Five Questions With: Jennifer Hawkins

Jennifer Hawkins, the executive director of ONE Neighborhood Builders, a community-development organization in Providence, spoke to Providence Business News recently about the Central Providence Opportunities initiative.

Announced in December, the initiative will focus on investments in two ZIP codes of Providence and is funded by an $8 million grant provided by Blue Meridian Partners, a philanthropic organization. A 17-member resident advisory council will help shape the direction of the grant investments.

PBN: What is the Central Providence Opportunities initiative?

HAWKINS: Central Providence Opportunities is a partnership that pulls together ONE Neighborhood Builders to serve as the community backbone and project [manager], the governor’s office and state agencies to provide resources and policy expertise, and the Rhode Island Foundation as a fiscal agent and technical assistance partner with the goal of scaling impact statewide.

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The goal is to generate the economic and social conditions in central Providence that will result in increased economic security and more opportunity for residents across the nine neighborhoods that are located in the 02908 and 02909 ZIP codes. [The neighborhoods include] Olneyville, Hartford, Manton, Silver Lake, Valley, Federal Hill, Smith Hill, Elmhurst and Mount Pleasant.

These are the neighborhoods [One Neighborhood Builders has] focused on. Historically we were working in Olneyville and we’ve started expanding our geographic footprint. Central Providence Opportunities is focused on increasing affordable housing, improving leading indicators leading to third-grade reading, on-ramps to living wages and business-development strategies, with a focus on locally owned, small businesses.

PBN: How long has this been a possibility and how did it come together?

HAWKINS: The initiative was formally announced on Dec. 2 but has been in the making for several months. ONE Neighborhood Builders and the Rhode Island Foundation worked intensively over the summer to demonstrate the alignment between the governor’s economic equity priorities and Blue Meridian Partner’s investment framework.

Blue Meridian Partners has expressed an interest in making an initial investment in a Rhode Island location that has a strong community anchor and network, has been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, and where a focused investment could spur structural improvement in community development and individual and family mobility.

PBN: What will this mean for residents of the 02908 and 02909 ZIP codes? What will improve and how will businesses play a role?

HAWKINS: The people who live and work in central Providence are at the heart of this initiative. Our goal is long-term, sustainable change for generations to come. We’re forming a resident advisory council. The council will figure out what the most important strategies are. It will consist of about 15 individuals representing different neighborhoods, and who reflect the diversity of central Providence.

The group will ensure broad engagement from residents who live in central Providence, so that residents and families most impacted by economic insecurity and lack of opportunities have a strong voice in designing solutions to these problems. This engagement includes participating in the design, implementation, and evaluation of place-based solutions to pressing community issues, as well as reporting back to the larger community on progress toward our goals.

PBN: This is a two-year grant. What is your priority for the first year?

HAWKINS: Our first priority is to work with the resident advisory council and the community to identify place-based solutions to pressing community issues.

PBN: How will the $8 million grant be spent?

HAWKINS: We’re going to be making investments in four areas: affordable housing, early childhood education, on-ramps to living wages, and business development. The majority of the grant will be invested in “upstream” initiatives that can be leveraged with other funding, for example, housing production and preschool. ONE Neighborhood Builders has hired two new team members to lead this effort. Jaya Sarkar is the managing director and Kirsten Bryan is project manager.

Mary MacDonald is a staff writer for the PBN. Contact her at