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United Way’s Cortney Nicolato on what it takes to make progress on housing, racial equity and more

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Courtney Nicolato sitting in The Public’s Radio’s studio

Cortney Nicolato became president and CEO of United Way of Rhode Island in 2018. It was a homecoming for the Pawtucket native and URI grad who had worked in the nonprofit sector in Texas for the previous 13 years. Nicolato took the helm of one of Rhode Island’s top nonprofits in the run-up to the pandemic. She helped introduce 401Gives, now Rhode Island’s largest philanthropic effort, which this year raised more than $3.7 million for almost 600 different organizations. Nicolato has also emerged as a leading advocate for confronting the state’s housing crisis. But what will it take to build a stronger economy in Rhode Island and to make more progress on other key issues? This week, political reporter Ian Donnis goes in-depth with United Way of Rhode Island President/CEO Cortney Nicolato.

Courtney Nicolato sitting in The Public’s Radio’s studio
Courtney Nicolato is president and CEO of nonprofit United Way of Rhode Island. Credit: James Baumgartner/The Public’s Radio

Transcript:

Donnis: For people who are unfamiliar with the work of the United Way of Rhode Island, how would you describe what your agency does?

Nicolato: You know, we are really here to make systemic change in the community and in the critical areas that are facing our state. So housing is one of the most critical areas and the way that we look at our work is one we hear directly from Rhode Islanders. So we run the 211 call center, the hotline, which takes about 190,000 connections with Rhode Islanders every year. That insight tells us where there are gaps in the community, what needs to be addressed. We also are very, grateful to work with donors to put in investment dollars into the community based on what we’ve learned from the data. And then we work with our policy and our elected officials to look at policy changes that can help drive change. And so specifically in the areas we work in as housing, economic mobility, workforce development, and education, and something, and strong nonprofits, which is the other area that we’re really focused on.

Donnis: You started at the United Way in 2018 and your agency came out with some information more recently that more than half of Rhode Island nonprofits say there’s a higher level of community now than during the pandemic. Why is that?

Nicolato: You know, we felt the same way when we hear from Rhode Islanders directly. And so each year we do a survey with nonprofit community to understand what those needs are, and what we’re hearing is I think what all of us know. The cost of inflation continues to rise. The cost of at the supermarket, the cost of putting gas in our cars, folks who are finding themselves in crisis for the first time ever because of the cost. We’re finding a lot more working poor so folks who, and I just had recently had a situation where a woman was, works for 18 years at the same, has a great job, single mom finding herself homeless for the first time ever. And so, we are hearing directly that our nonprofit community is seeing that influx. The other thing that we’re hearing is that many nonprofits were providing services during the pandemic, and now those dollars have gone away, right, as a result of COVID relief dollars, but the need hasn’t changed. And nonprofits are trying to figure out a way to make it continue to work

Donnis: To pick up on what you’re saying, a stronger economy would help reduce the level of social need in Rhode Island. We’ve seen how the state has wrestled with this for many years, even though unemployment is very low right now. It was 40 years ago when the greenhouse compact was voted down with the idea of creating more high wage jobs. What do you think needs to be done differently to create a more vibrant economy in Rhode Island?

Nicolato: You know, I think one of the things that Rhode Island, I think is a must is we have to focus on the long term solutions, not the short term, and I think oftentimes that’s a challenge, and housing is a prime example of that. Housing has a direct correlation to our state’s ability to be able to build jobs, bring companies into the state, helps drive, educational outcomes when kids have a stable and affordable place to lay their head. We have a production issue. We have an inventory problem. But we also have one of the oldest housing stocks in the country. And so in order to move the economy forward, we have to look at those core components of it, what it takes to be a thriving economy, housing and education are really, in my opinion, the top two on the list. We can’t just pivot slightly, small, in ways that what we really have to say is, “what is the big change that we need to make to move the needle forward?” In education, I think that it’s really important for us to look at the infrastructure to which our education system is been and has been. Is there a need for us to change and modernize systems? I think also, you know, ensuring that our kids have access to, you know, the resources above and beyond, I think, what’s the core curriculum in K-12 is another area. And so long term systemic solutions, not small pivots.

Donnis: As you just said, we’ve heard how you’ve become a leading advocate for the housing issue. There’s consensus that this is a top issue for Rhode Island. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been allocated, but progress is slow. It takes time to build housing, there’s pushback from some cities and towns. What are your takeaways based on your observation of this issue of the last couple of years about what, you know, beyond staying at the issue, what else needs to happen to make more progress?

Nicolato: I think all of us have to realize that we have a role to play. I think this idea of like “not in my backyard” is not the answer. I think the idea of, you know, “well the density is what the density” is not the answer. I think we all have to look at creative solutions. I think the dollars and the investments are being made and that’s super important, but we also have to make sure that things like enabling zoning regulations are more flexible, ways that we can use, you know, things that are already built, like, old former schools, former churches, and making those into housing, and understanding that the system and how housing production is done isn’t always attractive to developers here in the state of Rhode Island. And so how do we combat those, find those places and spaces, and eradicate those barriers so that folks do see Rhode Island as an appealing place to build? Right now it’s not. And I think, you know, what happened earlier this week around East Providence, those 144 units that is being slated by and worked on very, very, I think, intelligently and intentionally by ONE Neighborhood Builders, Foster Forward, and many of the organizations, Crossroads and others. Those are a prime example of a great use of space, right? Take a space that is abandoned, repurpose it, offer wraparound services, and have the ability to really move the needle. That’s 144 units. The cities have to also play in that and support that. And I’m really, I was really upset to see that’s not the case right now in East Providence.

Donnis: You mentioned the importance of schools a little bit earlier, and we’ve seen how there’s been a consensus that schools are vital for Rhode Island’s economy. Despite that, there’s been little progress over 20 years. We all know about the problem with the Washington Bridge now that exemplifies issues with infrastructure. For Rhode Islanders who are cynical about the level of capacity and ability of the state to get things done, what do you say?

Nicolato: You know, I am a native Rhode Islander. I grew up in Rhode Island, but I spent about 13 years outside of the state and in Dallas, Texas, and my kids are native Texans, went to school in Texas, and there was an interesting observation that I had. Their one school district, which was an independent school district away from cities and towns, it was its own voted on, You paid a separate tax on it, they had 150,000 students in one school district. And I think that we have to look at the infrastructure. Am I saying one would work in Rhode Island? Absolutely not. I don’t think that that would be the case, but I do think that there’s operate, you know, opportunities to do, you know, consolidation of back office operations, opportunities to collaborate in a different way. I think our education system, and the numbers continue to prove that the model needs work. And I think that That’s systemic, right? That we got to look at the structural issues, but we also have to look at the curriculum. And I think we work hard every day at United Way to find places and spaces that we can help kids, introduce them to opportunities in the state, help them grow and learn, help them improve social emotional learning throughout of school time programs, but also making sure that families have the resources that they need, and that includes working very directly with school systems.

Donnis: We’re talking with Courtney Nicolato, president/CEO of the United Way of Rhode Island. Your agency launched a program in 2021 to reduce the racial inequities that have affected Rhode Islanders of color for generations. Bring us up to speed with what’s happening on that and what kind of benchmarks will be used to assess the progress of that effort.

Nicolato: Yeah, we launched Live United 2025 in January of 2021, really focused on how do we build racial equity and opportunities for all Rhode Islanders. And specifically, we looked at four different areas of focus, that we saw areas of opportunity for the state of Rhode Island. One was around early childhood literacy and education, access to out of school time learning. Our focus has been improving access to out of school time learning and summer learning programs. We host five different summer learning sites across the state. We work with five cities and towns. They are free summer learning programs to 600 families. And so these are the types of initiatives that we do with the investments that we receive from donors throughout the state. The other thing that we’re focused on is workforce development, but also upskilling. And we know that there’s an opportunity to really build racial equity when certifications and other opportunities are available. But we know that many Rhode Islanders cannot complete certifications because of various different barriers, you know. Sometimes it’s a suit. Sometimes it’s access to a computer. Sometimes it’s utility assistance for that month that they need to, not do their second job so that they can get the additional certification. And so we work with the Office of the Postsecondary Commissioner, and we’ve seen incredible improvements in completion of certification programs from 29% before we started the program to 89%. So those are the types of things, as we look about building racial equity, that we’re really laser focused on. Whatever we do, we measure. And that’s really critically important to us. We don’t want to just say we did it or we put X amount of millions of dollars to it, that we really have made demonstrable change. I would say COVID in some areas has not been helpful, right? And early childhood literacy is a great example of that. We were hoping it’d increase by 25%. You know, the competency for kids at third grade, their reading levels, we have not seen that increase. And a lot has to do with COVID and, you know, learning styles of kids. And so we’re always consistently looking at ways. How do we pivot? How do we make sure that the programs and investments that we’re making are really moving the needle for Rhode Island families? And I’m excited.

The other area that we’ve been focused on is nonprofit organizations. When I got back to Rhode Island in 2018, I saw that 30% of Rhode Island nonprofits had less than three months of cash reserve. As a business woman, I was like, “Whoa, Whoa, Whoa, this is a problem. This is not, we need to really bolster the operational bench strength of Rhode Island nonprofits.” And so we created 401Gives as an opportunity to create and really drive digital giving in the community and build a culture of philanthropy. And then earlier this year in January, we launched The Alliance for Nonprofit Impact, which in essence is like a technical assistance hub for Rhode Island nonprofits, which in the short amount of time, we already have 220 Rhode Island nonprofits who are leaning into that, that tool as a great resource to help them build their business needs.

Donnis: You are seen as someone who might have a future in politics. What is your thought on that and whether we might see you pursue that at any time in the near future?

Nicolato: You know, I love where I’m at right now. You know, United Way turns 100 in January of 2026. You only turn 100 once, and it’s kind of fun. I’m looking forward to actually doing a 100th anniversary celebration. I get asked many times from folks saying, you know, we really need your voice in elected office. And maybe one day, that would happen. Right now, I’m really having fun at United Way, and I look for, and I love working with our elected officials to really move the needle on these critical issues. But I never say never.

Donnis: President, CEO of the United Way of Rhode Island, Courtney Nicolado. Thank you so much for joining us.

Nicolato: It’s great to be here, Ian. Thanks so much.

Donnis: Political rhetoric toward immigrants has become more hostile over the years, yet immigrants play a key role in spurring economic innovation. And here in Rhode Island, the growth of the Latino community in recent decades may have enabled the state to keep two congressional seats. You can read more about that in my TGIF column, posting around 4 p.m. this afternoon on what used be known as Twitter @IanDon and at thepublicsradio.org. That’s our show. Our producer is James Baumgartner. I’m Ian Donnis, and I’ll see you on the radio.

The post United Way’s Cortney Nicolato on what it takes to make progress on housing, racial equity and more appeared first on TPR: The Public's Radio.

  continue reading

276 episoder

Artwork
iconDel
 
Manage episode 412093863 series 2591548
Indhold leveret af The Public's Radio. Alt podcastindhold inklusive episoder, grafik og podcastbeskrivelser uploades og leveres direkte af The Public's Radio eller deres podcastplatformspartner. Hvis du mener, at nogen bruger dit ophavsretligt beskyttede værk uden din tilladelse, kan du følge processen beskrevet her https://da.player.fm/legal.
Courtney Nicolato sitting in The Public’s Radio’s studio

Cortney Nicolato became president and CEO of United Way of Rhode Island in 2018. It was a homecoming for the Pawtucket native and URI grad who had worked in the nonprofit sector in Texas for the previous 13 years. Nicolato took the helm of one of Rhode Island’s top nonprofits in the run-up to the pandemic. She helped introduce 401Gives, now Rhode Island’s largest philanthropic effort, which this year raised more than $3.7 million for almost 600 different organizations. Nicolato has also emerged as a leading advocate for confronting the state’s housing crisis. But what will it take to build a stronger economy in Rhode Island and to make more progress on other key issues? This week, political reporter Ian Donnis goes in-depth with United Way of Rhode Island President/CEO Cortney Nicolato.

Courtney Nicolato sitting in The Public’s Radio’s studio
Courtney Nicolato is president and CEO of nonprofit United Way of Rhode Island. Credit: James Baumgartner/The Public’s Radio

Transcript:

Donnis: For people who are unfamiliar with the work of the United Way of Rhode Island, how would you describe what your agency does?

Nicolato: You know, we are really here to make systemic change in the community and in the critical areas that are facing our state. So housing is one of the most critical areas and the way that we look at our work is one we hear directly from Rhode Islanders. So we run the 211 call center, the hotline, which takes about 190,000 connections with Rhode Islanders every year. That insight tells us where there are gaps in the community, what needs to be addressed. We also are very, grateful to work with donors to put in investment dollars into the community based on what we’ve learned from the data. And then we work with our policy and our elected officials to look at policy changes that can help drive change. And so specifically in the areas we work in as housing, economic mobility, workforce development, and education, and something, and strong nonprofits, which is the other area that we’re really focused on.

Donnis: You started at the United Way in 2018 and your agency came out with some information more recently that more than half of Rhode Island nonprofits say there’s a higher level of community now than during the pandemic. Why is that?

Nicolato: You know, we felt the same way when we hear from Rhode Islanders directly. And so each year we do a survey with nonprofit community to understand what those needs are, and what we’re hearing is I think what all of us know. The cost of inflation continues to rise. The cost of at the supermarket, the cost of putting gas in our cars, folks who are finding themselves in crisis for the first time ever because of the cost. We’re finding a lot more working poor so folks who, and I just had recently had a situation where a woman was, works for 18 years at the same, has a great job, single mom finding herself homeless for the first time ever. And so, we are hearing directly that our nonprofit community is seeing that influx. The other thing that we’re hearing is that many nonprofits were providing services during the pandemic, and now those dollars have gone away, right, as a result of COVID relief dollars, but the need hasn’t changed. And nonprofits are trying to figure out a way to make it continue to work

Donnis: To pick up on what you’re saying, a stronger economy would help reduce the level of social need in Rhode Island. We’ve seen how the state has wrestled with this for many years, even though unemployment is very low right now. It was 40 years ago when the greenhouse compact was voted down with the idea of creating more high wage jobs. What do you think needs to be done differently to create a more vibrant economy in Rhode Island?

Nicolato: You know, I think one of the things that Rhode Island, I think is a must is we have to focus on the long term solutions, not the short term, and I think oftentimes that’s a challenge, and housing is a prime example of that. Housing has a direct correlation to our state’s ability to be able to build jobs, bring companies into the state, helps drive, educational outcomes when kids have a stable and affordable place to lay their head. We have a production issue. We have an inventory problem. But we also have one of the oldest housing stocks in the country. And so in order to move the economy forward, we have to look at those core components of it, what it takes to be a thriving economy, housing and education are really, in my opinion, the top two on the list. We can’t just pivot slightly, small, in ways that what we really have to say is, “what is the big change that we need to make to move the needle forward?” In education, I think that it’s really important for us to look at the infrastructure to which our education system is been and has been. Is there a need for us to change and modernize systems? I think also, you know, ensuring that our kids have access to, you know, the resources above and beyond, I think, what’s the core curriculum in K-12 is another area. And so long term systemic solutions, not small pivots.

Donnis: As you just said, we’ve heard how you’ve become a leading advocate for the housing issue. There’s consensus that this is a top issue for Rhode Island. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been allocated, but progress is slow. It takes time to build housing, there’s pushback from some cities and towns. What are your takeaways based on your observation of this issue of the last couple of years about what, you know, beyond staying at the issue, what else needs to happen to make more progress?

Nicolato: I think all of us have to realize that we have a role to play. I think this idea of like “not in my backyard” is not the answer. I think the idea of, you know, “well the density is what the density” is not the answer. I think we all have to look at creative solutions. I think the dollars and the investments are being made and that’s super important, but we also have to make sure that things like enabling zoning regulations are more flexible, ways that we can use, you know, things that are already built, like, old former schools, former churches, and making those into housing, and understanding that the system and how housing production is done isn’t always attractive to developers here in the state of Rhode Island. And so how do we combat those, find those places and spaces, and eradicate those barriers so that folks do see Rhode Island as an appealing place to build? Right now it’s not. And I think, you know, what happened earlier this week around East Providence, those 144 units that is being slated by and worked on very, very, I think, intelligently and intentionally by ONE Neighborhood Builders, Foster Forward, and many of the organizations, Crossroads and others. Those are a prime example of a great use of space, right? Take a space that is abandoned, repurpose it, offer wraparound services, and have the ability to really move the needle. That’s 144 units. The cities have to also play in that and support that. And I’m really, I was really upset to see that’s not the case right now in East Providence.

Donnis: You mentioned the importance of schools a little bit earlier, and we’ve seen how there’s been a consensus that schools are vital for Rhode Island’s economy. Despite that, there’s been little progress over 20 years. We all know about the problem with the Washington Bridge now that exemplifies issues with infrastructure. For Rhode Islanders who are cynical about the level of capacity and ability of the state to get things done, what do you say?

Nicolato: You know, I am a native Rhode Islander. I grew up in Rhode Island, but I spent about 13 years outside of the state and in Dallas, Texas, and my kids are native Texans, went to school in Texas, and there was an interesting observation that I had. Their one school district, which was an independent school district away from cities and towns, it was its own voted on, You paid a separate tax on it, they had 150,000 students in one school district. And I think that we have to look at the infrastructure. Am I saying one would work in Rhode Island? Absolutely not. I don’t think that that would be the case, but I do think that there’s operate, you know, opportunities to do, you know, consolidation of back office operations, opportunities to collaborate in a different way. I think our education system, and the numbers continue to prove that the model needs work. And I think that That’s systemic, right? That we got to look at the structural issues, but we also have to look at the curriculum. And I think we work hard every day at United Way to find places and spaces that we can help kids, introduce them to opportunities in the state, help them grow and learn, help them improve social emotional learning throughout of school time programs, but also making sure that families have the resources that they need, and that includes working very directly with school systems.

Donnis: We’re talking with Courtney Nicolato, president/CEO of the United Way of Rhode Island. Your agency launched a program in 2021 to reduce the racial inequities that have affected Rhode Islanders of color for generations. Bring us up to speed with what’s happening on that and what kind of benchmarks will be used to assess the progress of that effort.

Nicolato: Yeah, we launched Live United 2025 in January of 2021, really focused on how do we build racial equity and opportunities for all Rhode Islanders. And specifically, we looked at four different areas of focus, that we saw areas of opportunity for the state of Rhode Island. One was around early childhood literacy and education, access to out of school time learning. Our focus has been improving access to out of school time learning and summer learning programs. We host five different summer learning sites across the state. We work with five cities and towns. They are free summer learning programs to 600 families. And so these are the types of initiatives that we do with the investments that we receive from donors throughout the state. The other thing that we’re focused on is workforce development, but also upskilling. And we know that there’s an opportunity to really build racial equity when certifications and other opportunities are available. But we know that many Rhode Islanders cannot complete certifications because of various different barriers, you know. Sometimes it’s a suit. Sometimes it’s access to a computer. Sometimes it’s utility assistance for that month that they need to, not do their second job so that they can get the additional certification. And so we work with the Office of the Postsecondary Commissioner, and we’ve seen incredible improvements in completion of certification programs from 29% before we started the program to 89%. So those are the types of things, as we look about building racial equity, that we’re really laser focused on. Whatever we do, we measure. And that’s really critically important to us. We don’t want to just say we did it or we put X amount of millions of dollars to it, that we really have made demonstrable change. I would say COVID in some areas has not been helpful, right? And early childhood literacy is a great example of that. We were hoping it’d increase by 25%. You know, the competency for kids at third grade, their reading levels, we have not seen that increase. And a lot has to do with COVID and, you know, learning styles of kids. And so we’re always consistently looking at ways. How do we pivot? How do we make sure that the programs and investments that we’re making are really moving the needle for Rhode Island families? And I’m excited.

The other area that we’ve been focused on is nonprofit organizations. When I got back to Rhode Island in 2018, I saw that 30% of Rhode Island nonprofits had less than three months of cash reserve. As a business woman, I was like, “Whoa, Whoa, Whoa, this is a problem. This is not, we need to really bolster the operational bench strength of Rhode Island nonprofits.” And so we created 401Gives as an opportunity to create and really drive digital giving in the community and build a culture of philanthropy. And then earlier this year in January, we launched The Alliance for Nonprofit Impact, which in essence is like a technical assistance hub for Rhode Island nonprofits, which in the short amount of time, we already have 220 Rhode Island nonprofits who are leaning into that, that tool as a great resource to help them build their business needs.

Donnis: You are seen as someone who might have a future in politics. What is your thought on that and whether we might see you pursue that at any time in the near future?

Nicolato: You know, I love where I’m at right now. You know, United Way turns 100 in January of 2026. You only turn 100 once, and it’s kind of fun. I’m looking forward to actually doing a 100th anniversary celebration. I get asked many times from folks saying, you know, we really need your voice in elected office. And maybe one day, that would happen. Right now, I’m really having fun at United Way, and I look for, and I love working with our elected officials to really move the needle on these critical issues. But I never say never.

Donnis: President, CEO of the United Way of Rhode Island, Courtney Nicolado. Thank you so much for joining us.

Nicolato: It’s great to be here, Ian. Thanks so much.

Donnis: Political rhetoric toward immigrants has become more hostile over the years, yet immigrants play a key role in spurring economic innovation. And here in Rhode Island, the growth of the Latino community in recent decades may have enabled the state to keep two congressional seats. You can read more about that in my TGIF column, posting around 4 p.m. this afternoon on what used be known as Twitter @IanDon and at thepublicsradio.org. That’s our show. Our producer is James Baumgartner. I’m Ian Donnis, and I’ll see you on the radio.

The post United Way’s Cortney Nicolato on what it takes to make progress on housing, racial equity and more appeared first on TPR: The Public's Radio.

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