Providence Economic Development Department Staff

Cassandra Thomas Photo Coming SoonCassandra Thomas
Director Thomas’ 20-year career is detailed with high-level project management, workforce development, and economic crisis intervention experiences. As Federal Disaster Recovery Officer (FDRO) for FEMA, Thomas led long-term recovery efforts for Northeastern states battling the economic impacts of COVID-19, also working to develop economic development plans for other communities such as the State of Queensland in Australia, the City of Calgary and the Capital Region in Louisiana. As FDRO they also worked with the Connecticut Department of Housing to develop a new model of wraparound services for shelters, helping people attain the resources necessary to break cycles of homelessness. Thomas also led innovative workforce development projects in communities across the country, supporting tribes in Maine in starting aquaculture projects, and identifying opportunities to develop outdoor recreation and artisanal manufacturing in Vermont.

Cassandra is excited to join the Smiley Administration and to work with so many talented and dedicated professionals that are focused on building that brighter future for this city.

In their capacity as Director of Economic Development, Thomas will also help inform and drive the City’s planning, redevelopment and arts, culture and tourism strategy

Jessie ErnsterJessie Ernster
Jessie Ernster serves as the Small Business Coordinator. As an advocate for the local cornerstones of Providence business, she is dedicated to lifting up small business voices, cultivating accessible community connections, and ensuring Providence’s small businesses are provided with the tools and resources for capacity-driven equitable development and growth. Jessie earned her Bachelor’s of Arts in Urban Studies and Bachelor’s of Science in Business for Marketing from the University of Minnesota. Prior to joining the City, Jessie was involved in community engagement as an intern for the City of Brainerd and as the Marketing Assistant for the Lakes Area United Way.

Grace DiazGrace Diaz
Representative Grace Diaz is the MBE/WBE Outreach Director for the Office of Economic Opportunity at the City of Providence. Diaz has represented the people of District 11 in Providence since first being elected in November 2004. She was named the Democratic Caucus Chair in January 2015, which makes her a member of the House Leadership Team. She is a member of both the House Committee on Finance and the House Committee on Rules. She is the chairwoman of the Legislative Commission on Child Care in Rhode Island.Representative Diaz holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Springfield College, which she earned in 2008 and 2010. A native of the Dominican Republic, she graduated from Los Angeles Custodios High School in 1977.

Representative Diaz is also a member of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO), Women in Government, National Hispanic State Legislators and the Rhode Island Black and Latino Caucus.

Rep. Diaz has five children: Maria, Gisselle, Ruben, Felix and Cristian, and six grandchildren: Nehemiah, Kariana, Xavier, Anelle, Zoe and Amaih Gracemarie.

Dana GillsonDana Gillson
Dana Gillson (she/her/hers) serves as the Business Research Analyst. Born and raised in Cranston, Rhode Island, Dana is passionate about community development and urban planning in her home state. Dana received her master’s in City and Regional Planning at the University of Oklahoma with a focus in physical planning and historic preservation. She is also a graduate of Mount Holyoke College where she received a Bachelor of Arts in Geology with a focus in Environmental Science.