Innovation Ecosystem

Two stories of success, built from the ground up

The relish made from the African garden egg sells out; Project Weber/RENEW creates a new safe space

Photo by Richard Asinof

Julius Kolawole, left, the president of the African Alliance of Rhode Island, at the Pawtucket Wintertime Farmers Market.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 1/7/19
Two under-reported news stories offered a different kind of celebration of success in Rhode Island.
For all the news coverage of about the closing of the Foxy Lady strip club, why was there so little mention of the connection between sex trade trafficking in Rhode Island and the men who often control those activities? How does the current debate at the State House over who controls the rules reflect challenges to male hierarchical roles in Rhode Island politics? Will suburban malls find new lives being redeveloped as affordable housing communities built around shopping opportunities?
One of the surprises of knowing Rep. Susan Wild, a new Congresswoman from Pennsylvania, a member of the group of women known as The Fab Four, is her willingness to share with her private Facebook group a series of posts about her experiences as a newly elected member of Congress, often cutting through the filters of news coverage to share a candid view of events as they are occurring.
It creates a portrait of events that is far different than what is portrayed on TV and in newspapers, offering insights into the process of learning and legislating.

PAWTUCKET – Julius Kowalowe, the president of the African Alliance of Rhode Island, wearing his trademark ball cap, stepped out into a steady stream of shoppers to greet ConvergenceRI on Saturday morning. Jan. 5, 2019, at the bustling Pawtucket Wintertime farmers market at the Hope Artiste Village.

For the past three years, Kowalowe has been championing a relish made from what is known as the African garden egg, a crop being grown as part of his ongoing efforts to create a sustainable agricultural enterprise through the African Alliance.

Working with a team of diverse chefs, Kolawole had developed a tasty recipe for a nutritious relish and spread, in spicy, mild and sweet varieties, that features the garden egg, a member of the aubergine family.

The plant, a staple of African cuisine, comes in a number of different colors – pink, white, yellow, green and red – as well as numerous shapes and sizes. The demand for the crop of garden eggs being grown in South Providence has kept increasing, according to Kolawole.

“Guess what?” Kowalowe asked, with an infectious grin. “We are all sold out of our relish,” he said proudly. To keep up with the growing demand for the locally grown product, he told ConvergenceRI, it would now require finding new acreage to grow the crop. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Will RI invest in an urban farming enterprise in South Providence?”]

Success story
The success story of the marketing of a new local food product, a relish, based upon the collaborative growing efforts of the African Alliance of Rhode Island, was one of those under-reported stories that seemed to get lost in the steady downpour on the day that Gov. Gina Raimondo hosted her inaugural black tie celebration at the State House, which included a showcase of Rhode Island food and drink products earlier in the day.

The willingness of a throng of shoppers to brave the bad weather and partake of the different products on sale at the farmers market – everything from local breads, farm fruits and vegetables, locally raised beef, fresh-caught fish, and cheeses, is a weekly wonder of serendipity and chance meetings.

The recreation of the ambience of a street vendor marketplace always seems to attract a diverse demographic of shoppers – young mothers and fathers with children, thrilled to taste samples of the wares, older shoppers hunting for a bargain, and young millennials, armed with reusable shopping bags, and parents with their adult children, enjoying the camaraderie of shopping together as a family.

Renewal on the streets
In the midst of stories about the re-opening of the Foxy Lady strip club and the closing down of Nordstrom’s at the Providence Place Mall, even editorials linking the two as signature events in Rhode Island’s cultural whirlwind, the other under-reported news story that caught ConvergenceRI’s attention this weekend was the open house scheduled for Monday, Jan. 14, for Project Weber/RENEW new headquarters at 640 Broad St. in Providence, from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.

The facility, which will feature new harm reduction/overdose prevention drop-in spaces, will provide services that include Narcan, condoms, needle exchange, Fentanyl test strips, HIV and Hep C testing, basic needs, case management, health care navigation, support groups and recovery coaching, to a high-risk population.

In September at the 2018 Health Equity Summit, Colleen Daley Ndoye, the executive director of Project Weber/RENEW, shared with ConvergenceRI how her community agency, a peer-based harm reduction and recovery services program for at-risk people in Rhode Island, had just been awarded a $2.5 million, five-year federal grant from SAMHSA [the Substance Abuse, Mental Health Services Administration], in partnership with The Miriam Hospital and the R.I. Public Health Institute, to focus on substance abuse treatment for high-risk HIV negative Rhode Islanders, focusing on Black and Latino men who have sex with men.

Project Weber/RENEW has been one of the recovery community groups engaging with folks in Rhode Island with the distribution of fentanyl test strips; ConvergenceRI asked her the importance of the new harm reduction tool in her agency’s work.

“Fentanyl test strips are such a unique and useful resource,” Daley Ndoye explained. “They can be the moment that someone decides to take charge of their own life. They can decide, at that moment, to say: I want to live; I want to see what is in these drugs; I want to educate myself.

Maybe they are not ready to stop using drugs, Daley Ndoye continued. “But maybe that moment of education, that moment of awareness, is a sign that they are willing to start making small changes. Once you’re willing to start make small changes, that can snowball, so you can start making bigger changes in your life.”

The importance of access to fentanyl test strips, Daley Ndoye concluded, was the way in which the harm reduction tool could change the equation. “Somebody who decides to test their drugs for fentanyl might not be willing to stop using, but they might use less, they might use slower, they are at lower risk for an overdose, and then they might consider, in six months time, getting into recovery, and that’s a big victory for us.”

Daley Ndoye also weighed in on the experience of trauma from sexual assault and sexual violence. “The way we talk with our clients, and the way our clients talk with us, they describe trauma as this,” she said. It leaves an imprint on your psyche, on your person, on who you are, and everything that you do moving forward is affected by that initial trauma, where it is in childhood, as a teenager, or as an adult.”

Every day in her work, she continued, “In dealing with people who are victims of trauma, and who are survivors of trauma, and with our staff, who are all trauma survivors, I think the lesson is this: things are not always logical, things don’t always make sense, it’s not always one plus one equals two.”

Things will come out years later, she said, as a person goes through the healing process. “We talk to people for years, and then, years later, they say, ‘This happened to me.’”


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