Stages of Freedom, an award-winning nonprofit organization, strives to educate the public about Rhode Island’s history – the positive and the negative – by providing a variety of offerings while “building bridges across cultural divides through exciting public engagement.”
“Rhode Island’s Black history is unlike any other in the country,” says Stages of Freedom cofounder and executive director Ray Rickman.
Stages of Freedom, which opened in 2016, is an educational resource offering many programs that promote diversity, discussion, and empowerment. Though vastly different from each other, these programs share similar goals and outcomes. Those involved in the organization’s programs work hard to address the racial inequities that Rhode Islanders face and provide avenues that could increase economic opportunities.
“We exist as a resource and catalyst for people wanting to learn about RI Black history,” says Robb Dimmick, co-founder and program director. “There are so few people and organizations doing this work. We are a go-to for people that want to know more locally and nationally.”
Both agree that, while they balance as many tasks as possible in an effort to decrease racial inequality, their two main missions are to celebrate and promote Black history in Rhode Island, as well as provide swimming lessons in partnership with local YMCAs through their Swim Empowerment program.
“They’re two missions that work well together,” says Dimmick.
“Everything we do is different depending on need,” Rickman adds. “Each [need] requires us to stop, plan, and think.”
If you walk by the Stages of Freedom storefront on Westminster St., you may think it’s just a bookstore, but step inside and you’ll learn it’s a museum, bookstore, and a gift shop that sells artifacts, antiques, jewelry, vinyl, and African masks.
“There is no other bookstore in the state that has the selection we have for African American books,” Dimmick says.
The Stages of Freedom museum is devoted to educating patrons on African American history in Rhode Island and beyond. The floorplan was flipped during the pandemic to devote 80% of the building space to the museum. The knowledgeable staff take their time to answer questions, tell stories, and bring people together. They especially want to educate and inform those willing to listen.
“We want people to be illuminated,” Dimmick says. “It’s visually stimulating. We want them to feel connected to the community and want to come back and know more.”
Rickman tells the story of a father who brought his four children in with him one day. He said that they spent a lot of time in the shop and looked at everything. He boasted that the father really wanted his kids to know their history. “
His five-year-old asked questions you would expect from a college kid,” Rickman added.
Stages of Freedom offers programs and schedules speaking events on a variety of topics. Their programs celebrate African American history and culture while also working to bring different cultures together.
“All of our events are a mixture of cultures,” Rickman says. “The events are enriching, and we do a lot of them.”
“These programs are intergenerational,” Dimmick adds. “Kids are visible, and we want people to see them and their incredible potential as citizens of the world.”
Proceeds from the storefront and museum help fund their Swim Empowerment program. Stages of Freedom works with local YMCAs to provide swim lessons for 500 children of color annually. They say that learning to swim will promote healthy living, economic opportunities, and wellness – while also potentially saving lives.
“Our biggest project is teaching Black kids to swim,” Rickman says. “Many Black kids drown (African American children drown at five times the rate as white children). 80% of Black people do not swim.”
The Swim Empowerment program was just awarded a large grant by Senator Jack Reed that will help them reach their goal. They have already certified 2,500 swimmers and are constantly reaching out to convince more folks to try. Rickman admitted that it has been difficult to attract kids since COVID, but that hasn’t stopped them from continuing to reach out to communities to sign kids up for swimming lessons.
“When a Black kid drowns, 1.5 kids drown,” Rickman says of the importance of teaching BIPOC children to swim. “A sibling will try to help because they don’t want to go home and tell their family something happened. When a kid drowns, it pulls the entire community down. It feels as if 50 people just drowned. It’s unnecessary.”
“We’re breaking down systemic barriers by having kids in our program swimming with mostly white kids,” Dimmick adds.
Stages of Freedom receives funding primarily for their swim program, but they plan to leave a broader legacy. They are building an endowment that will allow the program to continue for many years to come.
“Our swimming program has to continue,” Rickman says. “We’re going to make our work everlasting.”
Stages of Freedom serves as a resource and bridge builder. Rickman and Dimmick are of different races, which allows them to understand both perspectives and see where they join and intersect.
“The bottom line of our work is to bring Black and white people together in shared spaces,” Dimmick says. “We want them to see each other and understand the power of Black history. It is a shared history and not a separate history.”
Stages of Freedom is located at 10 Westminster St in PVD. Call (401) 426-0606 for more information. Their website, stagesoffreedom.org, offers many resources that they urge anyone to use, especially teachers.