Five Questions With: Larry Warner

Larry Warner is the director of grants and strategic initiatives for United Way of Rhode Island, where he is responsible for managing the organization’s grantmaking and investment process to address community needs.

The United Way recently announced that it is making available $2 million in grants to help nonprofits address systemic inequality.

PBN: United Way recently released a request for proposal for $2 million in grants. What do you hope these funds can achieve toward eliminating systemic inequality in Rhode Island?

WARNER: We’re excited about these $2 million in grants and eager for the proposals that align with our commitment to increase support of nonprofits working to address systemic inequity. Our upcoming strategic plan centers on racial equity and opportunity for all Rhode Islanders, and so does this RFP.

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The data have shown for years that there are disparities in outcomes and attainment for Black, Indigenous and people of color communities – in health, education, housing stability, unemployment and many other areas. These funds are the first in a number of substantial investments we’ll be announcing, and a fraction of the impact United Way will have in the community over the next five years. We must go deep, rather than wide, to target the root causes of systemic inequality that holds back far too many of our neighbors.

PBN: What do you feel is the single biggest issue causing systemic inequality to continue?

WARNER: Systemic racism is the root cause of systemic inequality. And systemic racism can be difficult to fully understand, especially if it doesn’t directly affect you, so I’ll share an example of what it looks like and why it’s a root cause.

Redlining, racial covenants and discriminatory lending practices were fully legal practices that decreased homeownership among Blacks over several decades. Even once redlining and racial covenants were outlawed, discriminatory lending continued to perpetuate barriers to homeownership.

Moreover, there is evidence of patterns of lower home valuations for BIPOC homeowners versus whites with comparable homes. Why does this matter, and how is it a root cause? Homeownership is highly correlated with accumulation of wealth.

When households and entire communities are only allowed to live in certain areas, and face added barriers to purchase homes, you end up with concentrated poverty. Concentrated poverty yields a smaller tax base, less community infrastructure, less funding for schools and more, all of which contributes to unequal opportunities, disparities in outcomes and, in turn, systemic inequality. This is just one example of how systemic racism perpetuates systemic inequality.

PBN: How much has the COVID-19 pandemic played a role in systemic inequality? Has it made things worse, and if so, how?

WARNER: The disproportionate numbers of COVID-19 cases among our BIPOC population and the resulting health and economic impacts have been a painful reminder of systemic inequality, but this is not a new phenomenon. People and communities experiencing disproportionate rates of COVID-19 are largely those which have the least flexibility in their working conditions and those with the least amount of room to be socially distanced, even at home. And, of course, we’ve seen higher rates among front-line workers with no ability to work remotely, and those with greater prevalence of health conditions, which have increased their risk.

COVID-19 has also forced us to confront significant societal challenges – how do we care for people experiencing homelessness during a pandemic? And a moral question – if we can house people during a pandemic, how can we not ensure every Rhode Islander has a safe and affordable place to live during non-pandemic times?

PBN: What are the challenges that need to be overcome in order to advance equity in Rhode Island?

WARNER: First, we have to individually and collectively commit to advancing racial equity. That commitment needs to be made from city and town halls and the Statehouse to residents, community leaders and our elected officials. In our new strategic plan, United Way is formalizing our commitment to building equity and opportunity for all Rhode Islanders, and we’re asking everyone to join us and work alongside us on this journey. And we are grateful to our partners and community leaders already working on building equity in the Ocean State. We understand this work requires significant investment, and we plan to provide funding and the full complement of our resources – policy and advocacy expertise, technical assistance and professional development, and volunteerism – to advance racial equity together.

PBN: What are the key areas that United Way will focus on to advance equity and promote justice for all Rhode Islanders?

WARNER: Our new strategic plan is the result of significant community input and built upon four pillars with racial equity at the center of each. In-depth community conversations and the data underscored that BIPOC families in Rhode Island have been struggling for generations and this struggle has undermined our state’s ability to thrive. From this, key themes emerged and represent the areas that will guide our work in the years to come. A few of these include advancing equity in childhood-reading proficiency and access to out-of-school time programs for BIPOC [youths]; making housing safe and affordable for all; altering policies that perpetuate inequities for people of color; building community capacity; advancing workforce development and adult education for unemployed and underemployed Rhode Islanders; and more. It is also imperative that we strengthen nonprofit resilience, promote innovation, and fund organizations advancing racial and socioeconomic equity, and promoting justice and opportunities for all.

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.

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