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Raymond Two Hawks Watson Has High Hopes For Rhode Island's Cultural Tourism

He received an Innovation Fellowship to help promote visiting Rhode Island

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In April, the Rhode Island Foundation announced it was awarding its 2016 Innovation Fellowship to Raymond Two Hawks Watson for the creation of an initiative to drive cultural tourism in Rhode Island. At the time, most Rhode Islanders had probably never heard the term “cultural tourism,” but it’s an industry buzzword with powerful potential for the Ocean State.

What is Cultural Tourism and Why Does it Matter?
Cultural tourism is travel that’s not based around theme parks, all-inclusive resorts, skiing, casinos, professional sports teams or any of the other things that typically define leisure or recreational tourism. Have you ever taken your kids on a day trip to Plimoth Plantation? Gone to New Orleans for Mardi Gras? Visited Egypt to behold the great pyramids? You were a cultural tourist.

It’s an industry sector that’s growing in both people and dollars. The US Cultural and Heritage Tourism Marketing Council commissioned studies in 2009 and 2013 that demonstrated the growth potential: the number of travelers who said they were likely to take a cultural heritage trip rose from 51% to 60% and the total dollars spent on each trip went from $994 to $1,319. In 2011, the US Department of Commerce released its first Cultural Heritage Visitor Profile, which declared, “The fastest growing sector of international travel to the United States are cultural heritage tourists.” Findings from a 2009 study by the US Travel Association showed that 118 million adults qualified as cultural/heritage travelers that year, and that on average they stayed 53% longer and spent 36% more than others types of tourists. Tourism is already Rhode Island’s second biggest industry, so those kinds of numbers are alluring.

Turning Ideas Into Investments
“Cultural diversity is the state’s greatest natural resource,” proclaims Watson. “People are amazed at the diversity that’s here and then they want to come visit again.” Therein lies the inspiration for the Providence Cultural Equity Initiative (PCEI), the idea that netted Watson a three-year, $300,000 investment from the Rhode Island Foundation. PCEI is a multi-pronged think tank and consulting firm dedicated to developing the state’s cultural sector by promoting its history, heritage and diversity.

People who know Watson and have worked with him believe he’s the right man for the job. “Ray is one of the most consistent visionaries I have seen in my lifetime,” says Donald King, the former Artistic Director of the Providence Black Repertory Company who is now based in Austin, TX, but returns to Rhode Island regularly to work with Watson on the PCEI. “He will succeed because he is steadfast in his commitment to make Rhode Island better for all of its citizens.”
Jessica David, the Rhode Island Foundation’s Senior Vice President of Strategy and Community Investments, who oversees the Innovation Fellowship program, seconds that vote of confidence: “Ray is dynamic, diligent and determined. His passion and preparation, and his focus on promoting Rhode Island’s cultural diversity as the asset that it is, resonated with the [selection] panel.”

From Role Model to Community Leader
Watson earned his reputation as a community leader in Mount Hope, where he grew up and served as Executive Director of the Mount Hope Neighborhood Association (MHNA) from 2006 until this year. His presence in the neighborhood is unmistakable, both in the figurative and physical sense. Watson is tall and wiry, often sporting a Mohawk, and his voice booms even in casual conversation. He seems to be everywhere in Mount Hope and have a personal connection to every person he passes. In his role at MHNA, he was the de facto mayor of the neighborhood, organizing activities, advocating for justice and equality in a poor, predominantly African-American community, rallying neighbors around causes like the Billy Taylor House, and remaining a highly visible presence for the youth growing up on the same streets that he did. “To me it’s important to be a tangible role model – not one who comes by every once in a while and writes a check, but someone they see at the corner store,” he notes.

He’s never been shy about speaking truth to power or demanding action on behalf of his community. For example, after a spate of deadly violence in the summer of 2014, Watson organized A Community Call to Action, gathering community leaders and about 100 people at Billy Taylor Park, where he publicly questioned the City’s commitment to ending youth violence, arguing that it must invest in the community’s efforts to help itself. Yet he balances that big personality with a humility and integrity that allow him to be the loudest person in the room without crowding out other voices. “Ray’s often viewed as force and fire, which can intimidate the status quo, but I know him enough to recognize that his actions and words are rooted in love,” explains Mike Ritz, Executive Director of Leadership Rhode Island, who is also working with Watson on PCEI.

Another Community Tie
While Mount Hope remains central to Watson’s life and story, his ties to another Rhode Island community make him uniquely suited to be an advocate for the state’s cultural heritage: the Narragansett people. Watson is Chief of the Mashapaug Nahaganset Tribe, which is based in Providence. His personal explorations of his indigenous ancestry have manifested in this work: he is one of the founders of the Eastern Medicine Singers, a traveling Algonquin drum group, and one of the organizers of the annual Big Drum Powwow at the Roger Williams National Memorial. In 2009, he launched New England Native American Culture Week, dedicated to showcasing the region’s indigenous heritage.

That search for his roots helped inspire the Providence Cultural Equity Initiative, but he was far from home when the idea truly took shape. While on honeymoon with his wife, Jenny Hernandez, in Mexico, Watson was able to explore that country’s native cultures and the way they’re presented to the world. “I got the chance to see how Mexico uses heritage to honor history and make people aware of civilizations,” he recalls. “They do a tremendous job with culture – not only honoring it, but using it to draw people to them. Why can’t we do that? I know that what we have here would resonate on an international level. It might sound far-fetched to some – but stuff always sounds far-fetched until it gets done.”

The Future of Cultural Tourism
The plans for PCEI are wide-ranging (see sidebar) and as much about promoting equity as tourism. “My idea is centered around highlighting the culture as a natural resource to be utilized, and as an opportunity to educate and inform the general public about marginalized cultural communities,” Watson explains. “Everyone has a culture. Everyone has some experience of struggle. If you get a bunch of people together to both learn and share, anything can happen.”

The Innovation Fellowship is a big step for a leader who has been accustomed to his work going relatively unheralded. The program was launched by the Rhode Island Foundation in 2012 as a way to make bold investments in innovative ideas that could “dramatically improve an area of life in Rhode Island.” In a sense the Fellowship is Rhode Island’s answer to the MacArthur “genius grant”: it’s an unrestricted, multiyear investment that brings a fair amount of money and attention. Past fellows have included David Dadekian of EatDrinkRI, who is working to build a permanent central marketplace for local food, and Dr. Lynn Taylor, who is trying to make Rhode Island the first state to eradicate Hepatitis C. Watson, who is the first person of color to win an Innovation Fellowship, has typically shied away from seeking accolades or awards, but many of his friends and supporters see this opportunity as a long time coming. “When I met Ray [years ago] he was doing this kind of work,” says Cliff Wood, Executive Director of the Downtown Providence Parks Conservancy, who advised Watson on his proposal for the PCEI. “Now that the recognition has caught up to him he will able to broaden the impact to the entire state.”

Mike Ritz, who is serving as Director of Cultural Food Initiatives for PCEI, also sees the focus on highlighting Rhode Island’s diversity as a way to get its citizens more engaged. “When everyone recognizes that they contribute to a unified narrative of who we are in Rhode Island, then they will invest in it now and in the future,” he says. “Having ownership and accountability within a place gets us more actively involved in it.”

If Watson has his way, both residents and visitors will have a better understanding of Rhode Island’s contribution to world culture and heritage. “Why are we always the biggest little state?” he wonders. “Our impact on this world has been cataclysmic: Roger Williams establishing freedom of religion, the American Revolution, the Industrial Revolution. We’re the innovators. We’re the ones who change things. I’m asking everyone to help do that again with culture. If everyone takes a moment to embrace this project and make it their own, I think we’re in for a fantastic future in this little place called Rhode Island.”