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The Interview Issue: Community Leader Habiba Bankston

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Each January, we feature the movers and shakers of the city in in-depth, in-person interviews that dig into their backgrounds, their plans, and what ties them to the capital city. While our interview issue subjects are all Columbus-based, their stories are universal. So settle in, cozy up, and give yourself some you-time. You’ll want to read every word.

Habiba Bankston helps her colleagues at L Brands give back while building a pipeline for leadership in Columbus.

Habiba Bankston likes to say Brooklyn raised her, but Columbus groomed her. New York City taught her how to hustle, how to envision something and make it happen, how to fearlessly embrace new experiences.

But in Columbus, she learned how to slow down, master her craft and take time to develop her untapped potential. What she discovered was that her potential involved helping others.

“The people that I’ve met here, [they’ve] just kind of unlocked some things in me that I really didn’t know was there,” she said.

Bankston, now a senior community relations specialist for L Brands, brings both of those backgrounds to her work every day. Philanthropy for her isn’t just the work she does; it’s who she is. And the blend of visionary entrepreneurship she absorbed in New York along with a deep dedication to community and service have enabled her to build networks and communities designed to nurture a new generation of young professional leadership in Columbus.

An illness that sparked action

When Bankston was 17, she had a stroke.

Bankston was born with sickle cell disease, a group of inherited red blood cell disorders that affect hemoglobin in the blood, distorting cells into a crescent shape instead of a donut shape. The crescent red blood cells can stick in blood vessels and reduce oxygen to parts of the body. The resulting symptoms can be severe fatigue and pain.

Sickle cell, which is hereditary and most commonly affects African Americans, is what Bankston calls a “silent disease” because it’s often not obvious at first glance when someone has it. Growing up with the illness caused Bankston to miss school, and she was hospitalized two-to- three times a month.

She didn’t want to let that slow her down, however. As she searched for role models who had experienced similar health challenges, she came across Wilma Rudolph, an Olympic sprinter who contracted polio as a child and needed a leg brace until she was 12.

Photos: Brian Kaiser

“When I was growing up, there wasn’t a lot of people who had sickle cell that were well known, that really talked about what that experience looked like,” Bankston said. “I was constantly searching for models of people who were dealing [with disabilities but] […] were still able to thrive and chase their dreams.”

Blood transfusions ultimately transformed Bankston’s ability to manage her sickle cell. They help increase the percent of healthy red blood cells in her body, reducing the symptoms of the disease. She’s been receiving one every month for 15 years.

“(As a) regular recipient of blood donations, I have been touched by the power of community and of philanthropy,” Bankston said. “My life has been sustained by the generous gifts and donations from people who are simply committed to being a blessing to others, so it’s no coincidence that I find myself doing this work.”

Pathways to Leadership

Bankston hasn’t always known that philanthropy was a good fit for her. When she was in college at Ohio State, she studied human nutrition and public health with the idea of going into healthcare. She was a very involved student, and one year while she was organizing the African American Heritage Festival, she met with then-Senior Vice President for Outreach and Engagement Joyce Beatty—now a U.S. Representative—who became another role model and mentor for Bankston.

“She saw a leader in me before I saw it in myself,” Bankston said. “She introduced me to the beauty of Columbus and instilled in me that it’s not enough to live and work in a community, but that we must be present, involved and engaged in the growth and progress of the places that we call home.”

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That started Bankston on the career path of community engagement and philanthropy, eventually landing her at L Brands. There, she oversees the company’s foundation, community and giving campaigns that support organizations like Pelotonia and United Way, as well as volunteerism.

But Bankston’s work doesn’t stop there. She also co- founded the Columbus Urban League Young Professionals in 2015, a networking group largely for people of color, with the goal of building a strong pipeline of future leaders and connecting young professionals within Columbus and also across the nation. Further, she serves as an appointed Create Columbus Commissioner, dedicating her time to supporting young professionals in the city and making Columbus a welcoming and supportive place for them to call home.

Finally, she took her experience with sickle cell disease and founded Beyond the Cell, a national movement to create awareness about the disease. Other young people living with sickle cell seeking role models reflecting their experience, as Bankston once did, need look no futher than her Instagram campaign.

Building community ties

Bankston first saw the power of community support and networks as a child in Brooklyn. Her parents came to the U.S. with a few other families from Ghana, and like many immigrant communities, she was surrounded by entrepreneurs. Her father owned an African market in one of the busiest areas of Brooklyn, and Bankston says she and her family were always trying to find new ways to uplift their community.

“As we had more and more family members that came from Africa, we were constantly trying to find new ways to either help them find employment [or] help them get connected,” she said.

Her mom moved her and her three siblings to Columbus when Bankston was 15, where she later graduated from Independence High School.

She says today that she hopes young professionals remember their ability to make a difference in their community and stay committed to achieving the changes they want to see.

“Don’t be afraid to create the things that you wish existed,” Bankston said. “Columbus is a piece of art in the making. YPs are shaping the future of this city. […]There’s so much opportunity and there’s so many people who are probably thinking the same thing that you’re thinking. […] So be fearless and create it.”

For Bankston, that admiration for fearlessness is reflected in Michelle Obama. She says she adores her for her intelligence, grace and creativity, but that she most admires her honesty and authenticity.

“I always want to show up as honest and as authentic as possible. Every single day, every single room that I step in, I want people to truly be able to see me,” Bankston said. “[Obama’s] never been afraid to tell us what she’s been through as a young black girl, but also as a first lady. She’s a woman on a mission. She’s never been afraid to write her own stories.”

Through her work in Columbus and nationally, Bankston is helping others do the same.

Follow Bankston on Instagram at futureflotus, and join her sickle cell disease awareness campaign on Instagram at beyondthecell.

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Community

Columbus Does Good: Restaurants band together to form a relief effort for restaurant workers

Mitch Hooper

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Seeing a need to assist with restaurant workers who have been laid off or furloughed due to COVID-19, a team of local restaurants have launched Service!, a relief effort to provide meals to those workers and their families in need.

The goal of Service! is to provide 400 meals-a-day, seven-days-a-week, to those workers in need. Through its various local connections, it will operate in one kitchen that will create pre-prepared meals. As of the time writing this, the location of that kitchen is still unknown, however, they aim to nail that down within the coming week. Thanks to a partnership with The Butcher & Grocer, the meals will then be delivered in a refrigerated truck to a distribution plant where restaurant workers can sign up for time slots to come and pick up the meals. The meals, prepared by various chefs, will be ready to eat and could include options like gumbo and rice or grilled chicken.

"Servers and bartenders, people that are tipped employees, basically the majority of them saw their earnings end that day [of the shutdown]. On the day they were shut down was the last day they made enough money to survive," said Matt Heaggans, one of the co-founder of Service! and chef and co-creator of Muse Hospitality. "We recognize that we are going to be coming into a phase here where a lot of people are going to need a lot of help."

Service! was started by a multitude of local business owners in addition to Heaggans including co-creator and chef Catie Randazzo of Muse Hospitality, which operates Ambrose & Eve and other restaurants around Columbus. Bake Me Happy and The Table are also involved in the relief effort.

Heaggans said it was a collection of businesses pooling their resources in a thoughtful way to create something that is both useful and sustainable. Not only will Service! provide meals to industry workers, it will also create jobs in the meantime for those who will create these meals, drop them off at the distribution plant, and help distribute them to folks.

Of course, Heaggans said they are doing all of this through the lens of safe social distancing and how they can maximize their efforts while minimizing danger. These efforts include daily temperature checks for employees at the start of a shift as well as limiting the amount of traffic coming to the various locations.

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Arts & Culture

Ohio animator creates tribute, parody video of DeWine & Acton

Wayne T. Lewis, Publisher

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Video at bottom of story

About three weeks ago, when the world was starting to fall apart, Dave Stofka was looking for something to take his mind off the stream of daily bad news. A freelance web developer and animator since 2007, Stofka had just the idea.

"I watched Governor DeWine and Dr. Acton's press conferences, and all the Facebook comments I was reading conveyed a sense of great appreciation of their leadership. At some point I jokingly thought to myself that all they need is a theme song. Growing up in the days when every show had a theme song, the "Laverne & Shirley" theme popped into my head for some reason, said Stofka.

With some encouragement from his wife, he dug into the project putting to work his previous experience making animated parodies. Stofka says he put about 100 hours over 2.5 weeks into the video project.

"I knew technically how to pull it off. The jokes started flowing the more I worked on it and bounced ideas off my family and a couple friends. It snowballed from there," said Stofka.

The 1:20 video offers a light-hearted take on the state government's efforts - led by DeWine and Acton - in combating the coronavirus pandemic. The video is based on a hilarious take on the "Laverne & Shirley" theme song, performed by Stofka's friend, Elisa Grecar.

"My goal in this was to bring smiles to people's faces. It's so easy to focus on the negative and difficult to focus on the positive -- not just in times like this but in life in general. I love that Ohio's motto is "With God, all things are possible" -- it made a perfect tagline at the end -- and personally it has given me a lot of hope to get through this," added Stofka.

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Arts & Culture

CCAD Spring Art Fair goes virtual

Mitch Hooper

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The COVID-19 outbreak has all but canceled every event slated for April, but that isn't stopping the Columbus College of Art and Design from finding ways to safely move forward. Though there won't be an in-person Spring Art Fair this year, folks can still support these students and their artwork through the first ever virtual installment of the showcase.

Spanning April 10 to April 12, the CCAD Spring Art Fair will have its students projects, designs, and creations available for purchase online. The day kicks off on Friday at 5 p.m. and ends Sunday at midnight. All proceeds from the event will go directly to the artists, makers, and designers.

CCAD is also running a giveaway for anyone who makes a purchase during the Art Fair. If a visitor spends $50 or more and posts their receipt (without their personal information visible) to Instagram with the hashtag #CCADArtFair, they will be entered in to win a $50 gift certificate to CCAD’s Continuing & Professional Studies classes. Three winners will be selected randomly on April 13.

To find out more about the Art Fair, visit ccad.edu/experience-art/art-fair.

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