People to Watch: Habiba Bankston

Erica Thompson

The Columbus Urban League is hosting an estimated 20,000 people at the Columbus Convention Center for the four-day National Urban League Conference, which concludes on Saturday, Aug. 4. As president of the Columbus Urban League Young Professionals (CULYP) auxiliary group, Habiba Bankston is responsible for showcasing the city to the visitors.

“There's so much more here than the Ohio State University,” Bankston said during a late-July interview in the King-Lincoln District, where she lives with her husband. She had a slightly different perspective when she moved to the city with her mother and siblings more than 15 years ago.

“We all hated it,” recalled 31-year-old Bankston, who grew up in Brooklyn, New York. As a kid, she was hopping into taxis, taking the subway and working in her family's businesses on Flatbush Avenue. “When we first came here, COTA was not what it was now,” she said. “So it was just hard. We just felt like we were shackled.”

But as a single woman raising three kids, Bankston's mother, who emigrated from Ghana, was ready for a fresh start. Besides, Bankston was diagnosed with sickle cell disease, and spent weeks upon weeks in the hospital each year. Columbus' Nationwide Children's Hospital offered more comprehensive care.

Bankston found her footing at Ohio State, leading activities and programming centered on African-Americans. She even caught the attention of current U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty, who then served as the senior vice president of outreach and engagement at OSU. Congresswoman Beatty organized a trip to Ghana to partner with the country's universities, and invited Bankston.

It was the college senior's first visit to her home country; she'd been too sick to make the trip as a child.

Beatty also encouraged Bankston to volunteer for the Columbus Urban League. Founded in 1918 as an affiliate of the National Urban League civil rights organization, the local nonprofit works to “empower African-Americans and disenfranchised groups through economic, educational and social progress.”

“When I volunteered, I always dragged five or 10 of my friends to come with me,” Bankston said. “They used to call us ‘Joyce's girls' because we always had black dresses with pearls on.”

Pretty soon, Bankston caught the eye of Columbus Urban League President Stephanie Hightower, who asked Bankston to revamp the young professional network. Launched in 2015, CULYP now has nearly 300 members, ages 21-40, competing with other large chapters in Houston and Atlanta.

“Not only do we have social outings and do community service, but philanthropy is a huge piece of what we do,” Bankston said. “We want to be a pipeline for young, future leaders here. … We are an opportunity for young professionals to find intentional ways to get involved.”

Under Bankston's leadership, CULYP also established Black Restaurant Week in 2017, highlighting minority-owned restaurants.

“We wanted to find a way to really have a footprint in the city,” Bankston said. “We're extremely mindful of how our dollars make an impact.”

With her term as CULYP president ending in December, Bankston, who works in community relations for L Brands, is already looking ahead at future ventures in the health care space. Informed by her struggle with sickle cell disease, she has established a social media campaign, #BeyondtheCell.

“It's really my way of educating [and] raising awareness about sickle cell, but also telling real-life stories,” she said.

For Bankston, one of the most inspirational stories is her mother's journey from working in hospital kitchens to becoming a surgical tech. “Her resilience is amazing,” Bankston said. “I think that's one of the reasons why I'm so strong in managing everything that I'm doing — not just from a health standpoint, but just my overall commitment to community and serving other people.”

Name: Habiba Bankston

Age: 31

Occupation: Senior community relations specialist at L Brands

Hometown: Brooklyn, New York

Organizations: Columbus Urban League Young Professionals, Create Columbus Commission

Who do you look up to? My mom and Wilma Rudolph

Instagram: @futureflotus

Twitter: @futureflotus