In Your Neighborhood

Sankofa builds healthy community oasis in diverse West End

On June 22, Angela Ankoma and Sharon Conard-Wells of the Sankofa Initiative will receive the 2018 Health Equity Award from the National Civic League in conjunction with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Photo by Richard Asinof

A tenant proudly displays her bountiful raised growing bed of vegetables as part of the Sankofa Initiative.

Photo by Richard Asinof

Sharon Conard-Wells, left, executive director of West Elmwood Housing Development Corporation, Gloria L. Johnson, center, West Elmwood board chair, and Angela Ankoma, right, at the Sankofa Eats! dinner on May 31.

Photo by Richard Asinof

The delicious beet soup served as the first course at Sankofa Eats! on May 31.

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By Richard Asinof
Posted 6/4/18
Angela Ankoma and Sharon Conard-Wells have won the prestigious 2018 Health Equity Award from the National Civic League in conjunction with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for their work on the Sankofa Initiative.
When will Rhode Island fully embrace its cultural diversity as a key strength to leverage in its economic development efforts? When will CommerceRI lead an economic development tour of the Sankofa Initiative in the West End and the Neighborhood Health Station in Central Falls? How many candidates running for Governor in 2018 can describe what a health equity zone is and where the nine in Rhode Island are located? For that matter, how many reporters covering the campaigns can answer those questions? Will the new Urban Greens market in the West End become a hub of community enterprise?
The dinner at Sankofa Eats! on May 31 featuring chef Michelle Tulloch is part of an ongoing enterprise known as Powered by Plants RI, promoting the benefits of eating a healthier diet through a whole food, plant-based diet.
Policies for Action, or P4A, a signature research program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is seeking letters of intent for innovative research that cuts across disciplines [can you say convergence?] in order to build a culture of health, including private sector practices affecting workplaces, neighborhoods, community development and population health.

PROVIDENCE – What a beautiful late spring evening it was on May 31, with the promise of summer lingering in the air, much like the fragrant blossoms of locust trees, a perfect twilight in which to paint the new urban landscape evolving in the West End.

At one of more than two dozen raised growing beds linked to the Sankofa Initiative affordable housing project, with 50 apartments completed in 2016 on 10 formerly blighted vacant lots, a tenant was busy watering her rectangular garden of vegetables, accompanied by her somewhat shy granddaughter. The tenant proudly displayed her growing bed that was filled to the brim with tomatoes, peppers, cauliflower, and beans, among other plants.

Meanwhile, right next door, at the newly completed Sankofa Community Kitchen and Community Center, the West Elmwood Housing Developing Corporation was hosting its first Sankofa Eats! dinner, as part of a series of planned community meals, in the newly finished commercial kitchen space. The dinner featured the culinary creations of chef Michelle Tulloch, the creator of Eden’s Bowls, a business that offers meal prep and planning services, based upon whole foods and a plant-based diet.

Tonight’s three-course meal featured beets as the healthy main ingredient – in a borscht, in a vegetable pad thai, and in a chocolate pudding dessert with pomegranates, attracting more than 30 guests to partake in the healthy meal.

Adjacent to the commercial kitchen is a newly constructed greenhouse, soon to play a prominent role in the agricultural efforts underway as part of the Sankofa Initiative to expand the growing season.

In three weeks, on Tuesday, June 20, the weekly summer farmer’s market, Sankofa World Market, will open again for its fourth consecutive year in front of the Knight Memorial Library, offering fresh, locally grown produce, live music, and cooking demonstrations. Among the specialty crops offered from a diverse mix of growers include: bitter ball, bitter melon, sweet potato green, Asian corn, amaranth, water beans and much more, catering to the diverse population of the West End.

In addition to its regular community education classes for first-time homebuyers and renters, West Elmwood also operates the Sankofa WIC center, to assist pregnant and breastfeeding moms, new moms, and babies and children up to 5 years of age.

A new, healthy urban landscape
The Sankofa Initiative has helped to create a new, healthy urban landscape in the West End, a community that is still largely defined by its former life as the home to numerous factories and manufacturers, which once provided steady jobs, and with that, two- and three-family homes that served as affordable residences for workers, attracting each new wave of immigrants to the city for decades.

Today, the West End has emerged as the cultural mecca of a diverse Providence, with more than 38 percent of the residents born outside of the U.S., including Central America, West Africa and Southeast Asia.

And, begun in 2011, the Sankofa Initiative has become an innovative urban agricultural project, integrating food production and economic development with high-quality, stable, affordable housing for the sizeable diverse community population.

The neighborhoods of the Sankofa Initiative may not attract the attention of young writers from Vogue and The Boston Globe, singing tourist praises of Providence, and it may get left out [inadvertently?] of the travelogue as a place to visit on the Providence and Warwick Visitors Bureau website, but nationally, its leaders are about to be recognized for their talents and vision.

To go out and get it
On June 22, the National Civic League, in conjunction with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, will award the 2018 Health Equity Award to Angela Ankoma and Sharon Conard-Wells, the two women who collaborated on creating the Sankofa Initiative. The award recognizes individuals who are leveraging civic engagement to improve health outcomes for those most impacted by health disparities.

In addition to receiving the award in a ceremony in Denver, Colo., the two women have been invited to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation headquarters in Princeton, N.J., to share more about their efforts with the Sankofa Initiative.

Conard-Wells is the long-time executive director of the West Elmwood Housing Development Corporation and Ankoma, the former board chair of West Elmwood, is the executive vice president and director of Community Investment at United Way of Rhode Island and a long-time resident of the West End community of Providence.

The name, Sankofa, is Ghanian, and translates to “go out and get it.” The Sankofa Initiative represents a paradigm shift in how housing projects are funded by state housing agencies and in refocusing on increasing access to culturally familiar food as a means of improving healthy eating and nutrition – involving, engaging and informing community members at every step along the way.

“We shifted the paradigm of going into communities with a reconceived notion that residents don’t have the knowledge about what the needs are in their community,” Ankoma said, explaining the underlying concept, as quoted by the National Civic League newsletter announcing the award.

“The Sankofa Initiative is the community voice that has come to life. Residents feel ownership of the successes of the effort because we worked together,” she continued.

When key decision makers were hesitant to provide the funding needed for the initiative, Ankoma said, “It was residents who directly approached elected officials and funders to advocate.”

For the West Elmwood Housing Development Corporation, the Sankofa Initiative is one of the key tools in its community building and engagement toolbox in braiding together resources to serve the needs of the community. [They are also participants in two health equity zones.]

A second initiative, called Dunamis Synergy, is a two-generation collaborative enterprise led by West Elmwood that helps young low-and moderate-income parents acquire post-secondary credentials and build successful careers while simultaneously ensuring access to high-quality early childhood education for their children. The collaboration includes four Rhode Island institutions of higher learning, three state agencies, an early childcare provider, a charter school, and the Providence Housing Authority.

In addition, West Elmwood, which was established in 1970, is involved in the business of building new homes and redeveloping foreclosed homes for sale to first-time buyers. Its Home Ownership Center, which offers home buyer education, financial capability counseling and small home repair loans, has served more than 4,000 clients and helped to create 200 new home owners since it was established in 2009.

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