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New leadership, reorganization of state division has led to increased MBE contracts

COMMUNITY GROWTH: Tomás Ávila, associate director for the R.I. Division of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, says that as of April 2022, minority-owned small-business enterprises have been awarded 15.3% of the dollar value of Rhode Island’s procurements or construction projects after not meeting the 10% mandate for years. PBN PHOTO/DAVID HANSEN

By Nancy Kirsch - 12/09/2022

Originally published in Providence Business News

Upon being hired in August 2021 as the associate director of what is now the R.I. Division of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, formerly known as the R.I. Office of Diversity, Equity and Opportunity, Tomás Ávila needed to rebuild a team.

“When I came in, the office was recovering from the revenue disruption [caused] by the pandemic and 43% of the staff in 2019 had left,” he said. “My mission was rebuilding.”

Ávila hired five people to replace the workers who left. The organization now has eight employees and a $1.3 million annual budget.

The division, part of the R.I. Department of Administration, is making progress, Ávila said.

“When Tomás and other people were hired, DEDI was reorganized to be more nimble to do the work,” said Christopher Abhulime, deputy chief of staff for Gov. Daniel J. McKee. “That’s an accomplishment.”

Although state legislation enacted in 1986 mandated that minority-owned small-business enterprises and women-owned small businesses be awarded 10% of the dollar value of the state’s procurement or construction projects, the state was not meeting those mandates. Additionally, the MBE program was suspended in 2020 by emergency order due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A disparity study conducted by Mason Tillman Associates Ltd. and released in July 2021 by the division “validated all that was known,” Ávila said, as it confirmed that Rhode Island was not complying with the 10% mandate and recommended corrective actions.

Ávila said since April the state has been awarding 15.3% of the dollar value of procurement or construction projects to MBEs. He said the credit for the improvement goes to McKee and Director of Administration James Thorsen for their full support, as well as to the publication of the disparity report.

That report, Abhulime said, provides the legal underpinning for the office’s program enforcement and validated existing disparities, with too few purchase orders being awarded to MBEs.

The disparity report’s recommendations required gubernatorial approval, Abhulime said.

“Leadership from the top drives what happens downstream,” he said. “DEDI’s success didn’t happen in a vacuum. [Gov. McKee] understands that equity – one of his key priorities – is necessary.”

Calling this “a work in progress,” Abhulime said the office is certifying more MBEs and educating minority communities.

“Tomás is doing intentional outreach to explain the need to get MBE certification and [Gov. McKee] has provided resources for technical supports for such certifications,” Abhulime said.

While diversity issues have been centralized within the division, Ávila is building coalitions by collaborating with other state agencies, such as the R.I. Department of Health, which now has its own office addressing diversity issues.

“Instead of having to enforce diversity, equity and inclusion, we are collaborating … in a natural process,” said Ávila, who noted that officials from The Providence Center Inc. and the Pawtucket School Department, among others, are eager to exchange information with and learn from the Division of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.

“State government’s employees [should] reflect Rhode Island’s diversity,” Abhulime said. “We should make the state workforce look like the people we serve.”

To that end, each executive branch agency is required to submit an affirmative action plan that contains future goals. Referencing census data, Ávila said nearly 31% of the Rhode Island population is minority and the state executive branch employee minority population is nearly 22%.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard a case challenging the use of affirmative action in the college admissions process by Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. Given the Supreme Court’s conservative 6-3 majority, legal scholars anticipate that the decision may prohibit colleges and universities from factoring race into college admissions.

“I am concerned,” Abhulime said when asked about the case. “It speaks to my situation as a Black man. Whenever opportunity and access to education or good-paying jobs becomes harder, it’s painful. I’m paying very close attention and hope that SCOTUS will do the right thing.”

Ávila’s team recently established a system that captures the number of employees who are female and people of color on a weekly basis and is in the process of installing a comparable system for the number of MBEs with state contracts.

With a robust history of engagement with the Latino communities, Ávila said, “[We] need to look for the good in all communities. We need to see the big picture of the needs of all [Black, Indigenous and people of color] communities.”


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