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Barbara Fields, MCP '85

Building healthy urban communities in Rhode Island
February 22, 2011

Ask Barbara Fields to sum up her thoughts on the Rhode Island branch of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), where she is executive director, and she’ll launch into a story about her colleague Carrie.

“Carrie was at a working-group meeting on health issues in Woonsocket, and all of the stakeholders were there—the local hospital, a community health center, the YWCA, the city planner, local residents,” says Fields. “Someone brought up the fact that patients at the health center had been missing appointments because of public-transit cutbacks. Carrie and [another stakeholder] looked at each other and said, ‘Hey, we know another agency that has shuttle vans that they only use at night. Let’s get them connected!’ Now the health center is in the process of getting access to those vans.”

That, according to Fields, is what LISC is all about—“breaking down silos and strategically linking all the elements that communities need to be strong, including health care and child care with jobs, and housing, and schools,” she says. “That’s the key.”

Fields’ leadership is evident in the Rhode Island branch of LISC, a nonprofit created by the Ford Foundation to mobilize support for community development. But Fields is credited with developing the branch’s operating framework, a vision that rests on an ambitious, comprehensive approach to community revitalization. In Woonsocket alone, she and her seven-person team helped secure more than $75 million of investment financing that supported a child-care center, a community center, a community garden, an artist-in-residence program, reliable after-school programming, and the rehabilitation and development of more than 250 homes and apartments.

“I’ve stayed for 20 years because the job has not been static,” says Fields, who lives in Providence with her children, Daniel and Nina. “It’s very interdisciplinary, like a learning institution.”

Indeed, Fields credits MIT with preparing her well. “The great thing about MIT was that the program wasn’t premised on a traditional planning perspective,” says Fields of the Institute’s city planning curriculum. “We saw communities as complex organisms, and the training was interdisciplinary.” As a graduate student, Fields concentrated in regional economic development and finance but learned about public transportation, education, housing, and planning as well.

“What it instilled in us was a commitment to building positive futures for and with communities,” she says. “We had a strong social-action agenda, and we learned to build our skills and dig deeper.”

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