Innovation Ecosystem

‘Use the Equity Leadership Initiative as your golf course’

The Rhode Island Foundation has built out a successful strategy for promoting leadership around diversity and equity for communities of color in Rhode Island by focusing on connectivity

Photo by Richard Asinof

Angela Ankoma, vice president and director of the Equity Leadership Initiative at the Rhode Island Foundation.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 3/25/24
Angela Ankoma talks with ConvergenceRI about her work as Director of the Equity Leadership Initiative at the Rhode Island Foundation, building greater visibility for people of color as leaders in our community.
What are the metrics that are needed to show that the status quo is shifting and that a major sea change is occurring in Rhode Island? Is there enough flexibility in the way that the health care delivery system is managed to transform it into a community-owned, sustainable network of facilities where patients are at the center of care? When will WPRI’s Tim White and Ted Nesi have the courage to invite Angela Ankoma and ConvergenceRI on Newsmakers? When will the President and CEO of Lifespan be willing to sit down and do an in person interview with ConvergenceRI?
The Boston Globe recently convened a panel discussion to talk about the future of education in Rhode Island, underwritten in part by the Rhode Island Foundation. Would the Globe be willing to underwrite a similar panel discussion about the future of health care in which ConvergenceRI was invited to be a participant? The biggest battle patients and consumers face in Rhode Island is the lack of access to the flow of news that is not kept in separate silos. Similarly, when will Brown’s medical school invite Dopesick author Beth Macy to speak about harm reduction?

PROVIDENCE – It is always a learning experience when ConvergenceRI sits down to talk with Angela Bannerman Ankoma, who is now Vice President and Director of the Equity Leadership Initiative at the Rhode Island Foundation.

The latest iteration took place in a corner office on the second floor of the Rhode Island Foundation, flooded with natural light, to discuss the progress of the Equity Leadership Initative, launched in 2020 with an initial investment of $8.5 million to promote building a core of leadership for communities of color in Rhode Island.

Over the course of the last decade, ConvergenceRI has frequently engaged with Ankoma in conversations around placed-based health and equity – about her work on the Sankofa Initiative promoting the connection between affordable housing and urban agriculture, about how best to combat toxic stress in young children, about finding solutions to the opioid overdose epidemic in Rhode Island, and about taking a tour of the West End in Providence to showcase a community in transition.

When ConvergenceRI met with Ankoma on Monday afternoon, March 18, the agenda was straightforward: what progress has been achieved by the Equity Leadership Initiative and, in turn, a proposal by ConvergenceRI to transition the digital media platform into a minority-owned enterprise.

During a time when our world is being disrupted by those who seek to undermine the future of American democracy, flooding the information highways with lies, disinformation and misinformation, the dialogue between ConvergenceRI and Ankoma [with the Foundation’s Chris Barnett sitting in] offered a fascinating exchange of ideas.

ConvergenceRI: First of all, thank you for taking the time to talk with me.  
ANKOMA: Thank you.

ConvergenceRI: Going back over past history, our paths have crossed innumerable times.  

ConvergenceRI: We have our own mutual admiration society.  And so, it’s exciting for me to see that your work has reached new heights. How did you get here? Did you ever envision that you would be sitting here, with a corner office at the Rhode Island Foundation?  
ANKOMA: [laughter] I didn’t know when I was at the Department of Health for a decade that I would be moving into philanthropy. But, I feel that a lot of the work we had been focusing on at the Department of Health, working on social and environmental and economic determinants of health, intersected really well with some of the root causes of inequality and my work when I moved over to United Way of Rhode Island.

And, when the opportunity presented itself here at the Rhode Island Foundation, to really deepen the commitment to equity, and to create a leadership pipeline in our state, that seemed like the next course of action.

Considering that I am a person of color who has had various leadership opportunities to be able to serve in a leadership role to be able to help others, tt’s been an incredible opportunity.

ConvergenceRI: Do you feel like your work is still surprising? That it takes you to places that you had never imagined? That it is not as if you have a specific destination in mind, but you allow yourself to listen to what is being said, and then to respond.

When people want to know what questions I plan to ask for an interview, I tell them that I will be improvising, because I am listening very heard to what people say. I have a sense that there is also a great deal of improvisation that happens in your job. You don’t know until you encounter it, and then after you encounter it, you have to figure out a way to make things happen.  
ANKOMA: I think that is an accurate assessment. I don’t know until I have encountered it, but when I do encounter it, I realize that everything has led me to that moment. If I go back to my work at the Department of Health and the intersection of education and health, and economics and health, and housing and health, it led me to where I am today. I do know what I have done in the past has prepared me for what I do next.

ConvergenceRI: Right now, we are living in a very strange time, where to talk about equity, to talk about diversity, often results in a huge reaction, I’ll label it the right-wing, mostly Republican folks who are scared that indeed, white folks are no longer the majority, and that they are losing their grip on things.

How is it to be at the center of promoting diversity and equity across a wide swath of Rhode Island philanthropy and investments, when there is so much push back.  
ANKOMA: I will say, that, as a person of color, it is not push back that we haven’t seen before.

ConvergenceRI: Really? I’m shocked, shocked[an attempt at a joke, quoting a line from the movie, “Casablanca.”]  
ANKOMA: [laughing] Most of us would say that we probably expected it. And, we knew that the pandemic allowed us to focus on it. It provided an amazing opportunity to focus on equity. I think the opportunity we have before us now is not to look back, but to deepen our commitment and to continue to push forward. I am grateful that at the Foundation and under the leadership of President David Cicilline, we are not wavering. We are continuing our work.

In the past, we, collectively as a society, often have kind of taken a step backward. So, I think the pandemic, and the outcomes of the pandemic, in terms of racial equity and social justice, showed us that we need to lean into this work, moving forward.

ConvergenceRI: What does that path forward look like?    
ANKOMA: We invested $8.5 million over the course of three years. When I joined the Foundation, and again, this during the time when everyone was taking a deeper look about how we can do more in improving equity, diversity and inclusion access, above and beyond over what we traditionally do.

One of the areas that we wanted to look at was diversifying the pipeline of leaders [of color] in Rhode Island. That’s why we launched and developed the Equity Leadership Initiative. We have done a number of things in addition to the Equity Leadership initiative. We are looking at education. We know that there is more we can do in that area, in terms of educational outcomes for children in our state.We are looking at the workforce in education as well.

We have deepened our commitment and invested $3.1 million in increasing the diversity in the teacher pipeline in Rhode Island and in Providence.We are doing similar work in improving educational outcomes in Central Falls, Providence, and Newport, to look at how we can provide wrap-around supports to educators and the students to improve educational outcomes. [Editor’s Note: It sounds like the rebirth of the initiative launched in 1994 known as Child Opportunity Zones.]

We have talked a lot about test scores in our state, in terms of outcomes, and it is definitely an area that we need to improve. Not only for every child, but particularly for those who have been marginalized as students of color in our state.

ConvergenceRI: It’s your table. I had an idea while as I was driving over here, and I would like to reserve 10 minutes at the end to hit you with that, with Chris in the room, that is fine.  

ConvergenceRI: Do you feel like you have a hard time getting your views across, in being heard? Are people listening to you? Or, are they giving you lip service, pretending to listen to you? Do you find that there is a regular vehicle in which your views are heard, beyond the usual suspects?  
ANKOMA: I think people are listening to us. I think they listen to us internally. I think the donors are listening to us. I think the community is listening to us.

ConvergenceRI: Can you break that down further?  
ANKOMA: Sure. I think that the Foundation has made a commitment of $8.5 million to deepen this work in this area. That is listening to the voices of members of the community, who said: “We need to do more work in this area.”

And, so, we rose up and did that, and surveyed members of the community about what type of work we should do. And, we responded with various efforts as a result of that. This work has been supported by donors, too.

We have members of the community who have also been listening and responding to the work that we have been doing in this area, and other areas as well. I don’t believe that it is a lip service. I think the pandemic allowed us to look at ways in which we need to go. And, from what I’ve heard, I’m not getting pushback.

ConvergenceRI: Have you ever been invited on the talk show radio WPRO as a guest?    
ANKOMA: No, I haven’t. I’m not too familiar with them. Tell me about WPRO.

ConvergenceRI: They are a leading talk radio show in Rhode Island. And, they dominate the airwaves. And, they are about as reactionary and right-wing as you can get in their beliefs attacking equity and diversity in Rhode Island. What would happen if you were to sit down as a guest of Matt Allen or Dan Yorke and have a conversation?  

ConvergenceRI: Just an idea. Similarly, has WPRI’s Tim White or Ted Nesi ever invited you to be a guest on their Newsmakers program?    
ANKOMA: They haven’t.

ConvergenceRI: Why not? A lot of the work that I do in ConvergenceRI is about upsetting the status quo, attempting to create a new narrative, because the old narrative doesn’t allow for new voices to be heard. And, the old narrative often fights very hard to keep things in place. How do we change that? I consider myself lucky. I know you; I can get access to you.

You trusted me enough to take a tour of the West End in your car and you pointed out everything that was happening in the West End. That was such a great story.    
ANKOMA: We recognize that there are not a lot of people who reflect the diversity and the changing demographics in our state.

That’s why we created the Equity Leadership Initiative to help people from all sectors –from government, from nonprofits, from small business owners; you mentioned being invited on various news stations. We have one of our Equity Leadership Initiative board members who actually does a Spanish segment, the results of a relationship that we actually had with one of the stations. So, that has been going really well over the past six months. She has invited members of the Latino community to be able to talk a little bit about what’s happening.

We have had ELI members who have been considered for clerkships in the state of Rhode Island. We have had ELI members who have become the first significant directors of color in their organizations.

In two and a half years, we are building the bench and the diversity that we want to see at the decision-making tables.

ConvergenceRI: Could you talk about what it means to “build the bench?”  
ANKOMA: Building the bench. One is increasing the visibility of people of color in our state of Rhode Island. We have a number of people who represent various industries. And, for some reason, as small as Rhode Island is, when opportunities come along, there is a struggle to kind of make sure that there are the connections. Utilizing the institutional knowledge and the broad network of the Rhode Island Foundation, we’re able to do that.

And, so, I will say that our Equity Leadership page on our website is a frequently visited page. We’ve had members of the Equity Leadership Initiative join members of boards, and launch new businesses. I think, more importantly, that we haven’t talked about as much, is the “intra-network,” between the ELI members.

ConvergenceRI: Tell me more about the intra-network.  
ANKOMA: Sure. In Rhode Island, we jokingly say: “You gotta know a guy, right?” So, ELI members are now the people to know, because they network with each other.

One of the things that I say to ELI members on the first day is: “Utilize ELI as your golf course.” This is where the deal-making happens. This is where networking happens. We do that.

ConvergenceRI: Do you play golf?  
ANKOMA: I have never played golf. But I have heard that there is a lot that happens on a golf course. [laughter]

They meet up for skating on Saturday with their kids. And these are people who have graduated from the Equity Leadership Initiative.

That really warms my heart. They are done with the program but they continue to connect and network with each other. We call each other the “ELI family.” And the family keeps getting bigger and bigger. We started with 30; we’ll be close to 100 once this latest cohort graduates.

ConvergenceRI: Talk about what it means to be a member of the ELI family.  
ANKOMA: You have to be accepted. There is an application process. We do open information sessions.

At the first information session, we kind of talked loosely about what the curriculum would look like. And, here’s what we were hoping for. And, they trusted and believed us.

But now, we have a 15-20 minute presentation. We ask ELI members who have graduated to respond to those questions. Because we want to be as transparent as possible.

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