Toby Ayers is a community psychologist who serves as executive director for Rhode Island for Community & Justice, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to fight bias, prejudice and racism by building understanding and respect among all races, religions and cultures.
In her work at the nonprofit, she and her staff help at-risk teens become leaders for a diverse society and promote policy reform in juvenile justice and civil rights, working to keep juveniles out of the “school to prison pipeline,” address challenges in police-community relations, and promote fairness in law and policy.
Ayers holds a Ph.D. from Washington State University, specializing in Community Psychology and Applied Research, and was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Previously she held teaching or research positions at Northeastern University and in the Schools of Medicine at Brown University, Boston University and the University of Illinois at Chicago, and was director of the Rhode Island Commission on Women.
PBN: What is the most pressing issue for Rhode Island for Community and Justice today and how are you addressing it?
AYERS: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” That statement underlies RICJ’s mission. Our most pressing issue today is ensuring that the playing field is level for Rhode Island’s young people. In particular, children in trouble with the law need help immediately, yet far too often services are unaffordable or inaccessible. RICJ is leading a coalition of professionals from the justice system and community members, working to improve the system and expand proven programs that can give juveniles a better opportunity for future success.
PBN: What is RICJ doing to combat bullying and promote youth?
AYERS: In RICJ’s youth programs, teens learn to be more than just bystanders when they see incidents they know are wrong. They learn to build communities that include everyone. Last fall, 12 youth in our after-school Youth Action Council facilitated a school-wide discussion with more than 400 students at a high school on building a respectful community and combating bullying. We trained student leaders at the school who helped YAC youth then lead small group discussions on ways respect can become the new norm at the school. This is just one example among many of how RICJ promotes youth and combats bullying in our community.
PBN: What is Project Respect: The Youth Institute and what will it offer participants this summer?
AYERS: Not your “typical summer camp,” Project RESPECT is a residential institute for 40 high school youth in leadership skills, human relations, and community-building, at Camp Canonicus from June 21-27. The intensive experience includes interactive learning, presentations, discussions and performance. Participant Vickie Hilaire still talks of “the magic that camp provides in creating future leaders … and the kind and caring people who support them! I learned that I have a more powerful voice than I knew. I went when I was 14 years old … Now I am 18 and at Rhode Island College in Nursing. I would not have made it this far without Project RESPECT.” Vickie has returned as a Youth Staff for the camp “witnessing first hand group after group of Rhode Island youth gain the same self awareness I gained.”
PBN: How does your Workplace Diversity Training Program work and what types of clients benefit from it most?
AYERS: RICJ believes that best practice diversity programs link leadership development, business strategy and education. We use a strategic approach to planning, consulting, training, and conflict resolution, serving corporations, businesses, schools and agencies. For schools, our YAC youth peer leaders may serve as co-facilitators. For businesses, if we provide training, we also provide a larger context of organizational strategy and follow-through since we believe that training without strategy cannot succeed long term.