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Friday, July 29, 2011

Honoring a great Rhode Islander

Henry Shelton (l) and Carol Shelton (r)
copyright, The Pawtucket Times
Governor Chafee held a ceremonial signing of the new Henry Shelton Law yesterday at the State Capitol.

The event was more about honoring the great man whose name appears on the bill, more than anything else. The Governor had actually signed the bill into law two weeks ago. But such ceremonies are done on occasion when a piece of legislation means more than just the words on paper.

Such was the case a year ago when the Colin Foote Law, sponsored by Rep. Donna Walsh, was signed into law. Then, the point was that the Colin's Law was to be a first step in taking dangerous drivers off the road.

But the ceremony for the Henry Shelton Law was an affirmation of the lifelong work of Henry Shelton to help improve the lives of poor people in Rhode Island.


Henry began his career as a campaigner for social justice when he was a Catholic priest in charge of the Providence Inner City Center in South Providence. Set up by the Diocese of Providence to dispense charity to the poor, Henry felt that he needed to give the poor more than just charity. What the poor needed was more power, the power to change their lives and the power to change social policy.

Henry became one of Rhode Island's earliest community organizers and, over the years, he trained or mentored hundreds of organizers (including me), and many of them are still working at it here in Rhode Island.

While Henry has worked on almost every issue and aspect of life that affects the poor - jobs, education, hunger, housing, health care - Henry is best known for his work on energy. Not as an environmentalist, but from the conviction that in a wealthy country like ours, no person should have to chose between heating and eating, or have to freeze to death.

For years, Henry has fought and organized others to fight for a program that would give low-income people a chance to dig their way out of debt to the utility companies. This new legislation creates a new fund - that will be funded by you and me through a surcharge on our utility bills - that will help replenish rapidly disappearing federal funding for heat and utility assistance to the poor. It will also create a "percentage of income" repayment plan that allows people who fall behind a chance to pay their bills off - as a percentage of income - while keeping the power on.

There were two great stories in the newspapers today about the ceremony. Of course, the ProJo covered the story.

But my favorite of the two pieces is the one by Jim Baron in the Pawtucket Times. In my opinion, Baron is one of the best political reporters in the state, and one of a dying breed of journalists who have worked the same beat for the same newspaper for a generation. Baron has known Henry for many years and you can tell in Baron's writing that this was a story he has waited a long time to write.

Author: Will Collette