For Michael Van Leesten, executive director of Rhode Island's Opportunities Industrialization Center, it is a philosophical tightrope. OIC needs federal money. It could not run its extensive job training and placement program without federal help.
At the same time, the Reagan administration's cutbacks of federal support for such social-action programs as OIC make clear to Van Leesten how dangerous it is to be dependent on the government. In a way, it's like welfare, he says. You need it, but it is deadly to become addicted to it. The way out is the same in both cases, he believes: to become self-supporting.
As a result of that belief, the Rhode Island OIC is taking a different direction from that of its sister organizations around the country. Instead of training its low-income, mostly minority clientele for jobs in somebody else's work place, the local OIC is trying to create its own jobs right here in South Providence.
"The idea is we eventually want to be able to supply our own budget from the profits of companies we own an interest in," Van Leesten says. "That isn't something that can be done overnight, but we expect to be a little less dependent on federal grants next year than we are this year, and a little less dependent than that the year after."
It's not just empty talk. Already a consortium of which OIC is a member has acquired Pawtucket-based Peerless Precision, a $2 million machined- metals company. Van Leesten hopes to move the entire operation, of which OIC owns half, to a new industrial park in South Providence, thereby creating new job and training opportunities.
Another of the Rhode Island OIC's joint projects -- this one in conjunction with Roger Williams Foods and the University of Rhode Island -- is the formation of American Surimi, a company that will produce a high-protein fish product that can be textured, shaped and flavored to mimic a variety of seafoods at a cost far below that of the real thing. OIC will use the surimi production venture as a means of providing jobs, job training and income to finance its operation.
The 46-year-old Van Leesten has a raft of other ideas, including Nexus, a scheme to encourage black Americans to invest in African ventures (the Philadelphia-based OIC, founded by the Rev. Leon Sullivan, has training operations in nine African countries). Meanwhile, he's constantly trying to persuade the city's young black professionals not to limit their ambitions to good jobs with downtown firms but to consider starting and managing their own companies, preferably in South Providence.
"I'm really talking about the necessity of building something that will make a permanent difference, that will help not just OIC but the minority community here to become more independent," says Van Leesten.
"We've had to struggle so hard just to get the opportunity to work for someone else that a lot of us find it difficult to think in long-term, institutional terms. But what I have in mind is to help minorities here to become an integral part of the business structure -- not just consumers and job-seekers but producers and employers," he says.
Nor is Van Leesten talking charity. He is unapologetic that each new venture enhances his personal economics. For instance, in addition to his $50,000 salary as OIC executive, he is paid a fee as chairman of Peerless Precision.
What he preaches is not so much the notion of personal sacrifice as a different approach to the problems of low-income minorities: "I'm not saying that we don't need help from the society. Maybe there never will be a time when we won't need some help. But the major part of that help must come from our own efforts. at's the only way we'll ever attain real economic power."