If anyone is a poster child for the contribution that immigrants make to the American “smorgasbord,” Angela Bannerman Ankoma is a strong candidate.
Celebrating food and culture
Meet Angela Bannerman Ankoma, one of seven winners of our 2015 Dorothy Richardson Resident Leadership Award, who helped her community in Rhode Island improve their eating habits with a new weekly market that promotes healthy foods and art.
Her parents came to the United States from Ghana, “looking for an opportunity for a better life.” They found it, but have given back in spades. Consider their daughter, known to her friends as Angie.
Angie spent most of her childhood in the West End neighborhood of Providence, RI, and returned after earning her master’s degree from Columbia University. She began a career in public health that culminated in her work today as chief of the state’s Office of Minority Health Initiatives.
If there is one contribution that best encapsulates Angie’s “gifts” to her community, it is the Sankofa Initiative ̶ designed to achieve several vital goals: healthier communities, inclusive diversity and grassroots economic empowerment. The starting place for the initiative, a project of NeighborWorks’ West Elmwood Housing Development Corp., is a world market. The original idea came from Angie’s observation that after the many immigrants and refugees in the area have lived in their adopted home for a while, they slowly become less healthy ̶ in part because they no longer have access to their traditional produce and spices. Eating healthy already was a challenge because the West End has historically been home to the lowest income levels in the city.
“I hate how one’s zip code determines health outcomes,” observes Ankoma. “In Providence, just one digit
for example, 02907 (the West End) vs. 02906 (home to Brown University)
.can have a dramatic impact on a family. When we first moved back, my family considered whether to move a couple of zip codes over or stay here and try to improve it. We decided to stay. It’s a learning lab for me outside of work, and offers me a chance to give back.”
Sankofa is a Ghanian word that translates to “go back and get it” ̶ in other words, go back to the roots of immigrants’ culture and grow the foods upon which they were raised. Through Angie’s leadership, the Rhode Island Department of Health’s Centers for Health Equity and Wellness awarded West Elmwood $300,000 to make the weekly market a reality. The “celebration of food and culture” brings together local ethnic growers, craftspeople and other community members to offer both art for purchase and healthy foods that are affordable and culturally appropriate. At the same time, the market is transforming the neighborhood into a “cultural mecca” that attracts residents from across the city.
What is Angie’s secret to making such ambitious visions reality? “I try to meet people where they’re at. Everyone has a skill. You just have to listen and watch for it, then make the ask based on what you hear,” says Angie, adding that she often pretends she is talking to her mother and what would get her to come to a meeting. “We all need to be more collaborative, so we can work smarter, not harder.”