Rebecca Kislak: Community building is part of giving back


Today Rebecca Kislak runs Kislak Consulting, a company that provides policy advice and strategic planning to healthcare, non-profit and government agencies. In November 2018, she was elected to represent Rhode Island District 4, which covers a portion of Providence’s East Side.  Kislak, is a native of Miami, Florida, and a graduate of Brown University. She returned to Providence in 2002 with her spouse, Dr. Joanna Brown; the couple has two children: Ezra and Simon. She recently sat down to answer a few questions for Jewish Rhode Island.

You’ve spent your career as a champion of social justice. What pointed you in that direction?

It has always been a part of my life. I went to Jesuit law school [at Georgetown University] and was also very active in the Jewish community, and I think those two things came together to form my sense of social justice and faith-based social justice, underpinning almost everything I’ve been doing. I was president of my youth group when I was in high school, and I have always been active in the Jewish community.

When you entered law school, did you know that you wanted to specialize in advocacy and community work?

No, I don’t think so. I just really believe that part of our rent for being here on this beautiful planet is that we have to give back to our community and the world…I have always been involved in some sort of community service, community organizing, community building activities.

What inspired you to run for office?

I was the president of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization of Women [and] I started getting phone calls from women who wanted to run for office. I learned that the seat I’m now in was going to be open, and I decided it was time for me to step forward and run.

How do you feel about your connection to Judaism? What does it mean to you?

I’m very observant. I would describe myself as an observant, egalitarian Jew. I belong to Temple Emanu-El, and I’ve been on the board.

Does your practice and observance match the way that you grew up?

Yes and no. We’re all evolving human beings, and I observe the Sabbath differently than when I was growing up in a Reform Jewish household, but I go to synagogue and I went to synagogue when I was growing up. I’m involved in the Jewish community, and in social justice; all things that I did when I was a kid.

How has your experience in the State House been different from working with community organizations?

Well, I want to talk about how it’s been the same. To get things done at the State House it’s important to develop personal relationships, and to really get to know your colleagues and build community within the State House, which I can do differently now as an elected official than I could before as an advocate.

What do you think are the greatest challenges that face Rhode Island today?

I think that our schools are incredibly important and need to be a lot better. I have a rising eighth grader at Nathan Bishop, and I understand very directly how our schools can and need to be better. I also see some really great and special things happening in all of our schools…all of our schools need to be better, and I think that if we can focus on that as a state, we’ll be in good shape.

What about five or 10 years from now?

[There’s] a need for affordable housing, and actually more housing at most income levels. There’s a housing crunch here, and it’s not just in Providence, but I know that we’re seeing it a lot here, and I would love to see more housing that’s accessible to people at different income levels.

In terms of education and housing, what can the average Rhode Islander do to improve these things?

I think it’s very important to make sure that our government is more accessible and more responsive to all Rhode Islanders. [There are] some barriers to participating in our government, and I want to make it easier for folks to participate, to have their voices heard. The more that we participate in forums that we create, opportunities that we demand, [the more] our voices are heard. Everything gets a little better, and that’s what I want to help work on.

You were an undergraduate at Brown, and moved back to Rhode Island when your spouse took a job in Providence. What are your feelings about Rhode Island?

I love Rhode Island; there are some things here that are very, very special, and we keep making choices that keep us here. I like the walkability and the size of Rhode Island, and of Providence, and I love the community. I love our summers, I love our beaches, I love my street, and my neighbors. I joke that I have the best block in the city, but I think a lot of us have the best block!

Can you share a recent, impactful experience?

The recent immigration protest outside Wyatt [Donald W. Wyatt Detention Center, in Central Falls] was incredibly moving, and…a real reminder that coming together and speaking out has tremendous value. I am really impressed with the next generation of community organizers in our Jewish community; I think that they are learning that they can make demands and organize effectively. I feel like we’re at this liminal moment, and…I think that we all have to do this together. I think this is some of the stuff that I learned growing up active in the Jewish community, that it’s our responsibility to help build the world that we want to live in.

How can people get more involved in politics?

You can volunteer on a campaign, or pick an issue and work on that. I’m really passionate about playing matchmaker and helping connect people to ways to take the next step, or two, or 10, to being more involved. I would love to help make those connections throughout the state, because I think the world’s a better place when we all do just a little bit more, or even a lot more; I welcome folks to come visit the State House.

Do you have any final comments?

I’m available for folks to contact me about what’s important to them. I think that our government is better when people are participating, and I’d love to help that happen even more.

MICHAEL SCHEMAILLE ( writes for Jewish Rhode Island and the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.

upfront, Kislak