Kinzel Thomas receives FSRI’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Award for his commitment to social justice

As a civil rights activist, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. truly embodied FSRI's mission of advancing equity, opportunity and hope. This year, in commemoration of MLK Day, FSRI honored Community Health Team Supervisor Kinzel Thomas with its inaugural Martin Luther King Jr. Award.

“Dr. King, to me, is a superhero,” said Thomas.

Thomas has worked on the FSRI staff for the past eight years and continuously demonstrates a commitment to social justice and equity through his time on and off the clock. Thomas began as a Case Manager in FSRI’s Home-based Department in 2013 and quickly advanced to serve as the Community Health Team Supervisor and co-chair of the Equity and Justice Committee.

“Kinzel is not only an outspoken leader in communicating our goals of advancing equity in the communities we serve, he also advocates with compassion and understanding,” one of his nominators commented.

This new award acknowledges one FSRI staff member who has exhibited leadership in advancing equity, advocated for fair treatment of vulnerable populations, and maintained a commitment to social justice through their professional and personal lives. Receiving the award has been a great honor for Thomas and still strikes him as surreal.

“The outpouring emails and phone calls I received through the agency has been so heartwarming. To hear from folks I began my career with reach out and say congratulations ... It means a lot,” said Thomas.

He also spoke of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s impact and what it meant to be honored with an award in his name.

“This is a man who dedicated his life to standing up in face of adversity, pushing the envelope for social justice, inclusion and equity. For me, to be able to push that message forward and be recognized for it is a lot …. There are others in this agency that do this work that go above and beyond for their communities …. I think this award you can hand it to multiple people in this agency,” said Thomas.

Many of Thomas’s experiences growing up in South Providence led him to his role within FSRI and the community today. As a child, he witnessed racial profiling and saw the adverse reactions family and friends had toward law enforcement. After having his own run-in where derogatory comments were made, Thomas developed a negative taste for the police and fostered the illusion that this was how police officers treated people of color. Over time, he realized that harboring anger wasn’t the right approach and wouldn’t solve the issue. Therefore, he attended a community forum addressing the problems between police officers and locals.

This forum proved to be fruitful when the Providence Chief of Police approached him after the meeting. Thomas, who had spoken at the event, made a lasting impression so the two exchanged numbers. Thomas went on to serve as an advisory board member for the Providence Police Department where he joined other community members in interviewing candidates for police positions. The committee would look for a diverse group who could relate to youth and systemic issues.

“I enjoy serving on there because it is important to hear voices of folks in the community when they are evaluating police officers and policies,” said Thomas.

Thomas continuously uses his voice to help law enforcement understand the community they’re policing and offers new approaches in mending relationships with them. He also spent time working with kids from the Youth Diversion Program (YDP) who had unfavorable encounters with the police and brought the two together to repair feelings and create a relationship. Thomas understood that individuals who had negative opinions about the police could change their perspectives by looking for positive ways to overcome those feelings.

On top of the advisory board and YDP, Thomas joined the Advisory Council to Reduce Gun Violence in 2017. Thomas’s uncle had been murdered in Providence back in 1995 and, to this day, the case remains unsolved. He understands how these situations continue to haunt many families throughout Providence and having the opportunity to be a voice of reason in the community to resolve issues without violence is a mission he holds dear. The Providence School Board also caught Thomas’s attention after his work with youth and seeing the system through their lens and the barriers they’ve encountered. The chronic absenteeism and suspension that these children dealt with was a problem he wanted to fix since less time in school meant missing out on an education.

There’s no doubt that Thomas has given his all to FSRI and the Rhode Island community. His drive for change propels him forward in meeting the people’s developing needs. Even the Equity and Justice Committee, which he helped form less than a year ago, is one of the newest ways he’s helping Rhode Islanders.

“At a time when, as a nation, we are having this reckoning when it comes to racial justice and inequality, I think the creation of this group was an excellent idea. It’s been an honor to serve in this capacity to see a group of folks come together like we have in this agency,” stated Thomas.

This committee is devoted to making changes that will benefit the community long term. The program has had a positive impact in a short amount of time and, when looking into the rest of 2021, Thomas is hopeful.

“I think that on the heels of the inauguration and people beginning to turn the page, we can begin to focus on community. Throughout the pandemic and social unrest we have experienced, it seems like now is the perfect time to readjust our lens and focus on community,” said Thomas.

There is still work to be done, but Thomas is up for the challenge. He remains diligent in devoting his time and pushing the envelope like Dr. King did so others can live in a more equitable and socially just world. Working with a passionate team at FSRI has been a privilege and helps drive his motivation in giving back to the community.

Written by: Emma Bartlett