Thursday, March 28, 2019


On Wednesday evening, March 27, 2019, I presented at the 10th anniversary PechaKucha Night Providence, held at the majestic Columbus Theater on Broadway. This was no. 119 for the fabled event that began in Tokyo and is now worldwide, and my sixth time presenting (one of my earlier ones, on Feb. 27, 2013, marked the 10th anniversary of The Station nightclub fire that killed 100).

We had a nearly full house last night!

I was awed by every presentation -- honestly these evenings are always fabulous, whether it's first-timers presenting or people who have before. I encourage you to attend a PKN Providence, held at rotating venues  around the capitol city.

My presentation was "Story in the Public Square," a 20-slide chronicle of how my co-host and co-producer Jim Ludes and I went from a conversation to a national Telly-winning PBS and SiriusXM Radio show (more on that in an earlier blog). And before and after, I had the chance to catch up with old friends John Taraborelli and Michael Gazdacko, who kindly introduced me. And I had the fine opportunity to meet, in person, the host, Christopher Donovan.

Not sure if the organizers taped the evening and will be posting, but here are my 20 slides tracing the history of Story in the Public Square. Many people in the audience later told me they are fans, and that is the kind of feedback that means so much to me and Jim -- and to our great crew at Rhode Island PBS, our flagship station.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Building New Lives

Building new lives A revolution in care How Rhode Island became a leader in moving mentally ill, retarded out of state hospitals and back into the real world
Publication date:  11/25/1984 Page:  A-01 Section:  NEWSEdition:  ALL

First in a series

Just now, Elaine Cunningham, 49, is on top of the world. Her smile is big, her eyes wide, her voice crackling. "This is it," she's saying. "My big day."

Indeed, it is. After 36 years at the Dr. Joseph H. Ladd Center, Rhode Island's only public institution for mentally retarded people - a place that, until quite recently, could charitably have been called a human warehouse - Cunningham is moving out.

Outside Kingstown Cottage, her dormitory, a van is waiting in the morning sun. Inside, the 25 other female residents are getting their days under way. One walks half-naked toward the door. Another is yelling. A third is trying to steal a blueberry muffin from somebody's breakfast plate. A fourth is squabbling with an attendant over her medicine.

Cunningham heads down the hall for a last look at her room, which she shares with her longtime friend, Mary Tavares.

It is a small, drab room with two steel beds, two night tables, two desks, a rocking chair and a plastic-web lawn chair. The outer wall, made of cinderblock, is painted green. Sprinkler pipes run through the ceiling. The floor is cold, gray tile. The windows open out, like those in office buildings.

Cunningham won't miss that room, she says. Neither will Tavares, who also is moving out today. Margaret D'Agostino, a third Ladd resident who's saying goodby this morning, too, says she feels the same way.

By tonight, the three women will be settled into their new home, a single-family ranch house located in a tree-lined, all-American neighborhood in Westerly. For weeks, as part of a process to smooth their transition into the community, they have been visiting the group home and meeting its 24-hour staff.

They like what they've seen: wooden furniture, carpeted floors, wallpapered walls, a fireplace, two bathrooms, a well-stocked kitchen with all the modern appliances, windows that open up, a big backyard, a well-trimmed front lawn, a porch with a gas grille and a chaise longue. All of this for them, and a fourth woman from Ladd who'll be moving in later.

"I'll miss you," Cunningham tells Melody Mattscheck, an attendant.

"I'll miss you, too," Mattscheck answers. "Come give me a hug."

"I'm gonna have my own washer," Tavares says excitedly.

"A nice spray thing, too," Cunningham explains. "And we have two faucets in the sink. Cupboards."

"You guys are going to have it made," Mattscheck says.

"It's about time we're moving," Cunningham says. "About time."

The van's driver waves. Time to go. The women embrace the attendants.

"We'll miss you," Mattscheck says, "but don't you come back, hear?"

OVER THE LAST two decades, there has been a revolution in how Rhode Island cares for its mentally disabled people - a revolution that goes by the cumbersome title of deinstitutionalizati¬on.

For Cunningham and D'Agostino and Tavares and hundreds like them, it has meant leaving institutions for new lives in the community - liveswhere they can find the self-worth, happiness and dignity that was lost to them behind brick walls and barred windows.

For hundreds of others - a new generation of disabled people - it has meant never having to enter institutions at all.

Rhode Island has two public institutions exclusively for the mentally disabled: Ladd, which specializes in the mentally retarded, many of whom also have physical handicaps, and the Institute of Mental Health, in Cranston, for the mentally ill - schizophrenics, psychotics, depressed people. A third institution, Zambarano Memorial Hospital in Burrillville, has a single ward for the retarded.

A revolution?

Since 1964, its peak year, the population of Ladd has dropped from 1,017 to 390. The IMH population, which peaked at 3,459 in 1954, now stands at about 360, the lowest census in 99 years. Zambarano's ward, which housed 102 retarded people (mostly infants and children) in 1961, now has 38.

Of course, not every one of those approximately 3,750 people went to group homes. Some died. Some drifted out of state. Some wound up in flophouses or on the streets. A handful landed in prison. Several hundred - primarily the aged - went to nursing homes, Zambarano, or the state-run General Hospital in Cranston.

BUT MOST, like Cunningham and D'Agostino and Tavares, have come back to the community to live in dignity. Hundreds were moved to group homes and group apartments. Some went back to their families. A few hundred spent time in supervised programs, then advanced to livescompletely on their own.

Almost all had spent years at the IMH, Ladd, or both. Many had been confined for decades on locked wards. Some had been beaten, shabbily clothed, poorly fed, taken advantage of in countless other ways. For the most part, they had been forgotten by their families, their friends, their legislators, abused and neglected by their caretakers.

Today, they are our neighbors. They live in ranch houses on shady suburban streets, in inner-city apartments, in working-class neighborhoods and moneyed districts, on main drags and out-of-the-way culs-de-sacs.

Some have jobs in the private sector. Others are employed at "sheltered" workshops or attend programs where social workers teach them such basic skills as how to brush their teeth, dress, cook, wash dishes and do laundry. Still others attend public schools.

You ride with them on the bus, see them at the library, the grocery store, McDonald's, in the park, at the malls, at PawSox games.

Some, you may not recognize. Others, you surely will. They may be muttering to themselves. Maybe they forgot to tie their shoes, or button or tuck in their shirts. Maybe they're deformed, or confined to wheelchairs.

The attendants used to hit us out there. They hit me on the face with a bottle of soda when I asked for it. They threw it in my face and got me all wet down the front of me. And she told me I couldn't have no more after. Just like a prison out there to me.

- Anna Russell, who spent 32 years at Ladd, and lives now in a subsidized apartment.

THE REVOLUTION has been national, as well.

With few exceptions, the 50 states have reduced the populations of their institutions. Some states did it without proper discharge planning and provision of community services, leaving thousands of mentally disabled people to fend for themselves in a complex, changing, confusing world.

Others, such as Rhode Island - which experts consider a national leader - spent millions of dollars and took several years to do the job well.

"Where a state has moved slowly and put community supports in place, deinstitutionalizati¬on has succeeded," says Dan Caley, public relations officer for the state Department of Mental Health, Retardation and Hospitals, the primary architect of Rhode Island's movement.

It happened for two reasons, financial and humanitarian: Ultimately, community services are cheaper than those provided in institutions, and the quality of life outside is immeasurably better than behind brick walls.

"The evidence is that community care is cost-effective and more therapeutic for the chronic patient," says former MHRH head Joseph J. Bevilacqua, now commissioner of Virginia's Department of Mental Health and Retardation.

It happened, too, because Rhode Islanders - despite frequent disagreements on where group homes should be located - have supported the movement by approving all 10 of the multimillion-dollar bond issues the state has requested to build community homes and devise programs over the past 17 years.

And it happened because the climate - a national climate of civil rights for others who were deprived, women and blacks among them - was right.

Says Robert L. Carl. Jr, head of MHRH's retardation division: "It's a measure of the values of this society. We value people. We value even significantly disabled people, to the extent that we will spend a lot of money to have them live and exercise as much humanity as they can."

The locked wards were terrible. They pushed me, threw me onto the mattress. Choked me. Didn't treat me right. I was afraid. Suppose I hit the floor? I just can't describe it. . . .

- P.G., 58, a schizophrenic, who was at the IMH a dozen times between 1960 and 1982, and now lives in public housing in East Providence.

FOR MANY REASONS, community care of mentally disabled people is cheaper in the long run than institutional care.

Because they are much smaller, community residences are able to meet fire-safety codes and regulations at significantly less cost than institutions. Salaries and benefits for workers at privately run homes also tend to be less than those for state employees, most of whom are unionized.

In addition, group homes have only a fraction of the overhead costs of large institutions - sewage treatment plants, miles of paved roads to repair and plow, acres of lawns to mow, massive heating and power plants.

MHRH cites these estimates for average daily costs for each patient: at Ladd, $167; for retarded people in community homes and programs, $60 to $150, depending on medical needs; at the IMH, $207; for mentally ill people in community homes and programs, $60.

Not surprisingly, as deinstitutionalizati¬on has proceeded, the costs of running the IMH and Ladd have begun to drop. Fiscal 1979 spending for the IMH was $24 million; this year's budget is $22 million. In 1981, $22.4 million was spent to run Ladd; this year's budget is $19 million.

I was petrified. I used to see things no one would believe. I don't even want to talk about it. I have the shivers going through me even now. . . .

- Dora, at the IMH from 1949 to 1979. She has her own apartment now in Central Falls.

HAD RHODE ISLAND not opened the doors, thousands of people would still live at Ladd and the IMH - and the populations today could well have been higher than ever, MHRH officials say.

In part, that's because medical advances since the 1960s have prolonged and improved life for birth-defective babies. In part, that's because the postwar baby boom has produced the largest generation of young chronically mentally ill people in U.S. history. Both groups are now served primarily in the community; two decades ago, they would have gone to Ladd or the IMH.

Because fire-safety regulations have become much stricter in the last two decades, most of the buildings at Ladd and the IMH would not have met the latest federal and state codes. MHRH would have been faced with a capital-improvement program that would have cost untold millions.

Some buildings could have been renovated. Others - those built in the late 19th or early 20th Centuries and now closed - have passed the point where renovation was feasible. New construction would have been necessary.

MHRH's Carl gives these cost estimates, which he describes as conservative: for renovation of buildings at the IMH and Ladd, $50,000 per bed; $100,000 per bed for new construction.

By contrast, MHRH estimates the maximum cost of buying a private house and converting it to a group home is $20,000 to $25,000 per bed. Carl estimates the cost of building new group homes at $30,000 to $40,000 per bed, at most.

The showers were all open stalls. They had no doors. Then there were the hopper rooms. Hoppers were Ladd slang for toilets. The toilets were five or six right in a row. The clients were hoppered after mealtimes. They would sit on the toilets and staff would watch. There were no toilet seats.

Janet Bullock, who worked at Ladd as an attendant in the 1960s and '70s, and who now works in a supervised apartment program in Providence.

TWENTY-FIVE years ago, community care of the mentally disabled was a concept that existed only in the minds of imaginative social reformers. True, some parents kept their disabled children at home, but they were on their own in caring for them.

Today, MHRH's community system serves more than 7,000 chronically mentally disabled people, employs nearly 2,500 professionals, and has programs and group residences in every corner of Rhode Island. Some are operated directly by the state. Most are privately run under contracts with MHRH, with the majority of their financing coming from the state and federal governments. (Other sources include local municipalities, private donations and fees, workshop profits, the United Way and other charitable agencies.)

Because disabled people have a variety of medical and mental health needs, the community system that has been developed in Rhode Island is a patchwork of services and living arrangements.

Some apartments and homes - those for profoundly retarded and physically handicapped people who have trouble moving independently - feature handrails, customized bathrooms, fireproof materials. Because of their special features, the state had to build most of these group homes.

Other homes, for the more capable, are no different than houses for normal people. In fact, most of them were once private residences which the state bought and renovated, at less cost than newconstruction.

Recreational, educational and work programs are similarly diverse. For the most disabled, learning to tie one's shoes may take days and require full-time assistance. Others may need help only in sophisticated skills - negotiating the public transit system, for instance, or keeping a checking account.

Very, very boring.

- Chris Craddy, 29, who spent almost 13 years at Ladd before moving into a group home.

LATE IN THE afternoon, after spending their regular day at a workshop for the retarded, the van carrying Cunningham, Tavares and D'Agostino pulls into the driveway of 6 Mockingbird Lane, Westerly.

A slight woman with black hair and a sharp jaw, Elaine Cunningham was born March 29, 1935, in Providence. The third of seven children, she didn't walk or talk until she was almost 6. She was a problem child, frequently breaking windows, yelling, unable to sit quietly for long.

She attended grammar school, but teachers weren't happy with her. When she was 12, they suggested she be sent to Ladd. Her family agreed. Because admission criteria in the 1940s were loosely defined - the word of a priest, minister, doctor or principal was enough for a lifelong commitment - she was accepted immediately.

"Committed on 2/26/48," her record states, "with the description of being slow in school, whispering and talking to herself continuously, being a behavior problem and unable to follow directions for any period of time."

Today, she is described as "moderately retarded," which puts her IQ in the 36-to-50 range. Like her housemates, her retardation is at least partly attributed to the anaesthetizing effects of her years at Ladd.

Mary Tavares, a dark, tall woman with curly hair, was born Jan. 22, 1944, in the State Infirmary in Howard (Cranston). Three months before her birth, her mother, a 13-year-old retarded woman from Providence, was committed to Ladd when she was found to be pregnant (she eventually left Ladd for a group home and now lives in a subsidized apartment). Tavares's father has never come forward.

In December, 1944, she was placed in a foster home. She was late in talking - though when she finally did, she spoke two languages, English and Portuguese, the native tongue of her foster family. As a toddler, she had temper tantrums - pulling her hair out, ripping off her clothes, screaming when she was angry.

When she was 4, a doctor examined her and wrote that "this examination . . . suggested that Mary might be mentally defective." As her foster parents aged, they became too frail to care for her. Not yet 18, she was admitted to Ladd on Jan. 10, 1962.

Today, she is considered severely retarded, and her IQ measures between 20 and 35. She is still, however, bilingual.

Margaret D'Agostino is the least retarded of the three. Her degree of retardation is described as "mild," giving her an IQ between 51 and 70. The people who know her suspect she wouldn't be retarded at all if she hadn't lost almost 18 years to Ladd.

D'Agostino, a short, heavy woman with a pretty smile, is articulate and opinionated. The third of seven children, she was born in Central Falls on Oct. 23, 1944. Records indicate that she was a normal, healthy child, with one exception - grand mal seizures that medication didn't control.

She spent several years in a parochial school, but her seizures interfered with her work and she failed several grades. On March 14, 1966, at the age of 21, she was admitted to the IMH for treatment. She never went home.

While at the IMH, a doctor wrote: "She has become a nuisance on the ward because of inactivity. She can be noisy and disturbing." The IMH staff suggested she would do better at Ladd, and on Dec. 13, 1966, she was transferred. Today, the right medication has been found to control her seizures.

I always ask people: "How many of you have ever lived in institutions?"

- Daniel McCarthy, director of community mental health services for MHRH.

"OH, ISN'T THIS nice," Cunningham says as she walks up the front steps of her new home. Tavares doesn't say anything, but she jumps up and down, frantically clapping her hands. D'Agostino grins.

"Glad to see you came," says Tori Hulsman, a group home worker.

Under a state contract, 6 Mockingbird Lane is run by Alternatives Inc., a nonprofit agency in Peace Dale, South Kingstown, which operates several other group homes in South County. Most of the eight people who will staff the home are on hand for the women's arrival.

Unpacking their belongings - clothes, stereos, toiletries, books, posters, stuffed animals - takes most of the afternoon.

Dinner that night is spaghetti and salad. The women help prepare it and set the table - only two of the household chores they will share.

"Ladd Center - I didn't like it there," Cunningham says. "You get biffed and banged around. I wanted to get out. I'm going to stay here."

About this series

In many states, programs to move people with mental health and retardation problems out of state hospitals have been a disgrace.

To find out how deinstitutionalizati¬on is working in Rhode Island, Journal-Bulletin reporter G. Wayne Miller spent nine months visiting more than 130 group homes and other programs - better than 90 percent of those in the state. He interviewed hundreds of social-service professionals, out-of-state experts, neighbors and mentally disabled people, and spent many days observing life at the Institute of Mental Health and the Dr. Joseph H. Ladd Center.

Miller reports on this revolution in a six-part series, beginning today and continuing this week in the Providence Journal and The Evening Bulletin.

Miller, 30, is a 1976 graduate of Harvard College. After nearly three years at the Cape Cod Times, he joined the staff of the Journal-Bulletin in October, 1981.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Jim Ludes, Alex Kuffner and G. Wayne Miller speak at the 2019 Pell Prize ceremony

Elizabeth Kolbert, best-selling author of the Pulitzer-winning "The Sixth Extinction" and staff writer for The New Yorker, received the 2019 Pell Center Prize for Story in the Public Square on Monday, March 4, at The Pell Center in Newport, R.I.  Awarded annually since 2013, the prize honors a storyteller whose work has significantly influenced the public dialogue.

We will have tape of Betsy's remarks up shortly. Meanwhile, here are remarks delivered that night before Betsy took the stage by Pell Center director Jim Ludes, Providence Journal environment/energy writer Alex Kuffner, and me.

Jim, me and Betsy Kolbert.

Jim Ludes’ remarks

Good evening, welcome to the Pell Center, welcome to the campus of Salve Regina University.  Welcome to the presentation of the 2019 Pell Center Prize for Story in the Public Square.

I want to take a quick moment to acknowledge some important friends and partners in the room tonight.  Sister Jane Gerety, president of Salve Regina University, thank you for being here.  Janet Hassen, publisher of the Providence Journal, and Alan Rosenberg, executive editor, thank you both for being with us tonight and for your partnership on Story in the Public Square.

Those of you who have been to this event in the past will know the story of Wayne and I meeting one cold February morning for coffee with Kristine Hendrickson, my colleague here at the University.  We met downtown and wanted to explore ways we could collaborate. 

The truth is, we had no idea what we were doing.  Wayne told me he wanted to do something about story telling.  I scrunched my face up and said, “no,” it has to be something about policy.  In a clumsy mouthful of a compromise, we conjured up “Story in the Public Square.” 

We began with an annual conference: one day; a slew of speakers; and the presentation of the Pell Center prize to one person whose use of narrative transcended sales marks and served the public good.  After a couple of years, we jettisoned the conference, and we have far fewer speakers on the program, but the prize endures and thrives because of the people we have honored—people like Elizabeth Kolbert—because of the work they do, and because of the power of the stories they tell to raise issues, understanding, and our collective consciences to act for good.

That’s really what animates everything we do on Story in the Public Square.  We’re interested in stories that matter and the story tellers who tell them.  Instead of that conference, we now host a weekly public affairs talk show of the same name, “Story in the Public Square.”  You can hear it four times every weekend on SiriusXM Satellite Radio’s POTUS Channel—the Politics of the United States.  Since September, the show has been available on public television stations across the United States.  Now we’re seen on more than 200 stations, in 80% of the country’s television markets, in 455 broadcasts each week.

And if I’m really honest with you, I’d say: we still have no idea what we’re doing.

But it seems to work—and there seems to be an audience for long-form discussions of big issues.  Whether it’s climate change or race or healthcare or Russia’s interference in our democracy, we take the time in each episode to unpack issues, shine a light into some dark spaces, and—we hope—laugh a bit along the way.  But in that audience, I find reasons to hope that reason and intelligence conversations still have a place in the American public square.  

I’m happy to announce tonight that two weeks ago we were renewed for our third national television season of Story in the Public Square that will begin in July. 

Now, before we go any further, I want to take a brief moment to acknowledge Story in the Public Square’s biggest supporter.  Let’s be honest, this was an unconventional initiative to back.  You’ve got two hosts who, frankly, look like we do, and who had never produced a television show.  We made some mistakes along the way.  For example:

We learned that you can’t build a temporary set in a home that was built 160 years earlier with single-pane glass—as we did for our pilot episode—and whose neighbors may want to mow their lawn in the middle of your first episode.  You just can’t do that.

But we also learned that a good idea, nurtured, and given time to mature, can be transformative.
So tonight, we want to acknowledge the biggest fan of our show, the person who didn’t just green light the idea, but has encouraged it, made the resources available for it, and given us the freedom to learn from our mistakes.  It’s made all the difference in the world. 

She’s going to step down from the presidency at Salve Regina University at the end of this academic year, but her legacy and her impact on the Pell Center and Story in the Public Square goes on.  Ladies and gentleman, please join us as we thank Sister Jane Gerety for her leadership, her encouragement, and her inspiration.  Sister Jane.

To set the context for tonight’s honoree, it is my pleasure to invite to the stage the Energy and Environment reporter for our partner, The Providence Journal, Alex Kuffner.

Alex Kuffner's remarks

Thank you, Jim. And thank you, both Jim and Wayne for inviting me here tonight to share some thoughts about environmental journalism.

I believe now more than ever in the importance of reporting on the environment. We have an administration in Washington that questions the scientific evidence about everything from water pollution to greenhouse gases. We have a president that doesn’t understand  -- or doesn’t want to acknowledge -- the difference between weather and climate.

But journalists are offering a counterpoint, relying on facts to educate us about the threats we are facing.

I’d like to highlight just a few of these efforts.

There was the series by InsideClimate News that exposed what Exxon knew decades ago about the impacts on the climate of burning fossil fuels. Or the recent stories in the New York Times about the influence that polluting industries are wielding over the EPA and the Interior Department. And if you haven’t read Losing Earth, Nathaniel Rich’s narrative in the Times Magazine about the history of the science of climate change, I highly recommend you do.

But I also want to emphasize the importance of local and regional news, too. Some of the best stories I’ve read about invasive species were written by Dan Egan at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Mark Schleifstein led the way in reporting on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The Texas Tribune, in partnership with ProPublica, wrote an eye-opening report about Houston’s lack of preparedness for a hurricane -- a piece that was published the year before Hurricane Harvey hammered the city.

I think it’s safe to say that there will always be a New York Times or a Washington Post, but the future isn’t so certain for smaller newspapers. Hedge funds interested only in the bottom line are buying more and more local newspapers, and then cutting staff to maximize profits. Jill Lepore wrote a good story recently for the New Yorker explaining this problem.

Environmental reporting often isn’t sensational. It may not get the online clicks of a good police story -- I know that from personal experience -- but I think it’s essential.

I’m lucky enough to work at The Providence Journal, a newspaper that still values big, explanatory stories about the environment. But I am worried about what further cuts could mean down the line.
I’ve been doing this for a few years now and was able to work with the late Peter Lord, the Journal’s longtime, great environmental reporter. If we’re going to talk about environmental reporting in Rhode Island, we have to remember him and a career that included exemplary stories about children poisoned by lead paint and efforts to protect Block Island’s unique ecology.

One thing I learned from Pete was the importance of science on this beat. I view my job as being one of translation. I’m trying to translate complex science into stories that people can understand and relate to.

These days, so much of reporting on the environment is about climate change and the impacts we’re already seeing.

Here in Rhode Island, we’re losing ecologically-vital salt marshes as sea levels rise, we’re seeing numbers of cold-water animals like winter flounder and lobster -- species that were once the bedrock of our fishing industry -- plummet while black sea bass and other warm-water fish are thriving, and we’re seeing a combination of drought, heat and infestations of invasive insects killing off tracts of forest.

I want to give a quick plug here to an upcoming series in the Journal on climate change. You’ll see the first installment in a couple of weeks, on the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier in Providence and whether it will be able to handle the higher storm surges and more extreme hurricanes that are already coming. I’m also planning a story on threats to Newport’s drinking water supply.

Elizabeth Kolbert has documented the changes to the environment on a global scale. I’ll keep this brief because my colleague Wayne Miller will speak in greater detail about her work, but I want to say that she exemplifies the best of our craft.

By highlighting the research done by scientists on the front lines, by telling their stories and humanizing them, and by showing us how the world is already changing, her work is a model that I and, I think, other environmental writers should aspire to.

G. Wayne Miller's remarks

Thank you, Alex. Thank you, Jim. And thank you Sister Jane for your incredible stewardship of Salve Regina University, and your unwavering support of Story in the Public Square from the very start, when it was little more than a half-baked idea that -- if you’ll pardon another bad pun --  Jim and I cooked up over a cup of coffee seven years ago last month, as he just mentioned.

Welcome, everyone. A special shout-out to my colleagues at The Providence Journal.

That cup of coffee we recounted set in motion a program that today includes our TV and Radio show, which has won a Telly Award and which features some of America’s best storytellers from the worlds of journalism, books, film, still photography, academia, music and more. As Jim and I like to say, our guests have made the show, together with our great crew at our flagship station, Rhode Island PBS.

A Telly Award is wonderful to receive, but the Pell Center Prize for Story in the Public Square is something truly special to award.

The first person to receive it was two-time Pulitzer winner Dana Priest, honored in 2013 for her reporting at The Washington Post.

The next year, we honored Emmy-winning director, screenwriter and actor Danny Strong -- co-creator of Empire, screenwriter of The Butler and much more.

Lisa Genova, the neuroscientist and best-selling author of five novels, including “Still Alice,” which brought Julianne Moore an Oscar for the screen portrayal, was honored in 2015.

Pulitzer-winning photographer and filmmaker Javier Manzano won the Pell Prize in 2016.

Daphne Matziaraki -- whose documentary “4.1 Miles,” about the Syrian refugee crisis, received an Oscar nomination -- was honored in 2017.

And last year, Pulitzer-winner and New York Time staff writer Dan Barry won.

I think you will agree that this a distinguished group. To it tonight we welcome, with great enthusiasm, Elizabeth Kolbert.

When Jim and I last year began considering candidates for the 2019 Pell Prize, we did not have much of a discussion. There was no national search, no brainstorming, no long or short list. We had just one storyteller in mind, and it was Betsy. And when she agreed to accept the award, we were elated.
A former reporter at The New York Times, Betsy has been a staff writer for The New Yorker for many years. She, too, is a Pulitzer Prize winner -- for her last book, “The Sixth Extinction” -- and a two-time National Magazine Award winner. She has received a Heinz Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a National Academies communications award. She is a visiting fellow at the Center for Environmental Studies at Williams College and she lives in Williamstown with her husband, John Kleiner.

Those credentials alone would qualify her for the Pell Prize, but it is Betsy’s primary topic of choice that made such short work for Jim and me.

With the planet warming, the seas rising, and this world’s most highly evolved species both at fault and at risk – and that risk applies to many other life forms, too – I think you will agree that there is no more vital topic today than the environment.

Many scientists, activists, thinkers and others agree, of course, and they have the numbers and studies to offer as evidence of cause and peril. But only a storyteller with great talent and reach can best bring the issue to the larger public -- where new understanding, firm conviction and strong action can lead to change benefitting all, even the smallest species.

Betsy Kolbert is this rare sort of storyteller. Her writing -- with its authority, clarity and, when warranted, humor -- is to be savored. As a journalist, her reporting is to be envied. She is equally comfortable with researchers and, quote-unquote, “ordinary people” – and even with golden frogs and barnacles and other non-primate species. She goes to great lengths to discover and learn – literally, great lengths, around the world today and back in time millions of years.

And we are all the better for it. Although we could not scientifically prove it, I think it is safe to say that Betsy’s work has been a powerful force in confirming the truth, challenged now by only a tiny class of fools, that climate change is real -- and caused by our fossil-fuel addiction.

Let me close with a sample of Betsy’s beautiful prose. These are the words with which she which she ends “The Sixth Extinction”:

 “Obviously the fate of our own species concerns us disproportionately. But at the risk of sounding anti-human – some of my best friends are humans! – I will say that it is not, in the end, what’s most worth attending to. Right now, in the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed.

“No other creature has ever managed this, and it will, unfortunately be our most enduring legacy. The Sixth Extinction will continue to determine the course of life long after everything people have written and painted and built has been ground into dust and giant rats have – or have not – inherited the earth.”

And so, it is our distinct honor to present Betsy this award “for distinguished storytelling that has enriched the public dialogue.” Ladies and gentlemen, the 2019 Pell Center Prize Winner for Story in the Public Square, Elizabeth Kolbert.

[Photos by Andrea Thansen for The Pell Center]

Danny Strong teaches a master class on writing and storytelling

Salve Regina U. President Sr. Jane Gerety and Danny Strong.

Since this is Pell Prize week here in Rhode Island, we thought our audiences would appreciate this:

Award-winning actor, screenwriter, director and producer Danny Strong gave a master class on writing and storytelling on April 11, 2014, when he was honored with the second annual Pell Center Prize Winner for Story in the Public Square in Newport, R.I. G. Wayne Miller and Jim Ludes, hosts and producers of the nationally broadcast TV and SiriusXM Radio show "Story in the Public Square" introduced Danny, and Salve Regina University president Sr. Jane Gerety conferred the award.

Brought to you by "Story in the Public Square" national TV and SiriusXM Radio show hosts and producers G. Wayne Miller and Jim Ludes. Find your local station and broadcast times here.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Bonnie Raitt and James Taylor, March 2, 2019, in Providence, RI

"James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt deliver spellbinding concert at Dunk"

So declared Providence Journal reviewer Susan McDonald of the sell-out concert by Raitt and Taylor the evening of March 2, 2019. And Susan was right, as I can attest! A great evening of music and storytelling -- in many media -- by the two acclaimed musician/singer/songwriters and their great bands. Have a listen to some of James Taylor: