Providence's David N. Cicilline

A particularly dynamic mayor often embodies the personality or tone of a city. How much influence a mayor has is critically dependent upon timing and context, though. When a mayor with a strong personality takes over a troubled city with latent assets, the stage is set for a mayor like David Cicilline to produce dramatic reforms.
June 8, 2008 AT 3:00 AM
By Stephen Goldsmith  |  Contributor
Professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Innovations in American Government Program

A particularly dynamic mayor often embodies the personality or tone of a city. How much influence a mayor has is critically dependent upon timing and context, though. When a mayor with a strong personality takes over a troubled city with latent assets, the stage is set for that mayor to produce dramatic reforms.

This describes the recent situation in Providence, Rhode Island, in a race to replace a mayor who resigned amid corruption charges. One candidate -- David Cicilline -- spent considerable time on youth issues, promising to forge partnerships between the city's schools, families, business leaders, and government officials to expand access to quality after school programs for the city's children.

Once elected, Cicilline drew attention to the familiar but troubling statistic: children ages 12-19 are more at risk of falling victim to crime, drugs, gangs and other negative events during the period after the school day ends and their parents return home from work. The new mayor recognized that Providence had an opportunity and a shared responsibility to the city's children to transform their afternoons from hours of frustrating boredom to times of learning and personal growth. He rallied support by making it clear, beginning with his inaugural address, that building a lasting, citywide after school program would be a top priority for his administration.

This process began not with a ribbon cutting or a huge commitment of public funds, but rather with 18 months of outreach and planning. With support from the Wallace Foundation, Cicilline worked with Rhode Island Kids Count to research best practices of after school programs across the country. The city engaged over 100 local stakeholders and out-of-school providers in its study. This process demonstrated the city's serious commitment to change. It also gave youth advocates a chance to help determine the values and quality standards that would come to define after school programming in Providence.

Watch Stephen Goldsmith's interview with Mayor Cicilline. More interviews are available on the Ash Institute YouTube Channel.

The city also conducted focus groups to ensure the new program would address parents' concerns and meet children's expectations. The findings of this research and preparation led to a key discovery that was critical to the success of the program. The city did have many opportunities for young adults, but little coordination and uneven quality among the available clubs and activities. To cure this problem, and leverage existing assets, the city of Providence and Rhode Island's Education Partnership formed PASA, the Providence After School Alliance.

When pushing forward a new initiative, outside resources such as venture capital often play an important role, and this effort was no exception. Because the Wallace Foundation knew it could count on Cicilline's leadership and support from the community, the foundation extended its commitment by selecting Providence to launch a series of grants to cities in its Out-of-School Time Initiative. The Wallace Foundation, Bank of America and other donors awarded Providence nearly $6 million to get PASA's proposed "AfterZones" program off the ground. After conducting a year and a half of research, PASA launched its five AfterZones -- neighborhood-based networks of schools, libraries, recreation centers, transportation services and volunteer organizations.

Mayoral leadership often involves leveraging new assets and producing benefits from less than obvious situations. In 2001, the Festival Ballet Company borrowed $150,000 in economic development funds to purchase a building for performance and rehearsal space. When the Company discovered they would be unable to repay the loan to the city, Cicilline suggested they could give lessons to PASA students instead. Festival Ballet jumped at the chance, and AfterZones kids can now receive instruction from professional dancers at no charge.

This spirit of inventiveness, and commitment to developing quality programs, pervades PASA. Individual providers and program staff are involved in continuous training and quality assessment. PASA has worked with to track student attendance and participation through an online data management tool. PASA has also provided incentives for after-school providers to develop new and improved programs and partnerships by offering over $300,000 of "Innovator Grants."

Currently, the Providence After School Alliance offers an array of nearly 50 educational, cultural, and athletic activities to the city's 6,000 middle school students. Rather than start from scratch, PASA collaborates with existing community programs to build its network. By forging these partnerships and pursuing funding locally and nationally, PASA is able to provide children with a safe learning environment, free of charge.

Building on PASA's momentum, Cicilline is launching a new effort to expand opportunities for high school students. The mayor believes these programs can benefit from the kind of collaboration demonstrated by the AfterZones. By engaging the leaders of the 10 best youth organizations in the city, and providing organizational support, the mayor hopes to create a career-focused network for students as they transition from the AfterZones to high school.

America's Promise Alliance has recognized these successes by choosing Providence as one of America's 100 Best Communities for Young People three years in a row.

Mayor Cicilline's outstanding commitment to the youth of his city, and his ability to unify disparate entities into an effective organization, underscores some key elements for mayoral success: the vision was clear and was stated early, innovation and venture capital came in part from the foundation world, and creative approaches to leveraging partnerships pervaded the model. All of these elements came from Cicilline's determined and focused mayoral leadership.

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