The seventh annual Red Bandana award ceremony was held Sunday, June 9, at the Providence Fire Fighters Hall. The awards are bestowed each year recognizing persons or organizations carrying on the social activism of the late Richard J. Walton, who from 1988 to 2011 threw a pot-luck birthday party for himself on the first weekend in June at his home in Pawtuxet Village in Warwick. Instead of birthday presents, he asked for donations to charitable organizations. Walton’s parties were legendary, attracting hundreds of attendees, some of whom, including his former students over the quarter century he taught writing at Rhode Island College, had risen to positions of leadership in politics and media.
Active against poverty, homelessness and hunger, Walton served as president of Amos House (RI’s largest soup kitchen) and of the Stone Soup Folk Arts Foundation (a folk music coffeehouse), and on the boards of non-profit and social service organizations, including the George Wiley Center (advocates for the poor) and the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless.
Walton worked in print and radio journalism from his days at Brown and Columbia in the early 1950s, focusing on international reporting in Africa during decolonization and covering the United Nations until 1967. He published more than a dozen books, the most well known and influential of which was his Vietnam-era Cold War and Counterrevolution: The Foreign Policy of John F. Kennedy in 1972, the first critical analysis of the subject from the perspective of the left.
Walton was too ill with leukemia to hold the party at his home in June 2012, so instead he moved it for the first and only time to the now-defunct Aurora club in Providence. After his death in December 2012, his friends and colleagues created the Red Bandana Fund, and in June 2013 began the practice of continuing the annual party and charitable giving tradition, taking the name from Walton’s trademark bright red bandana worn around his neck with denim overalls.
According to the Red Bandana Fund, the 2019 award recipients are:
• Camilo Viveiros, director of the George Wiley Center, “a Rhode Island non-profit organization founded by past Red Bandana Award recipient Henry Shelton, advocating for the rights and needs of the poor.”
Viveiros told Motif, “I feel honored by being recognized by folks that have been in it for the long haul. When I heard about the award – right now it’s a tough time for everyone, right? Whatever issue you’re working on – economic, racial justice, gender justice – awards like this mean a lot when it’s given by people that have spent decades in the struggle. And it’s also hopeful that our work is going to continue even beyond us, I feel like that’s a really beautiful sentiment that people are still continuing the tradition that Richard started.” Did he know Walton personally? “Well, he was on the board of the George Wiley Center, I’d been to Stone Soup a few times, some actions. Without his work the George Wiley Center wouldn’t have been able to continue to this day. That’s the hope, all of us can do as much as we can and hope to work with others, and it’s a team effort. The thing I love about this, too, is that it’s fun and we need a culture of celebration to help us resist and be stronger together.
• Bella Robinson, director of the RI chapter of COYOTE (“Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics”), “which advocates for policies to promote the health and safety of people involved in the sex industry. In spite of the stigma often attached to her constituents, Bella has fearlessly spoken out for people many would like to ignore, finding a safe harbor for them and addressing their needs.”
Asked for comment, Robinson told Motif, “I’m totally humbled. I’m so humbled. It’s wonderful to be recognized for all the work I’ve done. We worked on a budget of $9,000 with no paid staff. We just got an office this year after eight years. We do street outreach, we do legislation, we support over a hundred incarcerated sex workers, and my job just gets bigger and bigger and bigger every day. I actually got the call right after the hearing that we had at the State House in April, and I had been working 80 hours a week, I was beyond exhausted, and it just gave me such renewed energy to keep going, so it was fabulous.”
• Steve Ahlquist, independent journalist and currently editor-in-chief of Uprise RI, “who has dedicated his life to reporting on issues of peace, the environment, and social and economic justice in the Rhode Island area, writing about news and events that other mainstream outlets often do not cover.”
Ahlquist told Motif, “When I was first offered the award, I went and I looked at all the people who had won it in the previous six years and I read through their names, and I was like, um, just thinking… I know who all these people are, but who’s this guy Steve, I don’t know what he does? And I was really knocked out because there are people here I really think of as heroes who really do amazing work… These people are people I look up to, people who make me do the work I do, these two here [Robinson and Viveiros] make me do the work I do, because I think what they do is so important and I’m proud to go out there and cover their events. Being included as one of them is just really amazing, like Jimmy Olsen being part of the Justice League. Just a really amazing feeling, I really appreciate it.
Stephen Graham, spokesman for the Red Bandana Fund, explained the selection process to Motif. “We try to make it as democratic as possible and all of the nominees spring from the community. There’s a nomination period of about six weeks, March to tax day April 15, and they come in by e-mail. There’s a website where they can fill out a form, and then once the period closes, we all meet but first we read the nominees separately. We all have a good idea going into the meeting about who we like. And then all of us pick the top three, which is always hard to do, but usually when you do that there’s a consensus and two of the top three for everybody are there; sometimes it’s all three, but sometimes it’s six so then we have to talk and debate. Everybody deserves it, but we can only give out so many a year. We’re happy with everything. This year, Bella had some strong entries that it was hard to ignore, just the beautiful prose that people wrote about her. Camilo and Steve were annual nominees, they always got mentioned, and we said, ‘Well, we’ve put them off for long, it’s their time.’… Next year they’ll be another round, it will be hard again. We’re all volunteers who care about doing something positive for a change, and we care about recognizing people who would otherwise not get recognized, despite the fact they’re giving their blood and sweat every day for causes that we all benefit from.”
Musical guests at the 2019 ceremony were Joanne Lurgio and the Extraordinary Rendition Band.