“Those who have the privilege to know, have the duty to act.” – Albert Einstein
It’s tourist season in Newport again. Mopeds and bicycles, bucket hats and hawaiian shirts flood the roads. Families stroll down Brick Market Place as couples toast with champagne, out on the lawn at Castle Hill. The locals gripe, serving at restaurants and organizing store fronts by day, sneaking off to drown their complaints at their favorite dive bars by night. Cars trail slowly on Ocean Drive while Bellevue Avenue hosts sidewalks full of crowds. Everyone’s on vacation, ready to take full advantage of everything Newport has to offer. Their sunglasses, however, are tinted with rose colored lenses and they’ve adopted blinders similar to those worn by the polo ponies they watch on the weekends.
Here’s the truth missing from the hundreds of vacation photos a family will take during their time in town. Just two and a half miles away from Newport’s most popular shopping and dining location, is a neighborhood of section eight housing. During the off-season, students stumble into the district’s public schools in the morning, snacking on Yodels they picked up at the local Cumberland Farms. Restaurant kitchens are filled with Spanish conversations and RIPTA bus stops host many as they wait for public transportation to bring them home. It goes unrecognized, but “Urban Rhode Island” includes Newport as a core city.
Newport is given this urban definition based on poverty levels and ethnic diversity. Other cities, including Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls, Warwick, and Woonsocket, are distinguished based on population density as well. This third feature, however, plays a larger role than many realize, and in Newport’s case, perceptions are unfortunately, often mistaken. Many people from Rhode Island don’t understand that Newport receives this designation, because when people think of Newport, they think of the town by the sea: a tourist destination of the masses.
I find myself inclined to admit that until I began living in Newport and working in the Newport Public School System, I wasn’t aware of the disheartening truth of the city. I spent my childhood a mere fifteen minutes away, visiting often for the beaches and events and food. Then, a month ago, I began subbing at Thompson and Pell. I began seeing the realities of many of the students within the district: familial or financial responsibilities and difficulties. Walking home with my students, I got to see the things they saw everyday, and learned that sometimes, awareness and acknowledgement make all the difference.
So, here’s my plea to those of you who know Newport, visit Newport, work in Newport, or even live in Newport. Notice what’s around you. There are real people living behind the scenes, people who don’t necessarily have the privilege to experience Newport the way you might. Then, take this recognition and share it with others, even if you believe changing the system is beyond your ability. There is strength in information. There is strength in showing kindness and understanding. A small action can make a world of difference.