Date October 23, 2022
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Brown and Providence communities unite for late-October WaterFire lighting

The University’s sponsorship of the Saturday, Oct. 22, lighting came during its Family Weekend and 50 Years of Medicine celebrations, and reflected Brown’s commitment to and connection with the City of Providence.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — “The community.” “Watching it evolve.” “Brown, the food, the art, the vibes.” Those were just a few of the thoughts expressed in chalk by visitors to WaterFire Providence on Saturday, Oct. 22, as part of a community art prompt that asked participants their favorite things about the city.

Many of those same sentiments could have been said of WaterFire itself — a full lighting sponsored by Brown University as part of its ongoing commitment to and connection with the City of Providence.

The creation of Brown Class of 1975 graduate Barnaby Evans, WaterFire Providence has not only helped to transform the city culturally and economically over two and a half decades, it still offers one of the most unique urban experiences in the nation. Crackling fires floated atop Providence’s rivers; scents of blazing cedar were ever-present; classical and world music wafted through the air; flickering firelight lit the city’s arched bridges; and crisp October temperatures didn’t hurt the ambiance either.

It was a superb Saturday night celebration of communities from both Brown and well beyond.

Brown Alumni Association president and Class of 2000 graduate Carlos Lejnieks kicked off the night’s lighting ceremony at Waterplace park, lending perspective from his full-time job as CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Essex, Hudson and Union Counties in New Jersey.

“We see the assets of our communities every single day,” Lejnieks said. “We see them in the families we work with. We see them in the streets we walk along. We see them in the traditions that emerge. And as a community-based leader, it is a sincere blessing to know that when things like this — WaterFire — emerge from the community, that they embrace the creativity of our community, that they embrace the arts in our community, and that they're partnered with an anchor institution like Brown University.”

Lejnieks noted that Brown’s sponsorship of the lighting came as the University celebrated multiple occasions: a Family Weekend that welcomed thousands of parents and family members of current students from across the globe; the return of volunteer leaders from Brown’s alumni community; and a commemoration of 50 years of impact in medical education.

It was that half-century of innovation in medical education and research that took center stage in a wide range of activities and exhibitions throughout the evening.

“We do a lot of things to build community and to support Providence and Rhode Island, and one of the ways we do that is through our medical school and our School of Public Health,” Brown President Christina H. Paxson told a crowd gathered for the lighting ceremony. “Advancing medicine means advancing the health of Rhode Islanders. You see this through the excellent physicians who have trained at Brown, who are practicing medicine here in the state. You see this through research that is directly relevant to the lives and well-being of Rhode Islanders, and economic development that creates good jobs for people in this state. I think we can be proud of what we've done over 50 years.”

At the heart of those successes has been deep partnerships with health care organizations and communities across Rhode Island, Paxson said, noting that there’s always more work to be done. Just this week, she said, Brown made a $5 million gift to longtime affiliate Care New England to support a new, technologically advanced labor and delivery center at Women and Infants Hospital, where four out of five babies are born in the state.

Dr. Mukesh Jain, who joined the Warren Alpert Medical School as dean this year, said WaterFire offered an opportunity for Brown to thank the community for its support.

“Care for communities across Rhode Island, our 50 years of educating the next generations of doctors and scientists, and 50 years of innovations that have changed the face of science and medicine — it's really remarkable…” Jain said. “Everything that we have achieved could not have been done without the community’s support. Every Rhode Islander is a part of this school’s history.”

The evening featured an installation of 50 illuminated stars above the fires crackling on Providence’s rivers, designed by Evans — they symbolized not only 50 transformational years of medicine at Brown, Jain said, but the luminaries and events that have changed health care in Rhode Island for the better over the last half century.

“As we look ahead to our next 50 years, we see even greater opportunity for community impact, be it through continued innovation and education to train a diverse and empathetic physician workforce; through research to bring cutting-edge, life-saving therapies to the citizens of Rhode Island; clinical excellence that addresses health disparities; or through proactive community engagement to understand what is needed, to help address those gaps, and in doing so, make health care accessible, affordable and equitable for all,” Jain said.

From inflatable lungs to teddy bear checkups

To bring medical education and research to life for visitors from across the region, the Warren Alpert Medical School featured a series of educational exhibits on Saturday night, including an up-close, firsthand look inside a set of human lungs.

MEGA Lungs, a 12-foot-high inflatable lungs replica, allowed visitors to walk through the respiratory system’s most critical organ. Kids, families and other participants learned about the lung’s various structures and functions, and observed examples of lung trauma and disease — including lung cancer, the leading cause of death from cancer in Rhode Island.

The lungs were impossible to miss and had no trouble attracting attention, for a variety of reasons — Amelia Turbitt, a 6-year old from East Providence, pointed out the emphysema model to her parents because elements of the exhibit were her favorite color, purple.  

Brown medical students also invited kids to act as young doctors in a Teddy Bear Clinic station, where they conducted routine checkups on teddy bears. Each child received their own 50 Years of Medicine bear to take home, and the kids learned about hand-washing, bandage placement, tooth-brushing, flossing technique, and why exercise and nutrition are essential for staying healthy.

Sam McKinnon, a second-year medical student at Brown, said the Teddy Bear Clinic travels to hospitals and schools throughout Providence.

“Every kid that participates gets to be the doctor,” he said. “They use a stethoscope and a blood pressure cuff and take the temperature of the bear. The whole point is to hopefully make it so that kids go to the doctor and that they are aware of what’s happening and feel more comfortable and aren’t scared of the process. And, we are the Teddy Bear Clinic, so it’s important to us that every kid also goes home with a teddy bear.”

“It was fun because I got to be the doctor!” said Santino Mariantti, an 8-year-old from Cranston, R.I.

Jacob Salguero, a first-year student at North Providence High School who aspires to be a veterinarian, valued the opportunity to learn about different medical instruments. “I liked practicing with the blood pressure cuff.”

A diverse lineup of student and community artists

The night’s events weren’t all about medical education, though. Following a torch-lighting ceremony in which members of the Brown community gathered at the Providence River Basin to help ignite the night’s fires, the University hosted hospitality tents for Brown parents and families on Market Square, Warren Alpert Medical School community members on Washington Street, and alumni leaders on College Street.

The evening also included a diverse lineup of public performances and events featuring Brown student organizations. A cappella performances filled the streets with music from the Ursa Minors and Shades of Brown, as well as Beauty and the Beats, a troop that performs Disney songs. DAEBAK K-Pop, which performs Korean pop music, joined other dance acts, including the Brown Salsa Club.

For musicians and Brown students Chance Emerson, Satch Waldman and Jack Riley, the opportunity to perform at WaterFire Providence  was a homecoming of sorts. From Sept. 27 to Oct. 8, they traveled to music venues up and down the East Coast as the opening act for the famed Blues Traveler. Saturday’s set list was a bit shorter, but the crowd was every bit as enthusiastic to welcome a Brown-based act making waves nationally.

Emerson — a double-concentrator in computer science and archaeology — said his music is inextricably linked to his experience at Brown and the city it calls home.

“I write, record and produce everything here in Providence,” Emerson said. “I’m working with my best friends, and my bandmates are my housemates. I learned so much about music production from my coursework. I would not be touring had I not come to this school. And we would not be making this kind of music had we not become part of this community.”

Other groups featured during the night’s festivities included Art4Service, a student organization that makes art for public good. This semester, students are working with the Sojourner House, a nonprofit that assists people affected by domestic violence, to design and paint a mural that promotes healthy relationships; previously, they created coloring pages for pediatric patients at Miriam Hospital.

On Saturday, more than 20 Brown students from Art4Service led a live-painting event capturing the sights of WaterFire throughout the evening. Brown sophomore Sarah Wong, co-president of Art4Service, was eager to try painting the scene in real-time: “This is my first time sitting with an easel to paint a live scene,” she said. “When I paint, I typically look at an image online or a photo, but it’s exciting to be here and to take it all in.”

Throughout the night, crowds of visitors stopped along the city’s illuminated pathways to admire fire dancers, Teiko drummers, origami artists and even stone gargoyles that unexpectedly jumped to life.

Local artist Brian Bigalow led a glass-blowing demonstration in which he used a torch to melt and mold rods of glass into smaller objects. The Providence-based studio Gather Glass offers introductory glass-blowing classes where students ages 8 and up can make ornaments, paperweights, vases, pint glasses and bowls. But bringing the art of flameworking to WaterFire is central to Gather Glass’s mission to connect with the local community through art, said studio founder and fellow glass artist Benjamin Giguere.

“Our name embodies who we are,” Giguere said. “Gather is symbolic of bringing people together, and Gather’s glass artists have led demonstrations at WaterFire for 12 years. We respect what WaterFire brings to the Providence community, the state and people’s lives. I tell everyone that you’ve got to go to at least one WaterFire in your life. It’s a unique experience that is attractive to the soul.”