NORTH SMITHFIELD – For Aleksandra Norton, it was the lack of control over national events and discourse that first inspired her to get more involved locally.
For Planning Board member Megan Staples, it was the desire for a more transparent and accountable local democracy, and a hope to see decision-making shift back to members of the community.
And for Cynthia Roberts, the main impetus to become more involved in her hometown of North Smithfield was the lack of community space, and the hope to create a more connected sense of place for herself and others living there.
Together, the three form the leadership team of Engage North Smithfield, an organization founded in town three years ago that aims to mobilize residents to connect and advocate for transformation that supports the health and well-being of the entire community.
It’s a broad mission, but it’s based on inclusivity and empowering others so that all voices can be heard.
The group has already won three grants from The New England Grassroots Fund. They’ve held workshops on topics of community interest and become a voice for a different perspective on issues such as solar development.
With hikes, potlucks and gatherings, Engage NS has grown gradually and organically in both visibility and relevance.
Longtime friends Roberts and Norton say they came up with the idea for the group following private talks about what contributes to a happy, fulfilling life. Discussion of their hopes and dreams led them to the concept of “creative placemaking,” the development of community space like the Millrace Kitchen and Event Center operated by NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley in Woonsocket.
They hoped to dive right in and start holding community meetings, but hit many dead-ends researching public space.
“It’s actually very, very, hard to meet,” said Roberts, noting that the three women are all mothers who work full time.
For the first year, organizers note that Engage N.S. existed mostly as a social media forum for conversations around art, community, recreation and public health.
But the focus, they say, very quickly became about inclusivity.
“It begged to become more justice-oriented and about empowering people,” Roberts said. “We often plan for the people with the loudest voices. We want to bring all of the people into the conversation.”
“ENS has evolved into a movement to help ourselves and fellow residents become more civically engaged,” Roberts said.
And in the current climate, with a pandemic changing the way many interact with the world, and social justice issues taking center stage, members note their mission has become even more timely.
As the coronavirus and ways to curb its potential spread became a national focus, members of Engage NS used their social media platform to share resources, from data on health, to information on gardening and forums aimed at helping parents navigate distance learning.
More recently, as the Black Lives Matter movement led to demonstrations and protests following the death of George Floyd, ENS has provided a space for conversations on social justice, and a way for more people to connect on the topic.
“The visibility of the issues have basically given us a platform to be more explicit in the values we already hold,” Roberts said.
The topics are an easy fit for an organization already working to build community.
Staples, who moved to North Smithfield from Lincoln, said joining ENS helped her find her voice, and eventually take on a role on the town planning board.
“I started seeing things I didn’t agree with or like, and I felt like I couldn’t do anything about it,” Staples said. “It seemed like the town was turning without the people. ENS presented itself to me as a way to affect change.”
The 31-year-old said she holds different beliefs from many in the group, but they all embrace the concepts of transparency, accountability and civic engagement.
“It was inspiring and uplifting to see people who wanted to see democracy working in the way it was designed to be,” she said of joining.
The group aims to be non-partisan, valuing inclusivity and advocating on behalf of those who don’t have a voice, with the belief that the community is stronger together.
Norton, who works as a research scientist and lab manager at Brown University, noted that in previous generations, people had more opportunity to connect in places such as clubs and churches. The lack of connection, she said, contributes to more divisive politics as people become isolated.
“The overall values that we share as human beings should be connecting us and making space for all voices,” Norton said.
She noted that creating more forums and spaces for interaction, from community gardens to meeting rooms, contributes to people’s mental well-being.
“It gave me a sense of purpose,” she said of joining ENS. “I can’t control what goes on nationally, but I can make a change in my community.”
Roberts pointed out that the group’s efforts – like a joint meeting/community conversation in 2018 on the town’s comprehensive plan – have come with their own revelations.
“We got feedback that they prefer to have resident input,” Roberts said of town officials working on updating the town document. “I felt very encouraged.”
Norton noted that there’s an important function met by sharing such knowledge.
“We know the government doesn’t always have the resources to make things understandable and accessible to the public,” she said.
ENS serves to remove barriers to participation by sharing information and letting others know that their input counts.
“Not everyone understands Roberts Rules of Order,” Staples said, noting that feeling overwhelmed and intimidated can discourage people from becoming more involved. “People are so busy and wrapped up in their lives these days.”
“Connection is the answer to all of it,” she added. “I’ve met so many brilliant and incredible people. It’s refreshing to see all of these different ideas coming together.”
The members note that in 2020, the ENS Facebook group is very active and diverse, and includes families with children, people who are retired, young professionals and politicians.
“It’s very wide-ranging,” said Roberts. “It’s literally for everyone.”
And the plight of minority residents amid the pandemic spotlights an issue at the heart of what the women say ENS hopes to accomplish.
“The corona virus didn’t create these issues,” said Norton. “The inequalities are always there. It’s those people that have been lacking in voice.”
“It’s bringing out a group of people who we truly want to be heard,” said Staples, noting that others who aren’t comfortable speaking out have thanked members for giving voice to the issue in private communications. “We can go at it a little harder now because there are people that it resonates with.”
“We are a predominantly white community,” said Roberts, who points out that North Smithfield was ranked second highest in the state for pullovers involving profiling. “That’s fact. That doesn’t make them bad people. We’re not trying to finger-point. We’re trying to make things more visible.”
“Overnight, we live in a different world,” said Roberts, who works as a public health evaluator at the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “I’m going to be more proud and loud about my work in the state and racial equity. I can’t live in a 97 percent white community and not speak about this.”
Recently, the group helped to organize an art installation at 761 Great Road in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. They were among those calling for more conversation about diversity, and are sure to be in attendance this week when the North Smithfield School Committee addresses the topic.
Roberts pointed out that plans to launch an ENS website are in the short-term future and issues like the future of the property that once held Halliwell Elementary School will provide more opportunity to help residents “engage.”
“We not super married to a particular outcome,” said Roberts. “It’s more about activating ourselves and activating residents.”
“Together, it’s a more complete picture of what we want for ourselves.”