Local heroes 2008

Ramon Martinez, Bill Harley, Ren Whitaker, and Bob Fusaro

In this, the eleventh annual edition of the Providence Phoenix’s “Best” issue, we highlight people and organizations who are doing exceptionally good work. These are local heroes who often labor behind the scenes. Yet they are changing the communities in which they’re based for the better. Regardless of what neighborhood you live in, all of us in Rhode Island are in their debt.


A forceful advocate
It might be a measure of his understanding of philosophy that Ramon Martinez, who expected to find “some really progressive thought” when he came to Rhode Island as the new president-CEO of Progreso Latino in 2006, dryly notes that he has “been pleasantly surprised otherwise.”

This dissonance has hardly stopped Martinez from emerging as a forceful advocate on a hot topic — immigration — that got even hotter when Governor Donald L. Carcieri unveiled a controversial executive order on the subject last month

On Wednesday, April 9, when the General Assembly considered a raft of immigration-related bills, Martinez was at the State House from 10 am to almost midnight, allowing “barely time for a TV dinner.” He asserts that immigrants to America, regardless of their status, have a net positive impact of $80,000 per individual, representing “a spark plug of the economy.”

A retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who once led the Washington field office of the US Southern Command — a unified command responsible for Central and South America and much of the Caribbean — Martinez, 54, brings an unusually rich and varied amount of leadership and business experience to his efforts, which extend well beyond his daily duties at Central Falls-based Progreso Latino.

He grew up in Los Angeles, the son of a Puerto Rican mother and a Dominican-born father who won a Purple Heart for service with the US Army in Korea. Martinez went on to attain a handful of degrees, including two in philosophy. A resident of Provi¬dence’s Promenade district, he cites Immanuel Kant as his favorite philosopher, adding, “Philosophy forces you to look at things through different perspectives, not black and white. It’s [about] asking the right questions.”

He received an Air Force commission through the University of Southern California’s ROTC program, going on, among other experiences, to lead a missile combat crew in Wyoming, to teach at the Air Force Academy, and, as a private consultant, to develop lesson presentations based on Al Qaeda manuals captured in Afghanistan.

After more than two decades in the Air Force, Martinez became a vice president at Genetics & IVF Institute in Virginia, where he promoted DNA technology in the US, Latin America, and the Caribbean. He says he took the job at Progreso Latino, based in a humble former convent building in one of the state’s poorest communities, to give something back to society and to help young people. He calls Progreso, the state’s oldest Latino-oriented organization, “an empowerment agency” that aids 15,000 different people a year.

These days, Martinez serves on the boards of five organizations: Women & Infants Hospital of Rhode Island; local chapters of the American Red Cross and the NAACP; Ocean State Action; and the Northern Rhode Island Tri-Communities Coalition. The last group is an effort Martinez helped establish to foster economic development in Central Falls, Pawtucket, and Cumberland. Why such a small geographic grouping? “Baby steps” are necessary, he says, to make strides in parochial Rhode Island.

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