In this, the ninth annual edition of the Providence Phoenix’s “Best” issue, we highlight four 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.
Bill Shuey - Making a place for new Americans
When Bill Shuey became director of the International Institute of Rhode Island (IIRI) in 1984, he had no idea he’d still be there more than 20 years later. But this outgoing California native, now 59, has always been interested in seeing the world and in trying to make his mark on it. Shuey took four years of Spanish in high school, studied in Europe while in college, and after graduation, he went to Turkey with the Peace Corps. While there, he realized he wanted to become a teacher.
During the last years of his Ph.D. work at New York University, he followed his first wife, a med student, to Rhode Island, where he began teaching refugees and immigrants at two South Providence organizations, including Project Persona. That group had been working closely with another South Providence organization, the International Institute, which had helped immigrants and refugees to build new lives in the US since the 1920s. When the IIRI’s longtime director retired, Shuey stepped into his current role and merged the two agencies.
After years of pushing for immigration reform, Shuey and the Institute are among the scores of individuals and groups that have helped bring this issue to the center of public attention. On the day of our recent interview, there were large demonstrations throughout the country, with approximately 3000 people marching in Providence. “It’s certainly a moment for change, but it’s discouraging that it seems to have collapsed in the Senate,” Shuey says. “We’ll continue to work with groups that push for reform, and we’re confident that [Senators] Reed and Chafee will push for the Senate to get it out of committee without gutting it. We’ll keep reminding them of that.”
Although the Institute’s evolution has mirrored the growth of the state’s immigrant communities, specifically Latino immigrants, and Southeast Asian and African refugees, it’s Shuey’s vision, to a large degree, that has led the organization in the right directions. In contrast to when he started, for example, Institute now has a full-time lawyer, plus six paralegals, all of whom represent people during citizenship or deportation hearings. These gains required support from the Rhode Island Bar Association, and accreditation by the Bureau of Immigration Appeals, a division of the US Department of Justice.