Niko Merritt of Newport is one of just 31 people statewide selected to participate in the Rhode Island Foundation’s Equity Leadership Initiative. The goal is to help build a pipeline of leaders of color for positions of influence throughout the state.
Merritt is the founder and Executive Director of Sankofa Community Connection. Besides having worked for several area nonprofit organizations, she is a certified community health worker, an advocate, crafter, public historian and creator of an award-winning walking tour that explores the lives of early Newporters of African heritage.
“This upcoming year will be one of professional and personal development. I am looking forward to sharing space with others who have similar lived experiences and are able to learn from each other. I will take everything that I learn and apply it so that I can be a better advocate, and continue to show up and fight for the common good of our community,” said Merritt.
Merritt was selected from nearly 70 applicants. Participants identify as Asian, Black, Hispanic or Latino, Indigenous or multi-racial. About 80 percent identify as women. Members of the group work in government as well as in the nonprofit and for-profit sectors.
The 12-month leadership development initiative includes monthly group work sessions, regular one-to-one coaching sessions, being matched with a mentor and networking with high-level connections across sectors.
Other participants are Michael Almonte, Shameem Awan, Debasree Banerjee, Peter Chung, Betty Clinton, Bryanca Colvin, Melissa Cruz, Frances Dalomba, Amanda-Joy Febles, Libertad Flores, Kassandra Florez, Lehidy Frias, Jennifer Gaviria, Octavian Goncalves, Tami Hughes, Jessica Knight, Rodney López, Erendida Montes, Elizabeth Moreira, Luckson Omoaregba, Dorca Paulino, Zoila Quezada, Omar Reyes, Arthur Robinson, Hannah Ross, Ratha Sen, Nakita Thomas, Jessica Vega, Maria Elenda Wah-Fitta and Wendy Wallace.
The leadership program is just one facet of the Rhode Island Foundation’s broad, three-year, $8.5 million plan to advance diversity, equity, inclusion and access – with a first focus on racial equity – above and beyond its traditional yearly grant-making.
“Addressing disparities and inequities is among our fundamental values as well as a focus across all of our work in the community,” said Neil D. Steinberg, Foundation president and CEO . “A racial equity lens is central to our decisions when it comes to allocating resources to improve health, educational success and economic security among other critical issues.”
Recent work includes creating a capacity-building program to support nonprofits led by Asian, Black, Hispanic or Latino, Indigenous or multi-racial executive directors or other decision-makers within an organization; and launching a grant program to help nonprofits create anti-racist organizational cultures.
The Foundation also announced it has allocated $2 million to establish an endowment to permanently support the Equity Leadership Initiative. The Kraft Family Foundation has also recognized this unique opportunity and committed $100,000 to support current operating expenses.