2017 Village Awardees


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"Paramount Chief Award"

Mr. James Alexander

Former Peace Corps volunteer, Executive Director of the Allen Ministries Enriching Neighborhoods (AMEN) and Mentor for Children’s Friends “Dads Making a Difference Program”

"The Paramount Chief" holds the cane and has the world attached to his/her shoulders. How else do we honor a man who has spent over 50 years of his life, working to make the world a better place? Mr. James Alexander deserves such distinction. HGI is proud to award its prestigious 2017 Paramount Chief Award to Mr. Alexander for his years of exemplary service and resounding commitment to our collective interest of “Bringing the Village Together.”

Mr. James Alexander is a stalwart force in the Providence community and a reassuring presence at Higher Ground International. Since its inception, he has played a critical role in bringing Higher Ground’s vision to life, helping to lay the groundwork from which we have been able to build. James has been unwavering in his passion, dedication, and willingness to support our mission and work in Rhode Island and Liberia. James Alexander is not new to community engagement and fighting for the needs of marginalized people around the world.

Starting as a Peace Corps volunteer, community builder and teacher in Sierra Leone and Liberia, James has been dedicated to working on the ground to make sustainable and effective change in rural village communities around the world. After his years of service overseas, James became overcome by a need to continue community work and brought his change-making skills to Providence. Here, he has quietly touched the lives of many around him. Whether he was working as Executive Director of the Allen Ministries Enriching Neighborhoods (AMEN) or as a Mentor for Children’s Friends “Dads Making a Difference Program,” Mr. Alexander has been there to lend a hand, fighting for increased access to housing, workforce skills and education for all. He also finds the time to help others start and build grassroots organizations to create necessary impact in communities here and abroad.

In 2009, the African Alliance of Rhode Island recognized James with the Nelson Mandela Freedom, Peace & Unity Award for a lifetime of contributions to Africa and its peoples. It is clear that James is a pillar of the community wherever he may go and his extensive experiences and accomplishments speak to his inspirational and invigorating spirit. We are honored and proud to have James Alexander as a part of our Higher Ground family.

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"Clan Chief Award"

Karen Lee Ziner

Retired Reporter from The Providence Journal & Social Justice Advocate

Holding the broom or palm thatch, the Clan Chief is the sweeper of the way: nothing moves until he/she moves. Karen Lee Ziner has been steady and consistent in her efforts to tell the difficult stories of human sufferings and inequity, working to provide unbiased reporting and a fight for social justice. It is in that light, that we here at HGI, is pleased to honor Karen with the extraordinary 2017 Clan Chief Award. Her life's work exemplifies the true mission of Higher Ground International.

Karen Lee Ziner, a Massachusetts native, moved to Rhode Island in 1980 to pursue a career with The Providence Journal. Until she retired from the paper in May, Karen was a general assignment reporter, covering the people, events and culture that shape the state.

Karen frequently focused on the struggles and accomplishments of immigrants from Central and South America and elsewhere; as well as refugees from around the world who had fled war, persecution, poverty and other hardships. Cambodians who survived the Khmer Rouge holocaust; other Southeast Asians devastated by the Vietnam War. Russian Jewish refugees fleeing religious persecution. Africans - from Liberia, Somalia, the Gambia, Nigeria and elsewhere, and most recently, people from Bhutan, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Karen has traveled extensively to many countries - from Cuba to Cambodia, Mexico to India and points in between - both for pleasure and to inform her writing about other cultures.

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"Kingdom Chief Award"

Ms. Susan L. Sweet

Founder, R.I. Minority Elder Task Force | Associate Director of the R.I. Department of Elderly Affairs | Veteran Civil Rights Movement & War on Poverty Advocate | Pro Bono Consultant and Advocate for Non-profit Organizations

It is heartwarming to know that we have allies who have come before us, people who have been in the trenches fighting the good fight for social justice and equity. Good people that we need to recognize.  Ms. Susan L. Sweet stands to be so honor.

"The Kingdom Chief" (Khan) - “Holds the cow’s tail” which is a symbol of leadership and is the facilitator for the Paramount Chief. It is our distinct pleasure to award HGI's distinguished 2017 Kingdom Chief Award to Ms. Susan L. Sweet. Ms. Sweet has been a stalwart advocate, working in the trenches for years to bring equity and give voice to those who have not always had the opportunity to speak for themselves. She brings to life the mission of Higher Ground International in her effort to help Restore Dignity and it is because of that, that we are proud to honor her for her life's work.

A veteran of the Civil Rights Movement and the War on Poverty, Susan worked for passage of state civil rights legislation and was dedicated to community organizing and training low-income residents to become effective community activists. Susan joined the state Department of Community Affairs in 1972, where she founded the Division of Women’s Programs and Human Resources, which supported and provided programs that furthered women’s equality and assisted low-income residents.  Susan worked with the General Assembly to secure the first R. I. state funding for Domestic Violence Shelters.  She also developed and implemented the first state block grant funding for Community Action Agencies, which provide services to the state’s low-income populations. . After developing health centers throughout the state with federal funds she successfully sought, Susan founded and led the R. I. Health Center Association, Inc., member agencies still providing healthcare around the state.

In the late ‘80s and ‘90s, she was Associate Director of the R. I. Department of Elderly Affairs, creating and developing a number of award winning programs, including the R. I. Pharmaceutical Assistance to the Elderly Program, popularly known as RIPAE.  She initiated a statewide Elder Housing Security program, the free bus pass program for low-income elders and people with disabilities and various legislative and programmatic initiatives to assist elders and low-income residents in the state.  During that time, she founded and led the R.I. Minority Elder Task Force, which is a 501 © (3) organization that advocates and educates for culturally and language appropriate services as well as provides funds for low-income elders in crisis situations. Board members reflect the diversity of the state.

On loan to the Department of Human Services for 18 months, Susan worked with the legislature to create programs for immigrants who were excluded from federal benefits in 1996. She was successful in persuading the General Assembly to initiate and fund a Food Stamp and Medicaid program for immigrants in Rhode Island who were excluded from federal funds but otherwise eligible. She also advocated for and received a state appropriation which was provided to groups assisting immigrants.  At that time, Susan also developed the R. I. Domestic Violence Waiver Program, which provides special assistance to those Family Independence Act participants and applicants who are victims of domestic violence.

After retiring from the state in 2000, Susan became a consultant and lobbyist for nonprofit agencies and maintained her pro bono advocacy for elder issues and immigrant and minority vulnerable populations.  Working with agencies such as the Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Coalition for the Homeless, International Institute, Progreso Latino, the Citizenship Consortium and others, she was able to increase funding for their work and have legislation passed to help their target populations.  She is currently working pro bono only, including the R.I. Minority Elder Task Force.


"Clan Chief Award"

Gabe Amo

Director of Public Engagement & Community Affairs for Governor Gina M. Raimondo of Rhode, Island|Year Up Providence Mentor| Member of Moses Brown School Board of Trustees & Wheaton College President's Commission

Holding the broom or the palm thatch, the "Clan Chief" is the sweeper of the way: nothing moves until he/she moves. Higher Ground International is delighted to confer its 2017 Clan Chief award to Gabe Amo. We see and honor Gabe Amo as a young man of African descent who have done well to honor his heritage and thus, make us all proud. His commitment to cultivating the intrinsic and unique gifts of each individual as a form of community building and empowerment personifies the mission of HGI. We congratulate Gabe on his quiet achievements of working to build bridges that create pathways of opportunities for people in underserved communities. Higher Ground International’s mission is to ensure the overall well-being and “upliftment,” of each member of our beloved village community. We honor you, Gabe!

Gabe Amo serves as the Director of Public Engagement and Community Affairs for Governor Gina M. Raimondo, Rhode Island’s first female governor. In this role, he manages the Governor’s relationships and outreach to external stakeholders, including the business community, labor unions, municipal officials, and advocates on a wide range of issues.

Before returning home to Rhode Island, Gabe served in the White House in the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, managing President Barack Obama's relationships with Governors and other state elected officials around the country. He also worked on President Obama's 2012 reelection campaign as the National Political Coordinator, Sheldon Whitehouse for Senate in 2006, and for many other political races in Rhode Island. Gabe attended Moses Brown School in Providence, and served as President of the Student Senate. Later, he graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Wheaton College, where he was also elected student government president, and won a national Truman Scholarship for commitment to a career in public service. Additionally, during his undergraduate studies, Gabe participated in education and community development projects on the Liberian Budumburam Refugee Camp in Ghana and in rural Uganda. He was later awarded a Marshall Scholarship for graduate studies at Oxford University.

Outside of work, Gabe serves a member of the Moses Brown School Board of Trustees, a member of the Wheaton College President’s Commission, and as a Year Up Providence mentor. He is a past board member at Young Voices and Youth in Action.