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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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Columbus Does Good: Empowerbus helps close the employment gap

614now Staff

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Aslyne Rodriguez is pitch perfect, though not necessarily in any sort of musical sense. Her passion for transportation innovation demands immediate attention in any room, and by the time she’s done making the case for bringing equity to employment through a tiny fleet of commuter buses, folks often find themselves singing the same tune.

But when she was handed the microphone at a gathering of stakeholders at Rev1 Ventures discussing the city’s ongoing efforts to increase economic inclusion, the set list suddenly changed. Instead of delivering her polished pitch on urban mobility to a capacity crowd, she was overcome by her own unlikely origin story. She reflected on her grandparents’ journey from Puerto Rico with only an elementary education, and welled up as she revealed her grandmother’s dream of opening a cake shop that never came to be. Raised near Youngstown, her parents both worked for the local school district—her mother a guidance counselor, her father a school bus mechanic. It was an early epiphany, realizing the parents of the kids who rode those same buses to school every day often struggled to get to work themselves, that would become the inspiration and driving force behind EmpowerBus.

Photos: Rebecca Tien

“That was a raw moment. Something came over me and I needed to tell that story,” confessed Rodriguez, founder of EmpowerBus. “There are communities with the desire to be entrepreneurs, but they don’t have the pathway. Not everyone can do a friends-and- family round of fundraising for their startup. I’m only one generation removed from coming here with limited education and not knowing the language.”

What started with a single 25-passenger bus that shuttled employees from the Morse Road corridor to New Albany has in two years pivoted to a more nimble 14-passenger model with routes throughout Central Ohio, including the recent addition of an autonomous shuttle service in the underserved neighborhood of Linden as part of the Smart Columbus initiative. It wasn’t a contract she pursued, but one that found her based on a reputation of earnest intentions in a community that can prove short on trust after decades of disappointment.

“We have been loved by the community in a way most companies aren’t. But we’re still very careful about how we use the term ‘social enterprise.’ People think, ‘Oh, you’re a nonprofit and you do good work.’ ‘No, we’re a for-profit business that wants to do good work,’” she explained. “In some circles of Columbus, social enterprises are still misunderstood. We want to grow our business, and take care of our people. It’s how we expand to serve more communities.”

Like most midsize cities, Columbus wasn’t created for cars, but evolved to rely on them almost exclusively. Half a century of urban flight only amplified our cultural dependency on single-occupancy vehicles. Recent years have seen an overdue disruption in transportation, from Uber and Lyft to scooters and self-driving vehicles. But depending on any of those to get to work, an internship, or a doctor’s appointment reliably is dicey at best and undeniably cost prohibitive. For those of more modest means, the transportation revolution is still leaving them behind, and the face of who is left out is changing.

“Everyday in America, 10,000 adults turn 65 years old. They all don’t need shared transportation, but they may be taking care of aging parents who do—and they could soon too, or may just want to opt out of driving,” she explained. “They call it the ‘Silver Tsunami’. But people are also moving back into cities, they want walkability and maybe don’t want to have or need a car.”

The dynamics of demographics are changing all around. A relatively recent return to city centers has actually reduced the pool of potential employees for companies with warehouses beyond suburbia. Bus routes tend to cover the hours and destinations of those heading into downtown, not out of it. It’s a gap EmpowerBus closes, often cutting travel times by municipal buses in half with fewer stops, and with routes and a scope that have both expanded to bring employees in rural Licking county closer to Columbus, as well as transport employees from the Southeast side to destinations in Delaware.

“How do we get people to a job that helps them advance their lives? Workforce is still a central conversation for us,” Rodriguez noted. “Maybe they are working a job they can walk to that pays them $10 an hour, but maybe with transportation they can get to a job that pays $17 an hour with benefits and a 401k? That’s a big deal; it changes their lives.”

Mobility means more than just transportation, and Rodriguez is the first to admit her ambitions are audacious. Recent partnerships with Spectrum and Accenture will introduce an educational component to EmpowerBus during the ride with tablets as teaching tools. Second-chance employment for those exiting incarceration combined with low unemployment create a catalyst for hiring that wouldn’t happen without access to locations that are desperate for workers, but often in areas where they are in short supply.

“Smart Columbus prompted a broader conversation about workforce transportation. A lot of companies created ‘mobility ambassadors’ to discuss opportunities they wouldn’t have considered otherwise,” she revealed. “We’re also a logistics hub with a lot of manufacturing and distribution that happens here, and the market is tight. Employers are more open now to second- chance employment than they have been in the past. But how do those potential employees get to a job that allows them to restart?”

As with any startup, the future is where the rubber hits the road. Helping prospective employers identify “opportunity zones” based on their current workforce, or simply reducing the demand and cost for employee parking, illustrate the balance of creative and comprehensive solutions the company can offer— more than just in Columbus. Invitations to expand to cities elsewhere in Ohio, as well as surrounding states, show just how far and wide word has spread about EmpowerBus, its founder, and her dream. Aslyne Rodriguez moves people.

“The next step for EmpowerBus is to fulfill everything we set out to do and see what that looks like at scale. Our goal is to deliver upward mobility for all by providing dignified, reliable, on-time transportation to work, education, and healthcare,” she explained. “Expanding into another city and just scraping by isn’t a strategy. We’re a startup that has bootstrapped it so far, and we have to decide if we’re going to go big or grow incrementally. But for now, we’re investing in our people and processes, so when the time comes to scale up, we’ll be ready.”

For more information on EmpowerBus, visit empowerbus.com

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Former OSU player starts career as Columbus Firefighter

614now Staff

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Former Buckeye and New Orleans Saints running back running back Antonio Pittman is trading the pads and helmet of the gridiron for a fire hose and a...different helmet in his new career, according to ABC6.

https://twitter.com/mariawsyx6/status/1228415062051819520?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed&ref_url=http%3A%2F%2Fabc6onyourside.com%2Fnews%2Flocal%2Fformer-ohio-state-nfl-running-back-opens-new-chapter-as-a-columbus-firefighter

Having recently graduated from the Columbus Fire Academy, Pittman is now on his first week on the job at fire station 12 on the city's west side.

A native of Akron, Pittman played for Ohio State from 2004 to 2006, and was part of the number 1 ranked team that defeated number 2 Michigan 42-39 in the "Game of the Century."

Pittman was then drafted by the New Orleans Saints, but was forced to retire from the NFL following a persistent knee injury.

"My goal was just to play football and honestly, I did that. And the dream was to have a ten-year career and to retire at 32 years old and be off in the sunset and just living comfortably. But you know, plans change and in life, you have to adapt to the change," Pittman told ABC6.

"My goal was to one day give back to a community, a city that's given me so much. A city that changed my whole outlook on life as a kid growing up in Akron."

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The Rest Is History: Couples in Columbus share their stories of falling in love

Mitch Hooper

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Illustration by Sarah Moore

If Hollywood would ever pick up a romantic comedy about a couple falling in love in Columbus, how would it look? Would it be an epic story ending in an intimate proposal on the Scioto Mile, or two strangers bumping into each other at the Varsity Club on game day?

Funny enough, both are very plausible.

This month, we wanted to answer the question: what do love stories in Columbus look like? And what we found is sometimes love stories don’t happen in Columbus; instead they happen because of Columbus. While some folks were high school sweethearts who rekindled the flame, others struck up conversation in countries far away just because they shared the same ZIP code. In part, where you’re from shapes who you are, and for these couples, the capital city holds a special spot in their hearts. And, as the saying goes, the rest is history.

Rachel Grauer and Aaron Guilkey

Aaron and I first met in the early 2000s at Eli Pinney Elementary in Dublin. He was my first boyfriend in fourth grade and broke my heart on AIM (AOL Instant Messenger, for the young folk). We didn’t speak a word to each other all of high school, thank you high school social hierarchy. I went on to OU and he to OSU. We reconnected after college while on a bar crawl in the Short North and the rest is history. We are getting married September 2020!

Lauren Sheridan and David Tripp

All of this is true: We met at a Clippers baseball game. It was a team outing for work. I worked with his mom and she was setting us up. This story is meant to be a complete disaster. Thankfully, it wasn’t. Our first o cial date was at 16-Bit, where we would take our engagement pictures over two years later. He lived in Arizona for 10 years before moving back to Columbus in 2016. It’s been fun reintroducing him to the city, especially our food and beer scene. I can’t imagine having these adventures with anyone else.

Misty and Erin Dickinson

We met at Rendezvous Hair Salon, where she is a hairstylist. Then we spent time together at Drauma at the Bluestone, followed by a night out for a Nina West show at Axis complete with dinner at Union and after party drinks at Macs. We were with my friends and I o ered to walk her to her car which had been towed because, well, Columbus. I stayed with her until we finally found her car at 3 a.m. We started hanging out a lot after that while we both swore we were “just friends”! Almost five years later and we are back in Columbus after a two year move to Tampa. We married (twice, but the story will be way over 100 words! Second time at LaNavona), and have a thousand Columbus stories. Columbus is our home. The place we love and always come back to. There is no place like it.

Kellie Anne and Carl Rainey

I moved to Columbus from LA in 2014 and met my now-husband a month after the move. We found out quickly that we were both California sports fans and went on our first date on Halloween. Lakers vs. Clippers was on the TV at the bar, so we made a bet and the loser had to pick up the tab. My Clippers beat his Lakers, so he had to pay up. We’ve been inseparable ever since. We got married March 23, 2019, and I’m so happy to call Columbus my forever home now!

Daniel Custer and Jenny Harris

I met Jenny on a wine cruise in Santorini, Greece. I saw her from across the pier before we boarded and knew I wanted to chat her up—she was gorgeous. She and her friends sat by me on the catamaran and we began telling one another where we were from. When it got to Jenny, she said she was from Columbus. I said, “Where?!” and she said “Grandview!” We spent the rest of the weekend together, along with the past three years.

Brittany and Ethan Monk

We met as employees at Scioto Country Club in UA. He was a broke server and I was a broke student working as a hostess. We spent many holidays away from family but with each other. We are complete opposites that were impossibly attracted to one another. We married and have 2 children. Still opposites—I work in clinical research and he is a musician and stay-at-home dad. We both have made Columbus our home!

Nicole Erdeljac and Andrew Crowell

We spent the day (separately) at the 2019 Memorial Tournament and were hanging out at the Bogey Inn afterwards. He was standing at the bar and I was behind him, waiting to be served. His friend kept accidentally hitting my shoulder while trying to reach over me to get his attention. I was visibly annoyed when he asked me to tap him. But, I did. We spent the rest of the night dancing to the live band and had our first date a week later at the Columbus Arts Fest, once again, dancing to the live sounds of Anderson East. The rest is history!

Tracie Lynn and Adam Douglas Keller

It was one month to the day after my mother had lost her battle to cancer in 2007. It was one of my favorite nights for being out in Columbus—Red, White, and Boom. After my sister’s and my friend’s group persistently encouraged us to go out for fireworks and time with friends, we agreed. We needed something light and fun. What could possibly come of that?

I’ll never forget the moment that I made eye contact with this handsome, tall and smiling man. He had happened to be out with a mutual friend of our group. We made small talk, listened to live bands, and, well—the rest is history. Nearly 13 years later, we now have two great kids, two dogs, and a rich, full life in Columbus. This is the city we met in, and the one we made a life in. I couldn’t ask for a better love story.

Rebecca Scha er and Peter Yeager

We met at Ledo’s, the first bar on our OSU senior bar crawl list. Flash forward 12 hours later at World of Beer, we bumped into each other again and he handed me a raw russet potato with his name and number written on it in Sharpie. Super weird and random but it did the trick. I called him my soul mate to his face that night. Last winter he took me around town. We stopped at both those bars, reminiscing about our time together. He asked me to be his wife in the middle of the same World of Beer where he gave me that first potato, hiding the ring in a large toy Mrs. Potato head. There’s no other way I would have liked the beginning of our story to go.

Victoria and Ryan Metzinger

I met my amazing husband in Columbus on a blind date set up by mutual friends (sounds very 1995, but it was actually 2011). He suggested a casual drink at Grandview Cafe and I upped the ante for dinner at Third & Hollywood. We continued to Spagio and ended at Grandview Cafe and the rest is history! Now, with two beautiful boys, our WiFi network will always be labeled “Third and Hollywood” as an ode to the perfect setting for a first date. We also visit the restaurant every year on our anniversary and it will never lose its luster.

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