The West End of Providence, Rhode Island is one of the most racially and ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the City of Providence. The West End of Providence RI is a predominantly minority neighborhood marked by low income and poverty at almost three times the national rate. Thirty-one percent of all people and fifty-eight percent of households headed by women with dependent children were below the poverty line. It is one of the poorest and ethnically diverse areas of the state. Forty-six percent of households earn less than $25,000/year and 18% received public assistance. With a population of 16,476, residents are 52% Hispanic, 18% African American, 14% white, and 13% Asian. 68% of school children speak a primary language other than English.
Furthermore, the area has some of the highest concentrations of diabetes and asthma in Providence; little access to healthy foods, had been among the hardest hit by the housing crisis, and was home to under performing schools.
The local community development corporation board – West Elmwood Housing Development Corporation – led by long-time Executive Director, Sharon Conard Wells stepped up to help tackle some of these challenging circumstances. Under Sharon’s leadership, there has been over 200 million dollars of investments into our community and over 200 affordable housing units produced. The latest challenge was the development strategy for 11 vacant lots in the West End neighborhood. The multiple vacant lots were a huge eye sore in the community and consistently attracted dumping, prostitution and crime.
The initial plan was to transform the vacant lots into town houses but due to the housing market crash WEH lost funding resources to develop the project. Instead, the idea emerged to transform the vacant lots into a combination of both housing to meet the perpetual housing demand and also include gardens as component to address the cultural food access and health needs in the community. This led the formation of a small committee – the Sankofa Committee – to assess the food access needs in the community. Sankofa, a Ghanaian Akan word literally means to go back and fetch it, or to return to your roots was developed in response to honoring the rich cultural background of the West End Community.
Sankofa would become a multipronged approached which responded to the housing, public safety, community environment, income, quality of life and most importantly pride in the West End community. The Sankofa Community Initiative is a unique urban agricultural project integrating food production and economic development with high-quality, stable affordable housing for the sizeable refugee and immigrant population of Providence, Rhode Island.
During the summer of 2011, Sankofa conducted key informant and neighborhood intercept interviews with residents of the neighborhood. During the interviews, the concept and vision was shared and the team sought feedback order to refine details of the project. They then leveraged data gathered from the neighborhood, to develop more in-depth focus tools.
Over next 5 years, Sankofa hosted more than 2 dozen community forums, focus groups, and a community food assessment. These helped the team, better understand local food systems; inform the setting of goals to improve local food systems; inform decision-making about policies and actions to improve community food security.
The Sankofa Community Initiative includes three components:
The Sankofa Community Initiative has had a tremendous impact on the housing need in the West End. Upon completion of the housing project this past August, there were 1049 applications submitted for only 50 units of housing.
Safe, and affordable housing has a tremendous impact on health and healthoutcomes. One of the residents of the Sankofa Apartments interviewed noted that since living in Sankofa Apartments, she no longer had to worry about where she was going to buy her medication or pay her rent for the month.
The Sankofa Initiative has also provided the opportunity for residents who either had a small businesses or gardens to sell their products at the weekly Sankofa farmers market. The market has become a weekly destination for families during the summer to meet up with neighbors and also to provide a venue for people outside the neighborhood to purchase culturally diverse vegetables, prepared foods and other wears which are native to the cultures reflected in the neighborhood.
This multi-faceted project addresses many issues. It tackles blight by developing housing and agricultural space on underutilized property; deals with food scarcity by encouraging the growth and consumption of healthy, culturally relevant produce; and helps the economy by giving residents the opportunity to sell what they grow and use other entrepreneurial skills to improve family wealth. It also generates affordable housing, and does it all on a scale that has the capacity to produce systemic, long-term growth by improving the health, housing and economic opportunities of West End’s residents. Sankofa has completely changed the landscape in what can and should be included in housing development. Traditional housing development projected did not take into account the interconnectedness of public health and housing. Prior to the Sankofa Initiative, housing development projects did not include gardening plots to residents in the building, housing plans did not include a plot for an urban farm and greenhouse to extend the growing season for residents.
The Sankofa Initiative as altered 11 blighted properties and drawn over $15-million dollars of community development investment in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Providence.
In August 2016, construction of Sankofa Apartments was completed and in 2017 Sankofa Greenhouse was built completing all core element phases of the Sankofa Initiative.
For more information visit: http://www.westelmwoodhdc.org/