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Local heroes (continued)


In the darkest hours of a life-threatening illness that forced her to leave grad school in Boston and return to her childhood home in Barrington, Janet Feldman never imagined that she’d establish and direct the international arm of a Kenya-based AIDS organization. And all from the comfort of a sun porch lined with geraniums.

That is where Feldman, 51, has her computer – her lifeline to the outside world — and boxes of paper related to her work for the Kenya AIDS Intervention/Prevention Project Group (KAIPPG). Feldman first heard about KAIPPG when she began receiving solicitations in 1996. She corresponded with the then-director, although she was suspicious of a scam because he insisted on cash donations. "I was about to chuck all the letters when something told me to try one more time," she recalls, sitting in a comfortable den filled with art books, videos, and CDs. "It was as if something in the universe, almost spiritual, started me off on a whole different course in my life."

Actually, it brought Feldman back to much of what she’d studied during her five-year pursuit of a Ph.D. in international conflict resolution at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. Prior to that, she’d worked with AIDS activist groups in Boston. Then, in 1990, she came down with toxoplasmosis and cytomegalovirus, two diseases associated with an extremely suppressed immune system. Eventually, she was diagnosed with chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome.

As she began to recover, Feldman was very cautious about getting sick again, so she stayed at home, reading and writing letters, particularly to KAIPPG’s new director, James Onyango, who revealed that the first "director" had indeed been pocketing the group’s funds. She learned that a small group of HIV/AIDS-affected people founded KAIPPG (www.kaippg.org) in 1995 when they came together for mutual support and out of concern for HIV orphans. KAIPPG’s work currently encompasses community-development projects; home-based care and nutritional programs; HIV/AIDS education; and counseling, training, and advocacy.

In 2000, the first widespread publicity about the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa coincided with Feldman getting a computer, and she immediately realized how her skills as a compassionate listener, savvy networker, and persistent fundraiser could be an asset for KAIPPG. She established the online organization KAIPPG/International, with Onyango remaining as executive director of KAIPPG/Kenya.

As the director of KAIPPG/International, Feldman works, in her words, "12/7." On a given day, she might answer 50 e-mails; communicate with any of the 200 HIV/AIDS-related organizations in Kenya; and write grants to set up a community center in a rural area with radios, mobile phones, and wireless laptops or to improve the infrastructure, like roads and electricity, that would enable people to take advantage of the technology. "Most of us who do this work," Feldman says, "can very clearly see the connections between HIV/AIDS and poverty, malnutrition, human-rights, education, environmental sustainability — all of them are of a piece, really."

One grant obtained by Feldman for KAIPPG brought radios and mobile phones to illiterate HIV/AIDS-affected women farmers, so they could get information about weather conditions, pest situations, even market prices. "That has really helped them to have a better quality of life, and that has helped them with HIV/AIDS in their lives," she explains.

Another organization that Feldman founded as an interface with KAIPPG is Arts for Creative Transformation: Activism, Lifeline, Inspiration, Vision and Education (www.actalive.org). The group, known by the acronym ACT ALIVE, has 300 members in 30 countries using arts and media to address HIV/AIDS. It has been a vital link in spreading information in non-literate areas in Africa.

Despite her efforts as a super volunteer, Feldman remains humble. "What’s been really amazing to me is that this work has given me so much," she says. "A lot of times I don’t even think of myself as being the one to give. I almost feel like it’s a gift to me as much as to anybody. This work has really given me a whole new life."

— Johnette Rodriguez


The story of who controls the action at the State House is largely one of single-party dominance. In the old days, it was the Republicans. The Democrats have held sway ever since the "Bloodless Revolution" of 1935. Moving into the present, the concerns of minority communities, beyond a relatively small number of progressive legislators, have often remained an afterthought. How else to explain the way in which the most recent round of redistricting — the drawing of legislative districts — produced Rhode Island’s first Latino senator in the 2002 election, but only at the cost of the chamber’s sole black member?

As the redistricting was taking place three years ago, then Senate Majority Leader William V. Irons voiced confidence in the process, telling me, "We’re not about to build a mousetrap that fails. The question is, ‘Do you get treated fairly during the process?’ " To many others, though, the pitting against each other of Juan Pichardo, an up-and-comer from the Dominican Republic, and Charles Walton, who had been the state’s only black senator for almost two decades, was a blatant example of power politics at its worst. "We knew we could elect two people of color, black and Latino, if all other things were equal," Walton recalls. Yet although proposals were introduced to more equitably represent Providence’s majority-minority population in the Senate, the leadership seemingly cast its lot with the city’s politically ascendant Latino residents.

Because of the seemingly irresistible opportunity for manipulation by the dominant political party, redistricting has a notorious history in many states. Walton himself won election in 1983 after a fatally flawed Senate redistricting plan wound up in federal court, causing a six-month delay in elections and a $1.5 million bill for taxpayers. In the early ’90s round of redistricting, progressives secured a new Providence House district that was eventually filled by Anastasia Williams, a black native of Panama. But after Walton lost his office in 2002, he joined former Representative Harold Metts, the Providence branch of the NAACP, the Urban League of Rhode Island, and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights in mounting a spirited legal challenge of the redistricting plan. Initially rejected in US District Court, the challenge moved forward after the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston backed it.

The ultimate result was a settlement unveiled by Senate leaders in May to change 12 of the Senate’s 38 districts. It helped, of course, that Irons resigned last year rather than answering questions about his ties to Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island, and the leadership of Senate President Joseph A. Montalbano and Senate Majority Leader M. Teresa Paiva-Weed had been more supportive all along of attempts to better represent Providence’s minority voters. The outcome also fostered the recent election of Metts, who is black, doubling — to two — the number of minority senators.

In a reflection of the tension that has sometimes marked political rivalries between blacks and Latinos, Walton and Pichardo continue to disagree about whether the latter had pledged not to run against the former. But it’s more of a gentle jibe, rather than something bitter, when Walton, who had encouraged Pichardo’s interest in politics in the ’90s, quips, "I didn’t realize it would come back to haunt me." In fact, both men played important roles in helping to drive forward the cause of fair redistricting and more equitable minority representation in the Senate.

Pichardo, 38, who came to Rhode Island by way of New York City, says he appreciated the need for more civic participation after getting involved locally with the Latino group Quisqueya en Accion and then directing legislative campaigns for Victor Capellan in 1996 and 1998. Although some of the conflict around redistricting was difficult, the community has benefited as a result. "People have engaged in the process," he says. "People are aware of what redistricting is. They have the opportunity to testify and be a part of the process."

Walton, a 56-year-old North Carolina native who grew up in Washington, DC, came to Rhode Island to take a position at Roger Williams University in the early ’70s. He later helped to establish the Providence campus of the Community College of Rhode Island, where he continues to work as an administrator in a program geared to extending the benefits of a college education to first-generation students. True to form, he was volunteering out of state for the Democratic ticket during the recent presidential election, and vows to remain involved by offering advice to local candidates.

While the General Assembly routinely affects the lives of Rhode Islanders, Walton notes that the corridor from Pawtucket to Woonsocket remains underrepresented by minority legislators. When it comes to the next round of redistricting, he says, "I’m telling people, ‘You need to start getting ready now.’ "

— Ian Donnis

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Issue Date: November 19 - 25, 2004
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