Most Trusted Messengers
In the resonance of the Yoruba word “ashé,” signifying “to speak into power,” lies an acknowledgment of the collective ability to manifest our intentions. Ashé Cultural Arts Center co-founders Carol Bebelle and Douglas Redd harnessed the power of this concept to shape a narrative of empowerment and positivity for Black people in New Orleans, Louisiana, establishing the center in 1998.
The organization’s chief equity officer, Asali DeVan Ecclesiastes, said, “It immediately became a hub for the entire New Orleans cultural community, helping to meet the demand for spaces where Black folks had the keys and could meet with regularity to plan and to create art, and eventually house productions, art exhibits, community events, and gatherings.” Reflecting on the last 25 years, she said, “Our campus has expanded from one-third of the commercial space in Venus Gardens to owning the entire commercial space, the 29 apartments above, the theater around the corner, an artist residency two miles away, and across the street—the future site of a community and worker-owned real estate development project.” As stewards of an intricate ecosystem, Ashé’s offerings encompass programs and direct services that uplift, empower, and strengthen Black narratives.
From a tourist perspective, New Orleans appears to be a bustling city rich with culture, music, and eclectic cuisine. Explaining the harsh realities, Ashé’s health equity leader, Avis Gray, MSN, RN, said, “Black New Orleanians experience the poorest health outcomes as it relates to hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and mental health, exacerbated by historically higher uninsured rates. These concentrated disadvantages have led to a 25-year life expectancy deficit between Black New Orleanians and White New Orleanians.”
To combat this deficit, Ashé’s I Deserve It! program—a collaboration with Tulane University School of Public Health, New Orleans East Hospital, and other institutions—hires artists and culture bearers to promote health and wellness resources and education, with the goal of increasing life expectancy in Black neighborhoods. Ecclesiastes said, “Arts and culture are intertwined within everything we do, see, and feel as human beings.”
At Ashé, many artists care deeply about the local community and are invested in making positive impacts. One of the ways in which Ashé leverages artists' influence in promoting health and wellness is by providing platforms for artists to engage with their communities through various mediums, from poetry readings to council meetings, turning these events into wellness opportunities. Artists are also leading and contributing by crafting social messaging campaigns, equity toolkits for health care providers, and advising on health policy. “Historically,” said Ecclesiastes, “in New Orleans and Black communities alike, culture has often been a survival tactic. Therefore, artists and culture bearers hold a precious place in our communities as those who we look to for creativity, inspiration, and healing. Moreover, the data collected in our health impact assessment told us that here in New Orleans, artists and culture bearers are our communities’ most trusted messengers—so who better than them to serve as the changemakers and voices to connect communities to the resources and information that directly impact their well-being?”
Ashé's programmatic approach is rooted in culture, community, and commerce. Ecclesiastes explained, “Culture is a keystone of our collective existence as Black people, especially in New Orleans, where our biggest industries and collective livelihoods are directly tied to the culture we have created. Community is the driving force behind our work and we recognize the ability of art and culture to shift the social and economic factors that impact our communities across the African diaspora. Commerce is a commitment to economic justice and cooperative economics, ensuring the ability for artists and culture bearers to have dignified, productive, and creative lives.”
Community health workers in Ashé’s I Deserve It! program “are making larger systemic changes by connecting over 400 residents to primary care in six months and by being an accountability partner within the state’s system of care access, and being able to identify when services aren’t being offered to the residents they are connected to,” said Ecclesiastes.
One such community health worker is poet Sunni Patterson, who, through a collaboration with the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority, created a recording to play in buses across the city, declaring the I Deserve It! Wellness Manifesto, an affirmation to empower individuals in the community that they deserve and are worthy of a life of physical, mental, and emotional wellness.
A prominent component of New Orleans culture is its music, and musicians have been at the forefront of community engagement through Ashé. They have initiated youth mentoring programs, relying on music as a vehicle for addressing youth behavioral health and trauma. Gray said, “Since many of the artists have dealt with some of the issues that the youth are dealing with now, they are able to display how playing an instrument made a positive impact on their lives. The utilization of the arts provides a link to the heart and soul of the community.” The community-based group's outreach extends to everyday settings such as barber shops, hair salons, and corner stores.
During the COVID pandemic, Ashé uplifted the importance of strategic planning and equity. Ecclesiastes said, “By being able to pay our staff to stay at home and serve our varied constituencies, we ensured our ability to transition more straightforwardly from social separation back to social closeness, while supporting 11 employees and 50 residents by making them less susceptible to the economic pitfalls of the moment.” To address the economic distress faced by artists and culture bearers, “Ashé repurposed programming dollars to address their dire need,” said Ecclesiastes. Partnering with Antenna Gallery and Junebug Productions to create the NOLA Creative Response Fund, this initiative provided much-needed relief to the backbone of New Orleans' cultural economy, ensuring that creative workers could stay afloat.
“These workers form the cornerstone of our cultural economy, which shapes every aspect of our city. The current COVID crisis has ground to a halt both gig work and the tourist industry that many of them rely on. Funds that were intended as grants for the creation of artwork have been distributed as emergency funds for creative workers in the cultural economy,” said Ecclesiastes.
“Hosting and participating in events that present ancestral, complementary, and traditional healing practices have made a tremendous impact in the communities we serve,” Gray said. Extending beyond the traditional venues, Ashé used the New Orleans East Hospital’s mobile medical van to educate and vaccinate communities. Their Culture of Wellness event, which was the public launch of the I Deserve It! program, provided health resources and direct services to the community.
“Our most impactful public event is our annual Maafa Commemoration, a collective healing event for our community,” said Ecclesiastes. “For 20 years, we have held a ceremony to honor our ancestors who suffered, survived, and perished under the transatlantic and domestic slave trades. We identify the told and untold stories of triumph and healing through drumming, dancing, song, poetry, storytelling, and the appointment of our annual Grand Griot.” At the event, hundreds of people wearing all white gather at Congo Square, where a procession starts through the streets of New Orleans and ends at the Mississippi River, where the crowd releases “our offerings of flowers and fruit, representing the purification of our collective psyche.”