The Providence Group focuses on climate issues near the Woonasquatucket River

PROVIDENCE — Jenny Mercado has lived in Olneyville for 20 years, but she didn’t start talking about litter in local parks and flooding in the streets until she signed up for Nuevas Voces at the water tablea program that aims to train the next generation of community environmental leaders.

She graduated from the inaugural class of the program run by the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council in 2021 and returned this year to help teach the next cohort of students how to advocate for social justice issues.

“I want to help more people become leaders and take action for the community,” said Mercado, a certified practical nurse at Hasbro Children’s Hospital.

The watershed council is set to expand educational offerings through Nuevas Voces (Spanish for New Voices) with the help of a $30,000 grant from the U.S. Protection Agency of the environment which was announced on Friday.

The council is one of six groups in Rhode Island that received total funding of $191,000 through the EPA’s Healthy Communities grant program.

They include the Rhode Island Environmental Council, which is receiving $40,000 to reduce food waste in schools; the Childhood Lead Action Project, which will use a $30,000 grant to fight lead poisoning in Central Falls; and the Refugee Development Center, which receives about $21,000 to work on asthma management and prevention in low-income and minority communities.

The funds are intended to help neighborhoods that have suffered disproportionately from pollution and other environmental damage and are now dealing with the impacts of climate change, said David Cash, EPA regional administrator in New England.

Once the backbone of RI’s economy,these industrial sites are at risk of flooding, contamination

“We know there are underserved and disadvantaged communities that have suffered the brunt of the environmental ills and have also not benefited from the environmental goods,” he said Friday as he presented his grant to the council of the watershed. “We must right this wrong.”

He spoke at Rising Sun Mills, an apartment and office complex on the Woonasquatucket River that was once a textile mill. The property had fallen into disrepair before being revitalized two decades ago.

It is part of a corridor in Olneyville of once-destroyed industrial properties that are slowly being cleared and transformed into residences, commercial spaces and parks.

The watershed council has been one of the driving forces behind the region’s transformation. It has expanded its mission from improving the water quality of the river to helping build playgrounds and more recently reducing the impacts of flooding in the watershed.

“What you are doing is creating environmental, economic and social change in the community,” U.S. Senator Jack Reed told Alicia Lehrer, executive director of the watershed council, at the event.

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The idea for Nuevas Voces was born several years ago in response to a perceived lack of education on climate and environmental justice issues in some of Providence’s most vulnerable neighborhoods, Lehrer said. The intention was to connect residents of communities who were suffering the effects of the issues with agencies and civic leaders who could do something about them.

“A lot of people struggle to find their way to their elected officials,” she said. “This system is difficult to navigate.”

The new grant will help participants discover projects to adapt to more extreme rainstorms and protect Olneyville from flooding, so they can understand what can be done about the impacts of climate change.

Mercado said she has already learned a lot from the program.

“It opened my eyes,” she says.

Teresa H. Sadler