How Bitter Melon Improved Housing in Providence, Rhode Island

Dec 9, 2019, 9:45 AM, Posted by

Many housing projects focus exclusively on putting a roof over peoples’ heads. We sought a broader approach that integrates cultural values into kitchens, homes and neighborhoods.

Illustration of a neighborhood.

The literal translation of the word “sankofa,” from the Akan tribe in Ghana, means "go back and fetch it.” Figuratively, it captures an important belief in Akan culture: While the future brings new learning, knowledge from the past must not be forgotten.

This principle guided our efforts to transform 10 formerly blighted lots into a vibrant community of 50 modern “green” apartments in Providence, Rhode Island’s diverse West End community. The $13.5 million development is connected to 30,000 square feet of community garden space. Single fathers come with sons, pastors come with children and people sit under the garden’s pergola, which was built by local youth volunteers. It is, as one article put it, a “beehive of activity.”

A Holistic Approach to Health

We’ve come a long way from where we started nearly a decade ago. Then, residents of the West Elmwood Housing Development Corporation (WEHDC)—more than a third of whom are immigrants and refugees from Central America, West Africa and Southeast Asia—didn’t have much access to fresh, high quality, affordable food that both supported their overall well-being and allowed them to preserve their cultural values.

Food has a direct impact on health and is a critical component of cultural heritage within the diverse community. But WEHDC residents had trouble finding fresh produce native to their countries—places like Liberia, Nigeria, the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Instead, they relied on what canned goods they could find and resorted to high-fat, low-nutrition foods typical of the standard American diet, like hamburgers, pizza and so on, or traveled long distances to access foods native to their culture.

Neighborhood residents faced other systemic barriers to health and well-being: high crime rates, underperforming schools, large tracts of vacant lots and little access to green space, safe, walkable paths or community gathering spaces. The health of the community was in decline, with high rates of obesity, diabetes and other ills. Immigrants who arrived here in good health grew less healthy with each passing month.

Where you live matters to your health. RWJF President and CEO Rich Besser discusses how housing is linked to health and equity in America. Read the 2019 Annual Message

Community members raised concerns. We at the WEHDC listened—and began a coordinated effort to bring about structural change in housing, food access and the environment.

In 2011, we partnered with community leaders, scholars, nutrition and gardening experts and others to explore how to improve health and advance equity in the community. We conducted surveys, focus groups and interviews with members of the community—sometimes in their native languages—to learn how to best support health in the community, and we assessed offerings at local markets.

Most housing projects only emphasize housing—the more units the better. But we realized we needed to go beyond the number of apartments we build and pursue a broader approach to health and well-being—one that integrates people’s cultural values into their kitchens, homes and neighborhoods.

In addition to apartments, we imagined a housing development with community spaces where tenants could come together and build community ties; a community garden, with raised beds, a tree nursery and a greenhouse, where residents could grow food and enjoy nature; and a weekly market with affordable, culturally relevant foods that celebrated cultures around the world.

In our view, this initiative fit WEHDC’s motto and mission perfectly: We build homes, we build community, we build lives.

Still, it wasn’t an easy sell. We had to bring two separate and often siloed social movements together—those advocating for affordable housing and those advocating for urban green space. And we had to persuade funders to set aside a large swath of prime real estate to use as garden space rather than for more apartments.

With the help of partners in academia and the nonprofit sector, we convinced funders that a holistic project such as this would be greater than the sum of its parts: Not only would it improve public health and narrow health disparities, but it would expand economic opportunity and strengthen community ties.

Building Cultural Capital

In 2016, we completed the project. Housing units are now connected to community gardens, where tenants and other members of the neighborhood gather to grow crops, socialize and rest. They grow fruits and vegetables that are otherwise hard to find, like bitter melon, sweet potato greens, water spinach, amaranth, Asian corn and more.

They can also buy such foods at the local weekly market and cook them in the local community kitchen. As a result, they’re able to get the ingredients they need to prepare the healthy meals they love, and they don’t have to travel far to get them. Nor do they have to pay an arm and a leg for bitter ball or some other “exotic” item at a boutique grocery.

The project has blossomed in other ways too. In addition to selling international foods, the weekly “world market” features live music, hand-made goods, cooking demonstrations and exercise activities that cater to different cultural backgrounds. Volunteers and staff at the community development corporation teach financial literacy and food preparation to young mothers and others and support local food and social impact entrepreneurs. And vendors at our microfarm grow and sell produce, bringing economic vitality into the low-income neighborhood.

Our next project is a café that will provide a much-needed space to gather and do business and, at the same time, create jobs in the community and draw dollars into the neighborhood. The café was suggested to us by a member who was frustrated that he had to leave his own neighborhood to network with potential clients. He saw it as a missed opportunity to circulate dollars within the community. A professional in the food industry volunteered to help put together a business plan. Two years later, with the backing of a national funding partner and the local municipality, the Sankofa Café site is now under environmental review, with  construction slated to begin soon.

The impact of the Sankofa initiative has been profound. Easy access to healthy, culturally appropriate food has made a big difference in the health of the community, where one third of residents live below the poverty line. It has also built cultural capital and created a sense of community pride. The neighborhood has turned into a cultural mecca, and demand for more housing is high. Residents lobby their elected officials to continue supporting our services. Once regarded as a pass-through, the West End is now a destination.

Learn about RWJF Award for Health Equity program and meet the 2018 awardees.

The project is also drawing wider attention. In 2017, it won the Smart Growth Award from GrowSmartRI, and we are so proud that the National Civic League nominated us for an RWJF Award for Health Equity, which we won in 2018. These awards helped us spread the word about our holistic approach and legitimized our dream. We believe it is a model not only for our city but for the nation: It shows how we can create spaces that cultivate health and well-being, civic engagement and community pride.

National Civic League President Doug Linkhart says Sankofa “truly embodies” the spirit of the Health Equity Award, which celebrates systems change at the local level. “By engaging local residents, the project attracts the active participation of people in the community to build both physical and mental health, as residents gain access to healthy food and a social environment that encourages communication.”

We couldn’t agree more. We named this project Sankofa because we wanted to pay homage to the cultural needs of the community and the importance of drawing on the past to make progress in the future. We chose this word because it underscores our belief that culture—reflected in housing, in food, in music and more—is an essential ingredient in creating a culture of health, both here in Providence and around the world.

Learn more about the RWJF Award for Health Equity


About the Authors

Sharon Conard-Wells is executive director of the West Elmwood Housing Development Corporation, a nonprofit community development corporation.

Angela Bannerman Ankoma, executive vice president at United Way of Rhode Island, is immediate past president of the WEHDC and sits on its board of directors.