Ankofa Billips shook her head and smiled, adjusting the bright yellow, chunky sunglasses resting upon her head. “I’ve been coloring my life in stages recently.”
“Since maybe the beginning of last year—my life has been in colors according to my hair.” She erupted in laughter, her dimples sinking deep into her cheeks. “I’m serious, don’t look at me like that!”
From dying her hair mint green to match a “comfortably toxic state,” to bleaching it and chopping off her braids—Ankofa explains that her mindstate oftentimes artfully aligns with the colors of her surroundings. The color orange, however, seemingly encompassed the values of kindness and warmth that she bestows upon all that she encounters.
“Then, I went orange,” Ankofa said. “I think that held warmth and channeling, I was figuring out what it meant to be really good to myself—a lot of self-growth and sunshine.”
A FOUNDATION FOR DIVERSITY—Ankofa is a junior business major with a minor in studio art from Los Angeles, California. “I was born and raised in the sunshine.”Ankofa describes LA as a “perfect place” for her growing up, fostering the sense of natural “sunshine”—that she claims is vital in all of life’s intricacies—that she subliminally embodies within herself. “It created a lot of opportunity for a lot of diversity in my life,” Ankofa said. “My parents were able to expose us to so many amazing things and groups of people.”
Ankofa’s journey in developing a seasoned perspective on people and their respective artforms began when she was 11 years old, in middle school at New Los Angeles Charter. The school rented out rooms in a local church during their pilot year, with about 75 students and four teachers—Ankofa was part of the first graduating class. Every Friday, the students would break off with the teachers and do something off-campus, whether it was seeing a dance show or visiting the Los Angeles County Museum of Modern Art (LACMA) down the street. Her parents put Ankofa into the school when she was in sixth grade, to later watch her relay the fruits from her foundation of multifaceted understanding of her neighborhood culture. “My parents are pretty much the plug,” she said, naturally cracking up and smiling from one ear to the other.
"I think there is always better. Not to say that there should never be a point to grind everything to the bone—but there is some work to be done in a lot of different places."
“This was a totally different school experience,” Ankofa said. “Thinking back on it, it was really crazy, but it was such a transformative experience. It really taught me a lot about how to share experiences, and even though everybody is going through the exact same thing, everyone sees it differently.” Her adolescent education continued at an all-girls, private Catholic high school in LA. “I was crazy looking all through high school—we would come in with like three pairs of sweatpants on under our skirts and Uggs when it got down to 40 degrees,” she explained, while just a few steps outside of the library lobby held the bitter cold of January in the Northeast.
She laughed, “No, that was freezing in LA.”
HOSPITALITY AND LOVE—For Ankofa, the people she spends time with make all of life’s experiences just a bit sweeter, constantly pushing her to learn more about what constitutes her life’s blessings.With her mother growing up in Mississippi and her father in New Orleans—“hospitality and love” were nothing less than defining virtues and life motifs for her family. “We were really lucky growing up,” Ankofa said. Her grandmother is one of 13, leaving her mom’s sides’ family reunions and parties reaching up to headcounts of 500 and above—bringing together family members across the United States, in Bermuda, and countless other places overseas. “Knowing that I share blood with these people doing all totally different things—knowing that you come from the same lineage is crazy.”
Her two brothers have served as two of her “true, closest friends” in life thus far, describing her younger one as “me, 4.0,” and her older one as a constant and healthy challenge to her own growth. “Hanging out with my older brother has been something totally different—he challenges me in so many different ways. [My younger brother] is a much better balance of fairness and how to handle situations—we get on FaceTime and cackle for three hours straight.”
“I didn’t realize how Southern hospitality, and the kindness and sunshine really affected people until I came to the East coast,” Ankofa said, the enthusiasm in her hand motions almost struggling to keep up with her thoughts. “New Yorkers are not mean—but they just aren’t upfront warm. New Yorkers are great people, you just have to get them to warm up to you. You guys don’t have sunshine, that’s what it is. I understand. I respect it,” she said, cracking up again.
Her appreciation for the cultural haven and warmth of her home did not, by any means, keep her stuck in comfortability. In the summer before her senior year, Ankofa was finishing up a summer program at Columbia University and embarked on a college tour across the Northeast. “I really wanted to leave—there is so much more to the world than LA.” In attempt to continue flourishing with experience and understanding, Ankofa chose to continue her education at Marist in the Freshman Florence Experience (FFE) program.
Cassandra Pintro met Ankofa during FFE—describing her relationship with Ankofa having progressed over the Atlantic, “clicking” once the returned to Poughkeepsie. “We immediately sort of gravitated toward each other acknowledging that we both have similar backgrounds and views on the world and art,” Cassandra sad. “People often mistake us for each other, and I always take it as a compliment.”
“Ankofa is someone who is filled with so much love and joy that she inevitably gives it off to anyone around her,” said Cassandra. “What I admire most about Ankofa is that she does good without trying to, she cares for others so much sometimes she forgets about herself.”
“People have really been so good to me—I tell my friends all of the time, I don’t know how I am able to surround myself with the quality of people that I am,” Ankofa said. “I know how it makes me feel, so let’s do it for everybody else.”
Ankofa Billips currently serves as the President of the Black Student Union (BSU) at Marist. Through deep appreciation for her family and her Los Angeles, California-roots, Ankofa strives to spread the "sunshine" that she was born below with every community that she encounters. She spent her freshman year in the Freshman Florence Experience Program and became heavily involved in fostering community through BSU. Her experiences growing up in LA granted her the foundation for finding art in every place that she can, and for the past two summers, she has held an independent, LA-based art show titled The Kollective Sessions.
‘MAYBE IT’S TIME’—In her return from Florence in her sophomore year, Ankofa began attending the Black Student Union (BSU) club meetings on campus, unknowingly that the club would later become a vital addition to her lifelong vows of finding art within community. “I always knew that BSU was going to be a club that I joined—I thought that was going to be a good place to start finding community.”
In attending the club meetings, she kept specifics notes of potential improvements for the club events and conversations. “It was weird and it was corny at the time, but I wasn’t thinking anything about it,” she said. Through her constructive criticisms that she kept to herself at first, her involvement increased, and her classmates encouraged her to run for president.
“I thought, ‘Maybe it’s time.’ So, I ran for President, and I don’t really know who voted for me,” she laughed. Through her experience with BSU, she explains her attempts to encourage other club members to let their personal interests and skills flourish in different ways—encouraging board members to hold meetings on things that are personally important to them. “There is nothing better than seeing your dreams brought into fruition and someone supporting you. Getting to let people shine and do their own thing is beautiful.”
“You need to create a space for yourself and find people like you,” she said. “It’s easy for us to retract back into our holes—but sulking hours turn into days, weeks, and then you’ve sulked out a whole semester. I am trying to live as much life as possible, so why not live some life and stir some good trouble, and have some fun?”
ART AND PROCESS—In her return from Florence, Ankofa was “riding a wave,” in declaring a fashion merchandising minor. She returned to Poughkeepsie—and never thought that she would be a business major. Then, she fell in love and fascination with her Organizational Behavior class—as it tapped into the ways in which people act and think together, an interest that Ankofa has held since middle school. “I started out making art, and I sort of fell into the backside of art.” Her creative roots and business education began to collide during her summers home in LA, where she and her best friend started producing a local art show called “The Kollective Sessions.”
“We’re standing in line to go to this concert and I was like, ‘I think we should throw an art show,’ and she was like, ‘I agree.’ And that summer, we threw an art show with our closest friends.’” Ankofa and her friends rented out a warehouse to bring together artists and musicians from their home in Ladeira, Los Angeles.
“We always joke because Ladeira is where all these cool kids are from, but we didn’t know any of them,” Ankofa said. She got in touch with a few friends who helped her to gather people from different parts of their lives with different talents—friends from the neighborhood, from childhood, and even from Marist.
The Kollective Sessions’ success in its pilot year led Ankofa and her team to put it on for its second year in a row, in the summer of 2017. “It was a blast. We really want to create something worthwhile,” Ankofa said. “The caliber of artists, the talent and just the conversation is amazing.” Ankofa’s ability to indulge in the art of the people and the places she encounters has expanded into the lives of those she appreciates the most.
“Her time to be creative is her opportunity to lose herself in something and the process—which is usually a bunch of jumbled thoughts I'll hear about at 3 a.m.—is always something incredible,” said Cassandra. “I believe her happiness and views come from her love of art or at least her appreciation of all things beautiful even if they aren't perceived as beautiful to most.”
“What makes you do the work that you do?” I asked.
Ankofa took a long pause and studied the ceiling. She blinked, and looked back down at the table, her tone of voice turning low and serious. “I think there is always better,” she said.
“Not to say that there should never be a point to grind everything to the bone—I am not a perfectionist in any sense—but there is some work to be done in a lot of different places. We should always strive to want more for ourselves, and for the people that love.” Ankofa refers back to the colors of her hair mimicking how she paints the intricacies of her own life. “Toxic and growth at the same time—they work pretty similarly. But when I transitioned to orange, I left the negative behind.”
She reveals that her “orange,” phase has now ended, while she would remain devoted to holding the “sunshine” it granted her.