Lil’ Rhody Racks Up Presidential Appointments

goodbyeBarack Obama has an eye for talent—and it’s pointed at Rhode Island.

This weekend, Obama appointed Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri to the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, which describes its mission as connecting people through various arts and cultural tourism.  Lahiri joins five other PCAH committee appointees, including visual artist Chuck Close, BET co-founder Sheila Johnson, and Ken Solomon, CEO of the Tennis Channel.

Lahiri, whose novels and short story collections include The Namesake, Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth, moved to Rhode Island as a toddler and graduated from South Kingston High.  (Her father Amar has been a librarian at URI since 1970, earning a master’s there in 1973, and his wife Tapati is currently a URI degree candidate.)  Lahiri’s memories of Rhode Island include observing some panic over an impending hurricane.  (What, no mention of bread and milk?)

Although she didn’t attend college in Rhode Island, Jhumpa has spoken at local commencements, given readings at Brown and URI, and received an honorary URI degree.  She also taught creative writing courses at RISD and Brown.

News of Lahiri’s appointment comes just months after Rhode Islander (and RIC and JWU graduate) Brenda Dann-Messier was confirmed as assistant director of the U.S. Department of Education.  Obama nominated Dr. Dann-Messier last year after hearing of her good work to advance education and careers in Rhode Island, most notably as executive director of Dorcas Place, which helps low-income Rhode Islanders succeed by providing literacy, college prep and workforce training.  Previously, she had served in similar capacities at Brown and CCRI.  She also served on several boards dedicated to making college affordable and accessible for Rhode Islanders.

Shortly after her appointment, Dann-Messier lured RI Director of Adult Education Johan Uvin to join her in Washington as her senior adviser.  Uvin reformed adult education in Rhode Island between 2005 and 2009, nearly doubling hours of instruction from 76 to 150 and greatly increasing rates of enrollment, completion and test scores for Rhode Island adults transitioning into postsecondary education and training.

Obama also nominated RI Superior Court Associate Justice O. Rogeriee Thompson for a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which would make Thompson the first black female to serve on that Court.  Thompson graduated from Brown and holds honorary degrees from URI and Bryant.  Sheldon Whitehouse strongly supported Thompson’s nomination prior to the Senate Judiciary Committee’s vote (no word yet on a confirmation).

[Update: thanks to a tip from the Dose editors, I can sing praises for yet another talented Rhode Islander tapped by Obama: Cynthia Giles, former VP/director of Conservation Law Foundation’s Rhode Island Advocacy Center, whose work since 2005 on RI and regional advocacy to combat climate change earned her a nomination for the Environmental Protection Agency.  Giles is now assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.]

There are probably other Rhode Island nominations or appointments that I’m overlooking.  For a state ranking 43rd in population, we have a healthy amount of bright, enthusiastic people who can step up to contribute to national issues.  This is the best kind of “brain drain” I can imagine.

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