Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of profiles of the new leaders of Central Falls, a community emerging from the turmoil of bankruptcy to become a virtual New City, with new officials in place and new goals for the future.
CENTRAL FALLS – Sonia Grace has spent her working life doing whatever she can to help others improve the quality of their lives, and it’s a commitment that continues now that she is chief of staff to Mayor James A. Diossa.
The former Sonia Rodrigues, 37, is a Brown University graduate, the mother of five, and a Central Falls resident since she was a teenager. She became chief of staff in mid-March and is the first person to hold the newly created $60,000-a-year position.
She is well aware that she begins her job at a sensitive time for the once-bankrupt city and its residents.
“Everything we do, even if we weren’t Central Falls and even if we weren’t at this moment in time, everything we do in this line of business has a consequence for our residents and our city,” she said during a recent wide-ranging interview with The Times. “For us, that is even more so, because we don’t want to repeat any of the mistakes of the past.’
Yet, at the same time that caution is called for, “we want to be creative and take the necessary risks to move forward,” Grace added.
Grace comes to City Hall after 11 years of employment in what can best be described as the field of human services. She spent a year working with foster parents at Urban League of Rhode Island, five years as a policy analyst with Rhode Island Kids Count, three years as director of “Health Leads” at Hasbro Children’s Hospital, and two years with the Rhode Island Higher Education Assistance Authority.
These experiences helping people – whether foster parents or families seeking scholarships -- were “eye-opening” and “life-changing,” she said. She spoke of assisting “hard-working families without a lot of money” and how impressed she was at “how much they could do with how little they had.”
Her previous employment cemented her decision to focus on policy -- a dry topic for most people perhaps but, for Grace, policy is where “my juices really flow.” “What I realized was that the satisfaction of helping one person or one family doesn’t overcome the frustration of knowing that there are other people out there I couldn’t help,” she said.
In contrast, a change made in government policy can help dozens or even hundreds of people, she explained. An obvious example is the mayor’s recent decision to keep City Hall open in the evenings for two nights each month. “That’s one little thing,” Grace said, “but it could help a family so much if they don’t have to take time out of work.”
Another lesson she’s learned from her human services experience is how inter-connected social problems can be. “Even here, I’m using those lessons,” she said. “If we don’t understand a family’s housing situation and how that impacts their security and how it impacts their health, then we can’t address any one of those issues without addressing the others. You can’t ignore all the others.”
Grace believes such lessons apply “whether you’re looking at a child or a city,” she said. “All our departments are inter-related and they can’t operate in silos.” The tough part, she readily agreed, is how to bring about such unity. “On a day-to-day basis, how we make that happen, that’s when it becomes difficult,” Grace said.
In the area of economic development, for instance, “it’s not the same here as anywhere else,” Grace said, in part because the city has a court-mandated financial plan it must follow that could affect what the city can offer new businesses. In addition, “it’s a learning process for us,” Grace said. “We have to understand what our businesses look like, what do our businesses need from us, what do our residents need from us.”
As chief of staff, Grace brings a similar all-inclusive approach to her work with employees. “I think critically every day about each and every one of our staff,” she said, “starting with the department heads, what they need to do their jobs, how do I support their vision.”
“Our employees have been through a lot, so they need to know they’re appreciated, they need to know we appreciate what they’ve done and we can appreciate all that they are doing,” she said. “Those are my goals, to have our staff – our team – feel they are recognized and rewarded.”
She has found the staff receptive. “Everyone in City Hall is actively talking about how do we improve what we have. The status quo is not acceptable,” Grace reported. “It’s exciting, it’s happening, it’s a very exciting place to be. You see people who have been here a long time committed to improvement and a new vision.”
Residents, too, seem receptive. Grace reported that city residents drop by every day simply to say “hi” to the mayor. “They come in all the time,” she said, “every day, all day. We had two today, and that’s how it should be.”
Grace is vice chairman of the Central Falls School Committee, a position that in other communities might present a conflict with her City Hall job. But Grace noted that the courts have ruled the state-run school system is a completely separate entity from the city, and the school committee’s role now is no more than advisory, so she said no conflict exists.
It was about three years ago when she first met Diossa, then a councilman who came to a School Committee meeting to speak about city events. “It was the first time we [school committee] had seen a council person,” Grace said with a laugh. She later took part in city cleanups that Diossa sponsored and got to know him, but she did not actively campaign for him. So his subsequent offer of a job came “out of the blue,” Grace said. “I didn’t expect it.” She took some time to think about it before accepting. “It was a big step,” she said, “and I wanted to be sure I could deliver what he wanted me to deliver.”
Asked why it is he chose Grace as his chief of staff, Diossa told The Times, “her resume speaks for itself.” He reeled off her accomplishments: Brown graduate, mother of children in school in Central Falls (Seton Academy), a Central falls resident who sits on the school committee, actively involved in the community. “There are qualities that will help me in my decision-making and serve my administration well,” the mayor said.
Grace is married to Tim Grace, a former Times staff reporter, and they are the parents of five children, aged 5 to 11. Sonia is a native of Portugal who lived there until she came to Central Falls at the age of 15. She went to Hope High School and earned her Brown degree in international relations and Portuguese studies in 1998.