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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Henry Shelton inducted into Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame

Long overdue honor for an inspirational figure in Rhode Island history
By Will Collette
Over the past fifty years, Henry Shelton has inspired generations of people to believe that it is possible to make this world a better place and that we must all do our share to make it happen.

On April 18, I was there to see Henry receive one of Rhode Island’s highest honors, a place in the RI Heritage Hall of Fame.

Henry had to be helped onto the stage because a severe stroke has impaired his body but as Henry’s wife Carol Shelton, an inspiration in her own right, read Henry’s statement of acceptance, we all understood that the stroke did not impair his keen mind and passion for social justice.

When Henry was still a young priest, Bishop Russell McVinney named him to be the director of the Catholic Inner City Center on Prairie Avenue in South Providence. Because Henry believed that charity is no substitute for justice, he made the Inner City Center a hub of community organizing that helped poor people find their own sense of power to fight for the things they needed for survival.

A generation of future community organizers passed through the Inner City Center and learned the craft of organizing from Henry. Later, after leaving the priesthood, Henry applied the same formula of empowering the poor and training eager and dedicated young people to be organizers in a succession of organizations.

Henry with his RIHHOF award with Carol at his side
For years, Henry’s main organization was the Coalition for Consumer Justice. CCJ, as it was popularly known, morphed into the present day George Wiley Center.

I first met Henry in 1972 and worked very closely with him through the 1970s until Cathy and I left for a 25 year stint in Washington. But throughout our time in Washington, we stayed in close touch with Henry (and hosted him on his occasional visits to DC).

Once we returned, we picked up where we left off with Cathy serving several years on the Wiley Center board while I was one of his de facto labor advisors.

He has been a mentor and inspiration to me for almost my entire adult life.

Cathy and I were sitting at a table with a mixed group of audience members. We were with Marcia and Scott Molloy. Scott, a leading labor history professor at URI, has been a friend and colleague of Henry’s for about as long as Cathy and I have been, going back to the 70s.

But not everyone at the table was a Henry Shelton fan. One of our table companions was a former municipal housing director who told me the story about how he arrived at work one day to see a picket line at his office that had been set up by Henry.

“They were protesting against us, saying we discriminated against Hispanics,” the man sputtered, “But I told them that 70% of our clients were Hispanics so how could we be discriminating?”

I wasn’t at that particular protest, but I’m pretty sure it had nothing to do with the percentage of Hispanics in public housing, but was more likely about how they were treated….but this guy was definitely not at the awards dinner to cheer for Henry.

Henry had a talent for rubbing powerful people like him the wrong way. Even those who fancied themselves as liberals or who felt they were doing their best would often learn that Henry believed they could do more and do it better.

I was also pleased to see South County's own Don Bousquet, beloved
for his Rhode Island-centered cartoons, also get inducted into the Hall
of Fame.
Henry applied that same standard to himself, always striving to do more with less to help those with nothing (or next to nothing) get a fair shake from life.

For many years, Henry focused on the costs of energy and by doggedly challenging National Grid and the Public Utilities Commission to curb rate hikes, make energy affordable and protect the poor from shut-offs, some benefits came to all of us.

I hope Henry will stay with us for years to come, but he will forever be a part of everyone he touched – even the guy who got picketed by him – and now his place in history has been institutionalized by the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame.