Ray Two Hawks Watson ’98 believes minority cultures should play as big a role in Rhode Island’s tourism industry as Newport’s mansions and beaches. He landed a $300,000 grant to make it happen.
by Nancy Kirsch
In July, on a stretch of grass beside Mashapaug Pond in Providence, Rhode Island, Chief Raymond Two Hawks Watson ’98 conducted a naming ceremony for the Mashapaug Nahagansets, the tribe he has led since 2009. Dressed in buckskin and feathers, he stood on land where Mashapaugs lived for centuries and bestowed traditional names such as Bearclaw and Lady Slipper upon a handful of members. The ceremony ended with Watson inviting everyone to “bust a move” as he led the Eastern Medicine Singers, a group of musicians from different tribes, in drumming and singing that was simultaneously solemn and joyous.
Pomham Sachem, or principal chief, of the Nahagansets is only one of Watson’s jobs. His greater mission is to highlight Rhode Island’s myriad ethnic traditions and make the state a hub for cultural tourism in New England. In 2016, the Rhode Island Foundation awarded him a $300,000 fellowship to get started. The first person of color to win the prestigious award, Watson bested nearly 200 other applicants with his plan to establish the Providence Cultural Equity Initiative (PCEI), an organization that he believes can mitigate racism, connect communities, and bring income to local residents, businesses, and governments.
Watson modeled PCEI after what he saw during his 2015 honeymoon in Mexico, where he was impressed not only with the contemporary architecture, colonial history, and Aztec culture, but also with “how well the three worked together, showing the past and the present,” he says. He wondered why Rhode Island wasn’t taking the same approach. “Providence has tremendous colonial architecture, and some modern architecture, but we should be tapping into our ethnic heritage, too.”
Armed with his bachelor’s degree in political science and government from Union College, a master’s in community planning from the University of Rhode Island, and nearly a decade as executive director of the Mount Hope Neighborhood Association in Providence, Watson launched PCEI. The nonprofit asks people to look at their histories and experiences in terms of culture rather than race. An example: English and Irish people are the same race, yet the Irish share a cultural experience with the Narragansett Nation; both were victims of English efforts to enslave and eradicate them. Watson maintains that culture allows individuals to be proud of who they are and not fear others who are different, while race engenders pride but not a tolerance of difference. Focusing on culture can help “do away with false alliances and false divides based on race,” Watson says.
One of PCEI’s initiatives is Living Culture RI, a series of food- and history-focused tours showcasing Rhode Island’s Dominican, Laotian, Native American, and Italian communities, among others. The goal is to expand the way visitors see Rhode Island — to get beyond Newport’s famous mansions and the coastline. The mansions may draw lots of visitors, but “have you thought about the people who built those mansions?” Watson asks. “When you go to the beaches, are you considering the story of those who used those beaches before Rhode Island [was a state] and where those people are today?”
“Ray doesn’t sugarcoat situations. He has a relentless determination to level the playing field.”
PCEI also established the Cultural Exchange and Ambassador Program, which connects businesses and nonprofits with minority community leaders. Because Watson and his PCEI colleagues have long-standing relationships with Rhode Island’s different communities of color, they can guide organizations that are eager to collaborate with local ethnic groups, and help them avoid culturally insensitive encounters, which can damage an organization’s reputation. Say a museum invites a Dominican artist from outside Rhode Island to perform locally. If that artist and that museum fail to engage with the local Dominican community, they are “strip mining” the local culture, Watson says. He’s trying to “get people to understand culture and its economic value.”
“Ray doesn’t sugarcoat situations,” says Mike Ritz, executive director of the nonprofit organization Leadership Rhode Island (LRI), where Watson is a frequent speaker. “He speaks bluntly about the challenges experienced by folks who are being marginalized. He has a relentless determination to level the playing field.”
Building awareness about Rhode Island’s living history and cultural resources is a giant challenge, Watson says — but he is patient. “I’m on a 500-year-plan,” he says. “What I’m starting now,” he says, “I don’t even expect [my 2-year-old daughter’s] grandchildren to finish.”
Nancy Kirsch is a freelance writer in Riverside, Rhode Island.
This article was featured in NMH Magazine.