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Building community, one scrumptious meal at a time

Sankofa Initiative keeps sprouting new community connections

Photo by Richard Asinof

A guest attending the Sankofa EATs dinner on June 6.

Photo by Richard Asinof

A mother and her child at the Sankofa EATS dinner on June 6.

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By Richard Asinof
Posted 6/10/19
Sankofa continues to build a sense of community and connectedness in Providence’s West End.
When will reporter Dan McGowan, now with the Boston Globe, take ConvergenceRI up on his standing offer from two years ago to do a tour of the Sankofa Initiative? How does bottom-up innovation focused on building community infrastructure fit into the state’s vision of the innovation economy? Will anyone from Venture Café Providence be willing to take a walking tour of the West End?
If you listen to the political talk shows on TV and radio, there is a disconnect that happens: the content is often driven by outrage, mayhem, anxiety and conflict, not from the ability to tell stories that promote connectedness or community. The current existential threat being promoted by the forces of reaction, fomented by Trump and his allies, is that the U.S. security is being threatened by an invasion of immigrants.
The Sankofa Initiative, on a daily basis, provides the truth serum to inoculate us against such virulent nonsense.

PROVIDENCE – This is a small but important story about community and neighborhood, about a cultural sense of belonging, one that involves parents and grandparents and young children, all sitting down to eat together in a meal prepared by chef Jessica Zeon of Distinguish Catering, featuring Afrocentric Soul Food, at the Sankofa Initiative community kitchen hall on Thursday evening, June 6, in the West End.

As much of the rest of the city was preparing to indulge itself with the mass gyrations and celebrations of PVD Fest, the meal, part of an ongoing series known as Sankofa EATS, brought with it a strong pull of connectedness – call it family ties.

The Sankofa Initiative, which translates from the Twi language of Ghana as “go back and get it,” refers to the importance of using knowledge from the past to achieve progress.

The community-led endeavor, launched in 2011, brings together affordable housing, raised growing spaces for residents, a greenhouse, a community kitchen, and a weekly farmers market in the summer.

Part of the impetus for Sankofa was the need voiced by many residents, who reported they were unable to find fresh, affordable food that was reflective of their native diets.

With the West Elmwood Housing Development Corporation serving as the backbone agency, the Sankofa Initiative took on a big mission: to transform blighted properties, provide affordable, convenient, culturally appropriate, fresh, healthy, and locally produced food, expand economic opportunities, and encourage West End residents to meaningfully connect by fostering cultivation of land, lives, and community.

In 2018, Sharon Conard Wells and Angela Ankoma, the innovators behind the Sankofa Initiative, received the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation health equity award, in recognition of their work with the creation of the Sankofa Initiative.

All in the family
The dinner menu for the June 6 Sankofa EATS featured sweet stuffed plantains as an appetizer and roasted French chicken with a traditional recipe of mixed rice, sautéed asparagus, topped with a sweet cilantro habanero sauce. Dessert featured a red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting.

The meal was accompanied by a DJ spinning tunes, a mix of 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s tunes, which had many of the guests singing along, and some of the mothers with young children dancing.

One of the people attending the meal was Maria Carvalho, who directs the Dunamis Synergy program at West Elmwood, which is now fully staffed, serving some 68 young and expecting parents, ages 15-25, to support them on their educational and career aspirations, enabling parents and their children to establish “a legacy of prosperity that passes from one generation to another.”

Beyond Sankofa and Dunamis, the latest outgrowth of the efforts to build community-driven solutions in the West End was the selection of West Elmwood to serve as the backbone agency in of the three new health equity zones in Rhode Island.

As Carvalho explained, the next step in the health equity zone process is to conduct a community needs assessment, when asked by ConvergenceRI about the potential to employ mindfulness training for parents, a strategy being deployed by the health equity zone in Olneyville coordinated by ONE Neighborhood Builders.

Where hope and community reside
After the dinner, driving home, as the soft twilight descended on the neighborhood surrounding Sankofa, with swirls of pink and purple hues highlighted by the deepening blue sky, ConvergenceRI was struck by the sense of contentment that pervaded the event, a sense of place, of continuity, of home.

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