The East Sider

Ray Rickman Finds His Life's Work

The former state rep talks community, historic preservation and the cause that's taking up all his time

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Longtime East Sider Ray Rickman is well known thanks to his years as a state representative and deputy secretary of state, as well as his nonprofits Shape Up Rhode Island and Adopt-a-Doctor. Now, with a successful consulting career under his belt, Rickman is dedicated to what he calls “the cause of my life”: eradicating the disparity in drowning deaths that African Americans face by organizing swim instruction programs for low-income families.

A Detroit native, Rickman chose to relocate to Providence in 1979 because “it had a small black community and historic houses, and that’s all that interested me: historic preservation.” During his 38 years on College Hill, he has lived in three houses and now owns his current home on Barnes Street.

“My part of Providence is wonderful,” Rickman says. “I walk to work, I walk home, I walk across the river, which is now clean but wasn’t when I came.” He recalls the famous story of how a rebellious crew of RISD students used to set the Providence River on fire on the first day of June each year, and credits Save the Bay and the city for transforming it. “It’s one of our biggest accomplishments that we don’t notice, because we’re so critical of ourselves.”

Rickman crosses the river each day to work at Stages of Freedom, which recently moved to 10 Westminster Street and runs lecture series, events and a black history and culture museum. He started the nonprofit five years ago to promote African American culture in the community and address a specific health disparity: that black children drown one and a half times more frequently than other children from never learning how to swim. Drowning, Rickman says, can be specifically addressed through prevention – similar to how breast cancer can be addressed through regular screenings.

Rickman and his team conducted extensive initial research, ultimately choosing the YMCA as the site for the swimming lessons. Eighty children participated the first year; there are 400 slotted for 2017. When the program can successfully teach 2,000 low-income kids a year how to swim, the drowning health disparity will be eradicated in Rhode Island. Although it was created to address a specific racial disparity, the program is officially open to “anyone who is poor,” and welcomed its first two white participants last year.

If you had one wish to enhance life on the East Side, what would it be?
“I would like to see us create 100 block clubs so that neighbors could know neighbors and we could bring back a higher level of civility. I grew up in a society where everybody had a block club – the rich, the middle, and the low-income folks. This was America. Umbrella organizations [like the College Hill Neighborhood Association] are weaker by their very natures. They take up one issue at a time, and the close-to-home, effective civic stuff collapses.”