It was the late 1970s, and the United States was embroiled in the Vietnam War, bringing an influx of refugees to the country. Providence, Rhode Island, was one of the early magnets for the stream of Vietnamese and Cambodian immigrants, due in part to its central coastal location, relatively affordable cost of living and accessibility of support services. With the economy slumping and redlining rampant, however, the community struggled to adapt.
“Integrating all of these new arrivals was a challenge at a time when our local economy was in a crisis,” recalls Sharon Conard-Wells, one of a group of volunteers who organized around the need to assure that affordable housing was available to everyone. “The federal government had just begun offering a zero-down payment program for new homeowners, so we mobilized to bring some of those funds to our city.”
Thus, the group that would become West Elmwood Housing Development was born – first just a loose, volunteer effort, then an official nonprofit in 1986 and finally, a charter member of NeighborWorks America in 1998 – making 2013 its 15th anniversary as a member of the network.
“I had seen the value that being a member of NeighborWorks America brought to an organization,” recalls Conard-Wells, who later became the group’s executive director. “Knowing how politics works was enough to get us money, but NeighborWorks America affiliation offered two other benefits money can’t buy – professional development, and a national network that broadens your base. I wanted that for West Elmwood.”
Hub for immigrants
The “West End” community of Providence, which the organization primarily serves, has changed in many ways since those early years – including a slight decline in residents from 14,186 in 2000 to 13,844 in 2010. But what has continued to grow is its cultural diversity. Fifty-seven percent of its residents today are Hispanic, 18 percent are black, 11 percent are Asian and 32 percent are “other” or a combination. What is even more defining about the community is that nearly 40 percent of West End residents were born outside of the United States (compared to just 13 percent across the state and nationwide). According to the Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island, the influx of refugees over time has shifted from Southeast Asians and Liberians to (in the last five years) a more diverse mix from Bhutan, Burma, Central Africa (Congo, Central African Republic and Burundi), East Africa (Ethiopia and Eritrea) and Iraq. Two-thirds of the residents speak a language other than English at home.
That reality about the community it serves has led West Elmwood in some innovative directions in its quest to serve its constituents. One of its current initiatives is called the Sankofa Project – named for a word from Ghana that means, literally, “go back (to the past) and get it.” For the West End community, that means capitalizing on residents’ family and cultural backgrounds to solve local problems.
“For example, residents of the West End community currently have limited access to affordable, fresh, culturally desirable foods,” explains Rachel Newman Greene, director of partnerships and community projects. “In fact, I’d call West End a food desert. There is no full-service supermarket, and while there is a farmer’s market, it’s not affordable and doesn't cater to an ethnically diverse population.”
Food desert to cultural marketplace
The goal of the Sankofa Project is to fill that gap, while also providing a source of local income. The centerpiece of the project is the transformation of 30,000 square feet of land into a mixed-use development featuring:
• affordable rental housing (50 one- to three-bedroom units).
• an agricultural space that includes both community gardens and small farms/microbusinesses.
• a “world market” with booths for selling the agricultural goods as well as crafts, tailored clothing and other locally made products.
• a community building.
“I don’t know of any other organizations that have a project like this on such a large, contiguous space,” says Angie Bannerman, chair of the committee in charge of the initiative and a West End resident for 36 years.
Identifying and acquiring that much vacant land is a challenge in the Northeast, and in the beginning of its work, the organization focused on individual lots on which it renovated old buildings for offices or lofts, converted them into community gardens or leased them out for small farmers’ markets. However, the West End community was “blessed” by stretches of formerly industrial properties, now abandoned, and over time it was able to gradually acquire the property for the ambitious Sankofa Project with the help of a state land bank.
“We’re designing this to be the main social focus of the community – a gathering place that will feel familiar to immigrants who come from more market-based cultures, while also improving their diets and developing entrepreneurial sources of income by attracting people from throughout the city and state,” says Greene.
Phase 1 of the project, a small tree farm, already is funded and complete. Phase 2, now underway, encompasses rented lots for planting, including two greenhouses, and a seasonal farmers’ market designed to begin establishing a customer base. The rest of the agricultural and market development will follow, and the final, fourth stage will be the housing (targeted for completion in the spring of 2015).
“Of course, we offer a lot of other services, such as financial counseling and programs for youth that use hip hop to encourage self-esteem,” says Conard-Wells. “The constant is our commitment to recognizing and celebrating their diversity, and sticking with them for the long term. So, for instance, when residents complete our homebuyer education programs, we don’t give them a graduation certificate. We give them a ‘friend-for-life’ certificate.”