Local heroes 2008

Ramon Martinez, Bill Harley, Ren Whitaker, and Bob Fusaro
April 17, 2008 12:23:12 PM

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.

The Progreso Latino CEO is also active with the Univocal Legislative Minority Advisory Coalition (ULMAC), a nonpartisan network that advocates a consensus agenda on issues impacting communities of color in Rhode Island. Issues taken up by the group include what Martinez calls the “microscopic” percentage of people of color on state boards and commissions, and how, he says, 99.5 percent of the recipients of the state’s minority enterprise bill are either women or Portuguese men.

As a broad thinker who speaks in paragraphs, Martinez believes the Ocean State has a lot of potential — particularly if its schools can be transformed from an outdated industrial age-model to a forward-looking one that emphasizes critical thinking and other desirable skills. “We could do a lot more if we wanted to,” he says

Martinez doesn’t hesitate to take strong stances during the state’s ongoing immigration debate.

He perceives Carcieri’s executive order as “an old trick,” calling it a deliberate distraction from the budgetary problems facing Rhode Island.

And the effort of some to make English the official language of the US reveals an agenda no different, Martinez says, from the kind of discrimination once faced by Irish and Italian immigrants. It would also be a bad precedent, he says, since the language could be changed again if some group with another language tops more than 51 percent of the population. And as it stands, Martinez notes, there are many non-immigrant Rhode Islanders whose English proficiency is less than top-notch.

As part of his work after 9/11, the former Air Force officer was left with an appreciation of the importance of building “resilient communities,” those that can bounce back after facing trauma.

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