The April 20 New York Times story, “Thrown for a Curve in Rhode Island,” highlighted the state’s troubling investment in Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios gaming company. The resulting portrait of the state in The Times, not to mention The Journal’s nearly daily reports on 38 Studios’ demise, repeated a single story of Rhode Island’s economic woes and presented a picture of an unsophisticated state dragging the “heavy anchor” of past bad practices.
This narrative eclipses a much longer-term and more positive view of Rhode Island expressed in the state’s early tenets of freedom, tolerance and diversity. Local headlines from the last few days suggest our citizens and legislators together are open to new stories. Indeed, Rhode Island’s earliest history is one of forward-looking innovation. This year Rhode Island celebrates the 350th anniversary of its founding 1663 Colonial Charter, the only one of its time to establish religious freedom and separation of church and state as founding principles.
The Charter introduced a model that catalyzed many freedoms — to worship, innovate and build communities. These freedoms have not been fully realized, and disparities and inequities persist. Nevertheless, the early idea of Rhode Island as a place of “toleration” continues to be a locus for promoting human rights in a divided world that presidents from Washington to Obama have recognized.
To emphasize this point, one only needs to reflect on President Obama’s visit in March to Israel, where he presented to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a framed wooden artifact from the George Washington Room of Newport’s Touro Synagogue, the first synagogue established in the United States.
The frame included a plaque with a passage from George Washington’s “Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport” sent in response to Moses Seixas, then warden of the Touro congregation, on Aug. 17, 1790.
“Everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree,” the plaque reads, “and there shall be none to make him afraid.” The values of openness and toleration enabled early Newport to challenge norms and become disrupters and ambassadors for new ideas and practices. Rhode Island prospered as a result, and was successful and influential through the 18th and 19th centuries.
To be sure, Rhode Island’s current economic troubles are dire, but the view from the past suggests that our outlook is not so dismal. Our history teaches us that we have found economic success through openness, creative thinking, and a global perspective. In addition, the historical data that reside in Rhode Island’s manuscripts, books, photos, paintings, buildings, furniture and more are an economic asset. Recognition of and support for the state’s rich historical assets will leverage growth across industries and translate Rhode Island’s history into action.
Accessing and interpreting these historical assets in meaningful ways not only engage visitors to our state but have the capacity to inspire entrepreneurs, challenge and inform policy, promote sound urban and economic development, protect human rights and foster innovation.
We are not certain why the negative aspects of the past have been allowed to dominate our current narrative. We are not Massachusetts’s rival. We are not the mafia. We are not 38 Studios. Atop Rhode Island’s State House in Providence stands the Independent Man — a symbol of the importance and continued relevance of our founding Charter.
Let’s dive deeper into this longer, more dynamic narrative to revitalize our identity, our perspective and our economy. Rhode Island has a compelling opportunity to collaborate across cultural, academic, industry and government institutions to empower our state. It is time to develop new, diverse and dynamic stories of a connected, collaborative and resilient state.
Perhaps the next New York Times headline will read, “Rhode Island’s Boom Fueled by Cultural Innovation.”
Elizabeth Francis, Ph.D., is executive director of the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities.