The 2022 Bannister Awards
Honoring leaders who advance equity and promote diversity across Rhode Island.
How to honor the legacy of Christiana Carteaux Bannister, a woman whose work to further racial equity in Rhode Island stretched across the boundaries of career and social norms?
That was the question our judges faced as they encountered nominations from throughout the state for the 2022 Christiana Carteaux Bannister Awards, recognizing individuals who work to advance equity and promote diversity in Rhode Island. After all, Bannister’s remarkable achievements would have occupied far more than one line on a resume, if such a thing existed at the time: A business owner and hair stylist born in North Kingstown in 1819, Bannister was active in the Underground Railroad, advocated for equal pay for Black military veterans, founded a home for elderly women of color and supported the work of her husband, a prominent Rhode Island artist.
Like the award’s namesake, the six winners of this year’s Bannister Awards have reached into all corners of Rhode Island life, working for justice in government and in their neighborhoods, through their private passions as well as professional callings. From Victorian tea rooms to the walls of the Rhode Island Training School, this year’s winners prove that it is not only possible but also necessary to work for equity and justice wherever a person is — and leave a lasting change for the better in their wake.
Omar Bah, executive director, Refugee Dream Center
Tina Guenette Pedersen, chief executive officer, Real Access Motivates Progress
Ray Rickman, executive director, Stages of Freedom
Kilah Walters-Clinton, director of race, equity and community engagement,
Rhode Island Executive Office of Health and Human Services
Dr. Taneisha Wilson, physician researcher, Brown Emergency Medicine
Reenactress portraying powerful Black women in History
Lady Estelle Barada is exactly that: a lady through and through. Theatrical from a young age, she originally dreamt of becoming a prima ballerina and studied dance at the Boston Conservatory of Music. There, she felt strangely at home working in a room known as the dungeon, a basement space where costumes were stored. These had to be organized by historical period, requiring hours of thorough research.
“Of all the different eras, of all the different clothing, what I loved the most was the Victorian era,” she says. “The gowns, and the jewelry, and the hats. The undergarments! You learn a lot about people from the clothing that they wear from different eras.”
After leaving school and starting a family, Barada tried her hand at historical reenactment but quickly found that the Civil War battlefield scene wasn’t for her. She knew then that she didn’t want to reenact a war — she wanted to reenact a person. Her first role was portraying Elizabeth Keckley, seamstress and confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln. Ever since, Barada has worked with the Rhode Island, Newport and Warwick historical societies, as well as the Hearthside House Museum in Lincoln, to teach people about notable Black figures in Rhode Island history.
“Everyone knows about the African American struggle, but what they don’t know is the people who have struggled and have become very successful, because it’s not in the history books,” she says. “A lot of people don’t know Christiana Bannister, they don’t know Sissieretta Jones, they don’t know Duchess Quamino in Newport. They don’t know these very strong, powerful people who were the descendants of slaves.”
Among her many roles is portraying the woman these awards are named for: Christiana Carteaux Bannister, businesswoman, activist and voice for those in need. When asked how she felt about winning an award named for one of the remarkable women she has portrayed, Barada said it was enough of an honor that the award exists.
In 2020, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, causing her to slow down in recent years, but nothing could keep her from the work: Earlier this year, she portrayed Bannister at the Warwick Public Library from her walker. Since her diagnosis, she has focused her attention more on being an educator rather than an entertainer. Before cancer, her etiquette tea parties for young girls were a hit. Barada saw herself in this sea of young girls, eager to listen and learn how to carry themselves with confidence and poise. She plans to resume her tea parties and hold a storytelling series for children at Stages of Freedom, a Providence-based organization devoted to telling the stories of Rhode Island’s Black community.
Barada’s knowledge of history is vast, but it’s not the history lessons that she wants to leave as her legacy. “Remember me as the motivator,” she says. “Through all the things that I’ve been through, I don’t let anything get me down. I want people to know that if you can just get up in the morning, you never know what your day is going to be.” —Casey Croft
Visionary transforming Rhode Island’s Juvenile Justice System
When Larome Myrick was hired as head of the state’s juvenile justice system in 2018, the Rhode Island Training School needed a new start. Still reeling from a series of violent incidents that prompted a review the year before, staff members were eager for change, and the “new guy from Ohio,” as he calls himself, was looking to deliver.
“I wanted to come in and be transformative. I didn’t want things to stay status quo,” he says.
With the support of staff and administrators from the Department of Children, Youth and Families, Myrick immediately got to work. He pushed to change the division’s name from “Juvenile Correctional Services” to the “Division of Youth Development,” reflecting what he says was already an existing focus on developing rather than warehousing young people. The changes were seen in tangible ways, too — the number of training school admissions dropped from 283 in 2018 to 144 in 2021. A renewed focus on diversion efforts steers kids who pose minimal risk to their communities into alternate programs, while those inside the training school benefit from new initiatives, like yoga classes, apprenticeships and an urban farm complete with ducks, chickens and goats. (“I’m from the city. I’d never seen a chicken other than KFC,” Myrick says, on when a staff member suggested introducing animals at the training school.) The goal, he says, is to get young people out as soon as possible as better people than when they arrived.
“Every single kid in here gets out. They’re not going to stay in the juvenile justice system forever. They’re coming out to a community near you. And this is our chance to either do something or do nothing,” he says.
Myrick spent the first fourteen years of his career working in adult corrections before making the switch to juvenile justice. About eight years ago, disappointed in what he saw happening in the world, he considered leaving the field. Some words from a mentor brought him back.
“She said, ‘You can leave and they’ll replace you with someone else, or you can stay and be the change that you want to see happen.’”
Change doesn’t happen in a silo, and Myrick understands the benefits of investing in his community. He works closely with Rhode Island for Community and Justice to create a more equitable justice system, serves on the boards of the Building Bridges Initiative, Nowell Leadership Academy and Providence Human Relations Commission, and is an active member of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. He’s also put Rhode Island on the map when it comes to justice system reform, representing the northeast region on the Council of Juvenile Justice Administrators and serving as an active member of the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice.
Despite the progress, he says, Rhode Island is just beginning to tackle the disparities that exist for youth of color in the justice system and those from poorer neighborhoods.
“Disparities still exist and it’s no secret, so we’ve got a long way to go,” he says. “It’s my hope that it doesn’t take decades to accomplish. I believe that as long as we don’t wait on someone else to do the work for us, we can get there.” —Lauren Clem
Longtime educator preserving Newport’s diverse history
For the past six years, Victoria Johnson has been at the forefront of an initiative to ensure that Newport’s diverse history is remembered not only by the local community, but beyond. Johnson is co-founder and co-president of the Newport Middle Passage Project, a grassroots effort to commemorate those lost and educate people about the slave route that was so central to Newport’s history. The committee plans to construct a memorial in Liberty Square, an area named a Site of Memory by UNESCO. The monument will honor the contributions of the descendants of enslaved African Americans to the formation of Newport and the United States.
“We are going to be able to reach out to the world — not just Newport — with the importance of the Middle Passage,” Johnson says.
Johnson hopes the committee’s educational programs will spur people to recognize the many achievements of African Americans in Newport over the years. She points to the African laborers who worked to build the city in the eighteenth century as well as those who paved the way for civil rights in the twentieth. Johnson herself is one of these trailblazers: In 1996, she became the first African American woman
to serve as principal of a Rhode Island high school when she was named principal at Rogers High School. Today, her work in education continues in new forums.
“People are coming to our programs, people are learning about the truth of African American history,” she says. “We are looking for people who can help us financially so this memorial can be built and so people can have a voice in what they feel it should look like.”
The committee also hosts educational programs, summer events and lectures and plans to work closely with local organizations to create a museum showcasing Newport’s African American history. The long-term vision, she says, is to pave the way to bring to light the many contributions of African Americans in building the historic city.
Upon learning she was a recipient of the Christiana Carteaux Bannister Award, Johnson initially struggled to draw a comparison between herself and the trailblazing Rhode Islander. After further reflection, though, it became clear why her peers and the many beneficiaries of her work in Newport thought her deserving of Bannister’s legacy.
“Can I be compared to this fabulous person?” she says. “Yes, because she loved her community. That was more important than anything else.” For Johnson, serving her community
remains at the top of her priorities. “My purpose in my life is to do for my community whatever I can until I can’t do it anymore.”
As with Bannister in the nineteenth century, Johnson’s work builds on a foundation of history and advocacy to create a Rhode Island where residents of all backgrounds can thrive.
Community activist empowering young people
In the spring of 2020, Bonnie Piekarski was working as a unit director for the Boys and Girls Club in Woonsocket when she started hearing from its teenagers how food insecurity was affecting local families during the pandemic. What’s more, these young people wanted to do something about it and were looking for a place to channel their newfound interest in social justice.
“It really started one day just thinking about the families that were being affected, the kids that were being affected, and things that we were hearing on the street,” she says. “We applied for funding, and that’s where it sprung from.”
Now in its third year, the Milagros Project — named for Piekarski’s second daughter, whose middle name means “miracles” — has morphed from a basic needs organization to a physical space where community members can gather to discuss their concerns. Piekarski sees it as filling in the gaps of the work already conducted by larger, more established service organizations — a youth- and community-driven effort to meet people where they’re at.
“We’re able to meet people and kind of gauge the different needs,” she says. “There’s not always a one-size-fits-all.”
It’s not the first time she was inspired by the teenagers she works with to take action. In 2019, the city lost one of its young people, NyAsia Williams-Thomas, to gun violence. In the wake of the tragedy, Piekarski’s was one of the voices that spoke out in the community, organizing a walk in her honor and helping to bring more nonviolence initiatives to Woonsocket High School.
“I don’t think the youth have a large enough voice in the community, and there are so many amazing young people in the Woonsocket community that needed a space and needed an outlet to be able to exercise that in a safe way,” she says.
Piekarski’s commitment to the city’s young people comes from personal experience. In the 1990s, she found herself living as a single mother in Boston’s predominantly African American Grove Hall neighborhood, trying to start fresh while coping with a checkered past. It was the women of the neighborhood, she says, who took her in and showed her how a caring mentor can turn around someone’s life.
“People always talk about how traumatic and terrible certain things are, but they don’t talk about how transformative actual love and care is in these types of environments,” she says. “And I think that’s what really drives me. I think of those women all the time.”
Now working as a community organizer at the Woonsocket Health Equity Zone, her eventual goal is to turn over leadership of the Milagros Project to the young people who inspired it. After all, the problems that spurred its creation are not going away, and the leaders of the next generation are just getting started. themilagrosproject.org —Lauren Clem
Business leader advocating for entrepreneurs of color
For years, Tomás Ávila was the guy to know in Rhode Island’s small business landscape.
The real estate broker and consultant has spent the past three decades cultivating relationships to help business owners, particularly business owners of color, expand their reach in the state’s growing markets. Along the way, he’s served on city boards, advocated for Rhode Island’s Latino community and made his voice known at the State House and other political venues.
So it’s not surprising that when Governor Dan McKee needed someone to head the state’s Division of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion — a crucial role tasked with overseeing Rhode Island’s equal employ-ment efforts and ensuring at least 10 percent of state contract dollars go to minority-owned businesses — he tapped Ávila for the job. The new associate director had a challenge ahead of him: State leaders had recently come under fire for waiving the 10 percent mandate during the pandemic, and the office had reached that goal only twice in the previous six years.
“The way he put it to me was, ‘The law has been there for thirty-six years. Nobody can say that they don’t know about it. And what I want you to do is enforce it,’” Ávila recalls.
In the year since his appointment, he’s led efforts to increase state contracts with minority-owned businesses — in August, the amount of contract dollars awarded to minority business owners hovered around 15 percent — and enhance diversity within the department’s own personnel. Ávila says his interest in equity work was fostered from a young age. Growing up the son of an Indigenous mother and a Black Latino father in Honduras, he says, he had a front-row seat to the ways inequity plays out between different races and ethnic groups.
“And because of it, very early in my career, I made it a point to actually fight for the right of equity and equality and inclusion because I saw it within my family, and needless to say I also saw it in society,” he says.
After starting his career in Boston, he found himself in the ’90s transferred by an employer to Rhode Island, a state where he knew no one and had few business contacts. He set out to create a community for himself, attending events and hosting a popular networking series at his home. Today, he uses his network to further opportunities for business owners of color and those who have traditionally been shut out of economic sectors. Among his goals, he says, is removing barriers to accessing capital funds for minority business owners to help them expand the reach of their businesses beyond their own demographic.
“There’s some work that’s being done, but we need to do more,” he says.
Ávila has previously served as executive director of Progreso Latino, deputy director of the Center for Hispanic Policy and Advocacy, president of the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee and chairman of the Providence Board of Canvassers.
Says one nominator, Ávila “knows firsthand what it feels like to be left out and forgotten. He fights daily by listening, meeting at every table and working for changes to daily life in everyone’s world.” —Lauren Clem
Catalyst for change through social action
A Black businesswoman, educator and mother of five, Niko Merritt has a few goals for her Newport community: educate them about the accomplishments of Black Rhode Islanders, support their work and spread knowledge and awareness of Black history and culture. To make the Black community more visible in Newport, she not only gives members encouragement and empathy — she humanizes their stories.
Wanting to accomplish her goals — unfiltered — in September of 2016, Merritt founded the Sankofa Community Connection. Sankofa’s Trust and Equity Alliance provides anti-racism training that holds businesses and organizations accountable through having necessary and sometimes difficult conversations about race. Educating these local businesses helps them improve their treatment of employees of color and better understand racism.
“We look like the people we support, we share lived experiences, and we can provide personal empathy in tough situations,” says Merritt, who serves as the organization’s executive director.
As a Black woman and mother of five, she’s had to deal with matters of interpersonal and systemic racism. Knowing people have a fear of expressing themselves or asking difficult questions, Merritt seeks to ensure her teachings are not coming from a combative place; they come from empathy and the understanding that all have biases — it’s what we decide to do after we learn about these biases that defines us as individuals.
“We work on relationship-building and understanding, and the only way to do that is by talking,” she says. “Some people get uncomfortable, but it’s OK to be uncomfortable; we can channel that into something constructive after.”
In 2018, Merritt joined in the nationwide “Black Panther Challenge” and raised more than $2,600 in two weeks to allow the youth of the community to attend a showing of the Marvel movie Black Panther, followed by a party featuring the movie’s soundtrack along with pizza and crafts. Another accomplishment was getting Juneteenth recognized as an official holiday via a proclamation from the city of Newport before it was a national holiday. Every third Saturday of June, the Day of Renewal honors the Black community in Newport as a Juneteenth celebration featuring events for all to enjoy.
“Merritt was instrumental in bringing the Juneteenth celebration to public recognition,” states one Bannister Awards nominator, “but this has only been a spotlight in a sea of activities by her nonprofit to provide community cohesion and public education to celebrate African American heritage.”
Merritt also designed the Rise to Redemption walking tours that highlight Newport’s Black history and humanize the enslaved and freed members of the community, including influential society members Duchess and John Quamino. This year, the tour earned her a Doris Duke Historic Preservation Award from the Newport Restoration Foundation and city of Newport to recognize her work protecting local historic sites.
“I have done extensive research and spent a great deal of time at the Newport Historical Society doing the work to find out people’s lived experiences,” she says. A resident of the city’s North End, she hopes to one day be able to walk the city and see art installments celebrating the BIPOC community, as well as a healing community center where members can gather and see themselves represented.
Merritt approaches her work with inclusivity, compassion and a laser-focused attention on equity.
“Racism can’t be solved in a two-session training, it cannot be solved without relationship building, and it cannot be solved without accountability,” she says. “If we don’t have that accountability, then no change will happen. Stand strong in what you say you’re going to do.” sankofanewportri.org —Edelinda Baptista