bannister’s work lives on in Rhode Island today.
So, too, does the work of our Bannister Award winners in reimagining the state for a new generation. By honoring Rhode Island’s past and empowering its present with a new framework on which young visionaries might thrive, this year’s class carries on Bannister’s legacy to create a world in which everyone is responsible for ensuring equity, and the smallest among us can lead the way toward a just future.
JUDGES:Larome Myrick, executive director, Division of Youth Development, Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families. Dr. Pablo Rodriguez, chief executive officer, Nuestra Salud Productions. Hannah Ross, assistant director for community engagement, Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra and Music School.
Empowering youth through cultural education
Photography by Dee Speaks
When young people join Southside Community Land Trust’s youth employment program, they learn how to tend crops, manage an urban farm and turn produce into nutritious meals. But they come away from the experience with so much more.
“I’m trying to teach people to respect themselves, to take care of their families and their communities. I’m trying to teach a different way than other people are,” says Raffini, director of youth programs for SCLT.
That inclination started young. As a child growing up in Pawtucket and South Providence, Raffini recalls tagging along at eight years old to hand out flyers for her mother’s activism work.
“My mom used to say, ‘Hold your head high. Don’t bow down,’” she says.
Later, she learned to advocate for herself and found her place in the arts. As a young, single mother, she enrolled in a word processing course at OIC of Rhode Island, located where CCRI’s Liston Campus is today. A chance meeting in the cafeteria landed her a role in a play. She never went on to do the type of secretarial work the course prepared her for, but she did find a lifelong love of theater and performed for ten years with the Rites and Reason Theatre at Brown University. The historically African American theater was founded by George Houston Bass, personal secretary to Langston Hughes, and it develops new creative works exploring the experiences of the African diaspora.
For the next twenty-five years, she shared her love of the arts with students as a teacher at the UCAP School and in various projects and special programs. She is also a founding member of the Rhode Island Black Storytellers, performing the traditional African art form for audiences around the state. In 2019, Raffini joined the staff at SCLT as the director of youth programs. Her work empowers young people to look at life through a different lens by passing on cultural heritage and helping them establish a place in the community.
“I really believe that our young people don’t love themselves, and that’s why it’s so easy for somebody to take somebody’s life or disrespect somebody,” she says. “I want them to love themselves so they can now love somebody who looks like them and turn that love into their community. Start to take care of your families and your community. Don’t wait for somebody else to do it.”
In 2015, she founded Violet’s Village, now housed at SCLT, a free summer camp for South Providence children ages five to thirteen. The program, named for her mother, teaches the history of the African diaspora through the arts and gardening. The program honors her mother by helping students develop cultural pride.
“She made a serious impact when she was here, and she gave me something to carry with me,” she says.
According to a co-worker who submitted the nomination, Raffini practices what she preaches and will continue to impact Providence’s young people for many years to come.
“She is determined to leave the world a better place than when she found it. Through her activism, advocacy and action, she has changed countless lives during her lifetime, and she shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.”
Laying the groundwork for equity in law schools
Photography by Dee Speaks
Nicole Dyszlewski had a promising career as an attorney ahead of her. The New York native graduated from Boston University’s School of Law and was practicing real estate law for a small, family-owned firm in Rhode Island when she realized being a female lawyer in a largely male-dominated industry was not what she had hoped.
“I felt it was a very unwelcoming space,” she says. “I looked at my future and said, ‘Can I do this for the rest of my life? I don’t think I can.’”
Instead, she pursued a Master of Library and Information Studies from the University of Rhode Island and realigned her career as a law librarian, eventually taking a position at the Roger Williams University School of Law. At first, her duties were confined primarily to the library. But she never forgot her early experiences and continued to view the legal world around her through an equity-focused lens.
“I thought, ‘Maybe I can help law students to feel like they can have a place in the law, and maybe that will help the next group of students,’” she says.
In 2017, former School of Law Dean Michael Yelnosky convened a Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Planning Committee, appointing Dyszlewski as one of its inaugural members. After the committee developed a strategic plan, the faculty voted in 2019 to amend the school’s mission statement to more specifically address diversity and social justice.
Around the same time, she began hearing from students that diversity issues weren’t being adequately addressed in the classroom, and from professors that there weren’t enough resources to help them tackle the topic. She and four colleagues began to compile Integrating Doctrine and Diversity: Inclusion and Equity in the Law School Classroom, a collection of essays on how to bring diversity into the curriculum. The book was published in the spring of 2021, as law schools across the country reckoned with their relationship with racism following the murder of George Floyd.
“The book came out and it caught on like wildfire,” Dyszlewski says.
In 2020, law school faculty voted to create a class on “Race and the Foundations of American Law” in response to a demand from the Black Law Students Association. Dyszlewski was one of three individuals chosen to develop the class and now teaches it as a required course for all law students. She also hosts a monthly “Integrating Doctrine and Diversity” speaker series and is working on a second collection of essays, as well as a course textbook.
Last year, the American Bar Association changed its accreditation standards to require law schools to teach students about bias and racism, putting Roger Williams at the forefront of a quickly expanding movement. Dyszlewski hopes the school can serve as a model for others looking to address the field’s role in perpetuating racism.
“My hope is that we don’t stop here. My hope is that we keep going. The next step is for the practice to get caught up with what’s happening in law schools,” she says.
Though she acknowledges her privilege as a white woman, Dyszlewski thinks all individuals in academic spaces should take responsibility for promoting equity with a listening ear. The field of law has traditionally stood on the precedent of what’s happened in the past, but now is the time, she says, to look toward the future.
“There has to be a moment when instead of looking at judges and their positions, we’re looking at students and their needs,” she says. “And that, I think, is the position we’re in right now. And it’s long overdue.”
Championing diversity and equity in the workplace.
Photography by Dee Speaks
Kevin Matta credits his upbringing with making him aware of society’s injustices from a young age. His parents and sister immigrated to the country from Guatemala in the 1980s, working grueling jobs in Rhode Island to make ends meet.
“I saw my parents work really tirelessly, a lot of different hours, [in] a lot of really terrible working conditions,” he says. “My mom currently suffers from difficult health conditions as does my dad due to the type of labor they had to work.”
Years later, he saw those same factors at play when he was working in a call center in his early twenties and noticed clients who spoke Spanish received unfair treatment. He presented his concerns to a director, who referred him to the company’s chief diversity officer. Their response? To hire him on as a diversity and inclusion associate, his first foray into the professional field.
“I never thought I wanted to be exactly in diversity, equity and inclusion, but I wanted to hold enough power and authority to make change for other people,” he says.
Today, Matta is the chief human resource and diversity officer for Amos House, where he oversees the organization’s inclusion initiatives and handles personnel issues for 130 employees. He also serves as president of the board of directors for Diversity and Inclusion Professionals, a Rhode Island-based professional development organization that brings together diversity practitioners for resources and networking. The organization, he says, is in a unique position to respond and support its members during headline-grabbing events, such as the Supreme Court’s reversal of affirmative action last spring.
“We really have an opportunity to speak up and speak out when injustices happen across any part of our country or world,” he says. “It’s a lot of people who are really passionate about this work.”
He also serves on the boards of the Rhode Island Society for Human Resource Management, Progreso Latino and Trinity Repertory Company. He is a former board member for the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island and Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island.
Matta encourages all diversity professionals to aspire to positions beyond their role where they can effect change from the top down. While the burden of ensuring equitable practices in a company or organization has fallen largely on diversity officers in recent years, he says, the responsibility should lie with everyone in an institution, rather than weighing down those already affected by inequities.
“It should live within everyone’s role, but we don’t often require that of people,” he says. “I think people love the idea of diversity, equity and inclusion, but when it actually comes knocking at the door, they don’t open. And I’ve personally been a witness to that.”
His ideal world? One in which his own role is unnecessary, and every individual in an organization is held accountable for advancing equity and creating opportunities for those coming up the ranks.
“All the people that empowered me, none of them were chief diversity officers,” he says. “Everyone can do that. And that’s what I want to inspire people to do.”
Reaching across the racial divide.
Photography by Dee Speaks
Robb Dimmick, co-founder of the nonprofit Stages of Freedom, didn’t grow up in the thriving multiracial community he embraces today. Raised in rural Hanover, New Hampshire, the young Dimmick had access to the best theater, music and education at nearby Dartmouth College but lacked exposure to different points of view.
“I knew somewhere in my bones that the world was more diverse than that. When I reached the end of my college years, I wanted to be able to live in a community that was much more racially diverse,” he says.
He spent two years in the VISTA program living and working with the Black community in Kansas City before moving to Providence in 1981. At the time, he says, Rhode Island was reluctant to acknowledge its role in the slave trade, despite the state’s rich African American history. Drawing on his background in theater and education, Dimmick became involved with the West End Community Center and founded the teen-focused West End Touring Company. Among his students was a young Central Falls actress, Viola Davis, who would go on to win a Tony, an Emmy and an Academy Award.
“My work was wanting to provide opportunities to young African Americans to use the theater arts to build their sense of self and value in their community,” he says.
He was also involved with the award-winning Kearsarge Arts Theatre Company of New Hampshire and co-founded the Jazz is a Rainbow music program for urban youth with musicians Lynne Jackson and Michael Palter. Early on, he met activist and fellow Bannister Award winner Ray Rickman, with whom he would continue to work closely for the next forty years. As co-owners of Cornerstone Books, the pair maintained a selection of rare African American books and brought seminal Black authors such as Maya Angelou and James Baldwin to speak in Rhode Island.
Today, they continue that work at Stages of Freedom, where they offer programming on Rhode Island’s African American history and fundraise for no-cost swim lessons for youth of color. During the pandemic, Dimmick took the lead on converting the organization’s Westminster Street space into a museum where the public can view exhibits about local African American luminaries. Over the years, his projects as a curator have ranged from “Creative Survival: African American Foodways in Rhode Island” at the Johnson & Wales University Culinary Arts Museum to “Disappearing Ink: A Bibliography of Writings by and About Rhode Island African Americans.”
Dimmick says he is often asked why a white man would want to spend his life’s work engaging with the Black community.
“These are not separate stories, and they really are not separate communities, try as we may to make them so,” he says. “Because white people created this economy called slavery, it is from its very beginning an integrated experience. And we have to find our way through it — through the pain, through the trauma — to recognize that we have always been intertwined.”
In his nomination, Dimmick’s colleagues note his dedication to the memory of Christiana Carteaux and Edward Bannister, both in preserving the couple’s legacy as well as living their values in Providence today.
“In the spirit of Providence’s Black Victorian power couple who built beneficial alliances with like-minded white colleagues and collaborators, Dimmick has worked to construct bridges across the racial divide, acknowledge that Black history and white history are undeniably linked, and that an enduring allyship with the Black community demonstrates the imperative of integration.”