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The Interview Issue: Community Leader Habiba Bankston

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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