2018-04-19 / Around Town

Conversation: Pauline Perkins-Moye Fighting the Good Fight

By Amy Martin

At just 26 years old Pauline Perkins-Moye was working for the community action program in Newport. She is proud to display clippings from a four-day sit-in, Sept. 23-27, 1968 at the Newport Welfare Dept. at the former Potter School on Elm Street. (Photo by Lynne Tungett) At just 26 years old Pauline Perkins-Moye was working for the community action program in Newport. She is proud to display clippings from a four-day sit-in, Sept. 23-27, 1968 at the Newport Welfare Dept. at the former Potter School on Elm Street. (Photo by Lynne Tungett) Pauline Perkins-Moye has lived her entire life filled with faith, gratitude and responsibility. The second of eight children, she grew up in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Newport and has been tirelessly dedicated to her mission to fight for the less fortunate, as director of Resident Services of Newport Housing Authority, a member of the Newport County NAACP, Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, Newport Partnership for Families, a church and Newport Hospital volunteer, and more. She has crusaded against injustices in housing, food and employment, winning many fights but losing some along the way. She is motivated by the understanding that many times the prize is worth the risk of the fight.

What was your childhood like in Newport? I grew up in a house that my great grandmother lived in on Pearl Street. The neighborhood was very diversified, and everybody got along. It was a tight community. You were brought up with a lot of respect [for your elders]. You didn’t talk back to anybody. If they saw you do something they thought was wrong, it got back to your mother and father. We didn’t have computers or iPhones. Kids were a lot more creative. It was a safer time, too. Everybody watched over everybody.

You have always been civic minded. What were your inspirations? When I was in fifth grade we had a fire in our house. My teacher [Sid Williams] organized the teachers at the Cranston Calvert School and they brought over food and clothes. The shoe stores in Newport gave us all shoes. [Sid Williams] is not only my inspiration, but I believe that he is my vehicle which God sent to this earth to show me what I would be doing in life and that’s helping others, because he helped my family.

How many children do you have, and which values were the most important to teach your children? I have four, and we also raised two nieces. Today, they can appreciate being with me through all those hard times and the times we did advocacy work. They value that they had a religious background. We made do with what we had. I was taught by my mother and my grandmother that what you want for your kids is to be neat and clean. Poor does not mean dirty.

You have been intently focused through the years on improving conditions (housing, food, safety) for those in our community. What is it about these needs that has led you to work so hard for change? [My childhood] is where it all began. I was raised without much money, so that inspired me. I can’t stand when people are suffering.

What are the challenges that Newport faces today, compared to when you first started your work for the community? There were no food stamp programs, there were no hot lunch programs, there were no school breakfast programs.

We went to the school community and asked why there were no lunches for the kids. It took time, but because of legal services [the lunch program] took place. In 1980, we went to the school committee and asked for a breakfast program. The first breakfast program happened 14 years later. The housing market has changed because it is unaffordable. You are forced to live in public housing. Back in the day, public housing was a place where families were able to save money and buy a home. That’s not possible today. Home ownership is really not a reality for a lot of people. A huge misconception is that Newport is Jazz Festival, mansions, rich people. Not only do we have a housing department, but we have a welfare department. That’s why sometimes going after grants is hard. They don’t believe we have any needs. Did you have any major men- tors in your life? If so, who were they, and what did they give you? Martin Luther King Jr. He was a gift from God. I always saw my grandmother on my mother’s side and father’s and my mother and father going to work. Not working was not an option. When you’ve got little birds chirping up at you and you’re the mother bird… you’ve got to feed them.

You are a walking encyclopedia of Newport history. What do we not know about Newport’s history with regard to minorities? Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the War on Poverty Bill in ‘65. The first program that came to Newport [from that bill] was Project Head Start. There were local issues in our neighborhoods like slum landlords, so we decided to do an escrow fund where landlords would have to make the necessary repairs to apartments that were substandard. A week-long series on poor housing [was made] so that we could go to City Hall and say we want a resolution to be adopted. They adopted the resolution, but now people were very reluctant to use the escrow fund because they thought their landlord would evict them. So, Guinea pig Miss Pauline Perkins decided I would do it. [My landlord] didn’t do anything, so I sent my money into City Hall [as per the city resolution].

A few other people started doing the same thing. From there we started neighborhood organizations, the community action program.

Overall, do you feel there have been improvements for minorities in our community over the years? How much more is there to do? A huge concern now is providing meals [for children] from June to September. Sometimes people are so complacent now because they haven’t seen a lot of change. Sometimes you get poor people who come from Philadelphia or Mississippi. To them [the projects of Newport] is gorgeous. It’s relative. Things take time. I didn’t go to college until I was 45 years old.

You are a grateful person with a strong faith. Can you teach gratitude to people, and if so, how? I don’t know. Doesn’t that come as you grow up? I think religion is a big part of it. I don’t want to get on a soap box, but if you believe in a higher being, which I do, it keeps me going. I am grateful that I can still walk the walk. I talk the talk, but I still want to walk the walk.

Perkins-Moye will be awarded the Citizen of the Year Award from the Newport Lodge of Elks on April 21. For tickets, call 401-846-0815.

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