Innovation Ecosystem

Discovering the Sankofa Initiative

A conversation with an interior designer leads to an impromptu tour of a West End neighborhood development effort that connects affordable housing with growing one’s own food

Photo by Kelly Taylor

Raffini, a black storyteller and a resident of the Sankofa apartment complex, proudly stands in front of her raised growing bed.

Photo by Kelly Taylor

Corn growing in the raised beds at Sankofa.

Photo by Richard Asinof

Kelly Taylor, principal of Kelly Taylor Interior Design, recently took an impromptu walking tout of Sankofa in the West End.

Photo by Richard Asinof

The YouthBuild workcrew at Sankofa.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 7/30/18
An impromptu tour of the Sankofa affordable housing project with its raised growing beds has created a tangible proof of concept about the value of community and the power of conversation.
How many opponents of the Fane proposal have visited the Sankofa Initiative in the West End or shopped at the Sankofa Market and engaged in conversations with residents? Which candidate running for mayor in Providence will be the first to host a forum at the community space at Sankofa? What are the opportunities to replicate what Sankofa has accomplished in other neighborhoods in Providence and in other cities such as Pawtucket, Central Falls, Newport and Woonsocket?

The African Alliance of Rhode Island will be holding a pop-up market on Friday, Aug. 3, from 3:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the entrance to Roger Williams Park. On Saturday, Aug. 4, at 11 a.m., the Sankofa World Market will hold a special sowing place at the Southside Cultural Center of Rhode Island.


PROVIDENCE – Some conversations are much like an improvisation on a jazz riff: where it will go, what unexpected path it may take, what surprising connections may appear around the corner, in serendipitous fashion, are always part of the intriguing journey.

Such was the case when ConvergenceRI bumped into Kelly Taylor, the principal of Kelly Taylor Interior Design, at a news conference on June 13 at the Providence Public Library, at which Gov. Gina Raimondo announced a new partnership between Infosys and the Rhode Island School of Design to train some 1,000 Infosys employees over the next two years as part of its efforts now underway to establish a design hub in Rhode Island for its U.S. operations. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “A tale of five urban narratives that never seem to connect.”]

Taylor remembered ConvergenceRI from an earlier story, published on Sept. 18, 2017, “Will consumers choose to travel along Your Blue Path?” which began with a description of the opening of a new Your Blue Store in Seekonk, Mass., by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Rhode Island, which was on one of the featured tours as part of DesignWeekRI. [See link to story below.]

The story began: “Just over the border from Seekonk, Mass., nestled into a new expanded shopping mall on the edge of Route 6 in East Providence known as Highland Commons, half a block down from WPRI-TV headquarters and right next to a nail salon, is the latest version of Your Blue Store, an effort by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Rhode Island to build out its consumer store presence in the state.

“The newly opened store was one of the first featured tours as part of DesignWeekRI, a 12-day celebration that seeks to showcase and brand the image that “Rhode Island is Design.”

“On Wednesday evening, Sept. 13, principals from KITE Architects and Kelly Taylor Interior Design, the team that created the makeover for the Your Blue Store in East Providence, described the process by which they created the space. About 30 DesignWeekRI participants attended the talk.

“From lighting to privacy, from greeting to waiting spaces, from bill-paying to meeting with a nurse practitioner, from group exercise spaces to working spaces for employees, the architectural and interior design team labeled the concept that unified the design goals as “Your Blue Path” – finding the path to wellness and prevention.

“The store is targeted to an older clientele, seniors who are much more comfortable conducting business in person, face-to-face, rather than by computer.

“During the month of September, the Your Blue Store in East Providence featured a full calendar of free exercise and nutrition classes for members, including yoga, salsa, Pilates, Tai Ji Quan, Butts & Gutts, Zumba and a Matter of Balance. In turn, employees are encouraged to participate in a steps program of walking, made easier by the design of a circular path in the center of the redesigned store, as part of a partnership with Virgin Pulse.”

The next phase

The story was memorable enough for Taylor to suggest that she and ConvergenceRI meet for coffee, which we did at Olga’s, still an important nodal point for innovation and conversation.

In that conversation, Taylor was intrigued when ConvergenceRI talked about the value of the Sankofa Initiative as a place-based development that connected affordable housing with an urban growing space, a farmer’s market, a greenhouse and a commercial kitchen.

Where is it? I’ve never heard of it before, Taylor told ConvergenceRI.

Why don’t we do a walking tour? suggested ConvergenceRI.

Great. Let me look at my calendar.

Walking in the West End
And so, on Wednesday morning, July 25, Taylor and ConvergenceRI met at the offices of West Elmwood Housing Development Corporation.

Serendipity was very much in the air; the threatened rain showers held off, and work was under way at the raised growing beds that are part of Sankofa by a crew of workers from YouthBuild, while Raffini, a storyteller and a resident of the Sankofa apartments, was helping to oversee the work.

Raffini proudly showed off her raised growing beds to Taylor, in particular her baby watermelons and her corn, as Taylor snapped photograph after photograph.

Raffini also talked about adding a new raised bed to grow medicinal plants, after a recent trip to Seven Arrows Farm and Nursery in Seekonk, Mass.

Diante Hardy, 19, one of the YouthBuild crew, talked about his educational plans when he goes back to URI after the summer.

Soon it was on to visit the housing offices that manage the properties for West Elmwood, First Realty Management, where Mariana Paredes, an assistant property manager, led an impromptu tour of the community space and kitchen at Sankofa, and a discussion about the affordable housing crisis. For all the affordable units at Sankofa, there is more than a year’s wait, although there are some openings at the market value rates for apartments in other West Elmwood developments.

The takeaway
For all the talk in this election year, the conversation that seems to be most missing is what is happening in the West End of Providence, as part of the Sankofa Initiative, visible in all the raised growing beds, in the way that a community has developed a place-based approach to creating a healthier place to live.


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