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Providence, RI – RIHousing’s Board of Commissioners approved the Spring 2021 Michael S. Van Leesten Memorial Awards at its June meeting. The awards program honors the life and work of Michael S. Van Leesten, a longtime advocate dedicated to improving the lives of Rhode Islanders through his business leadership, civil rights activism, and public service. The awards program supports students from diverse backgrounds who are pursuing academic fields or careers related to the housing industry.
“Michael’s legacy can be seen across Rhode Island and beyond,” said Nicolas P. Retsinas, Chairman of the RIHousing Board of Commissioners. “These scholarship awards are ensuring his legacy lives on with the next generation of housing professionals and leaders.”
RIHousing released applications for the awards program in March 2021. A committee consisting of agency staff and Jill Van Leesten, Van Leesten’s daughter, reviewed each proposal in accordance with scoring criteria and made recommendations to the Board of Commissioners. As a result, $5,000 scholarships were approved for two students pursuing a degree related to housing. Recipients include: Temidayo “Dayo” Akinjisola, pursuing a degree from Roger Williams University School of Law, and Diana Figueroa to continue her studies at Tufts University for a Master of Arts in Urban and Environmental Policy & Planning.
“I am deeply grateful and humbled to be a 2021 recipient of the Michael S. Van Leesten Scholarship,” said award recipient Dayo Akinjisola. “Mr. Van Leesten was a remarkable example of someone who valued truth telling, collaboration, and service, all of which I hope to exemplify throughout my law school career and beyond.”
“There is a need for local urban planners in the state of Rhode Island who are involved in the communities they work in, and acknowledge what is at stake,” said award recipient Diana L. Figueroa. “The Michael S. Van Leesten Award is bridging that gap by supporting my pursuit of obtaining a Masters in Urban Policy and Planning at Tufts University.”
Born and raised in Providence, Van Leesten was one of the founders and the Executive Director of Opportunities Industrialization Center of Rhode Island, a non-profit corporation offering career coaching, job training, and support for small businesses in urban communities. He served as the Chairman of the Board of Commissioners of RIHousing from 1987-1991 and held leadership positions with the Providence Branch of the NAACP, Urban League of Rhode Island, and the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society.
“We were excited about the quality of applications for the inaugural awards program,” said Carol Ventura, Executive Director of RIHousing. “Opening doors and expanding access to individuals seeking to enter the housing field is an important step in growing and supporting the next generation of leaders in Rhode Island.”