“Understanding culture is a way to help someone become whole.”
Carol Bebelle, 65, co-founder and executive director of the Ashé Cultural Arts Center, has invested the last 17 years in cultivating a deeper understanding of the power of culture through her work at the center and helping residents of the city overcome what she calls a “culture of disaster.”
In 1998, Bebelle left a career in public service to go on a “faith walk” alongside the late Douglas Redd, a community visual artist and Africanist, to find ways of helping people understand the anthropological nature of culture. New Orleans is marked by culture in many ways. While well known for music, art and cuisine, Bebelle said that to see culture through only that lens is too narrow.
“We started this center believing that the power of culture and the ability to be working with and for the community would be productive,” she said. “That it would help the people to become better and would help the community to become better. And out of that would come economic vitality, spiritual vitality and social vitality. And that’s exactly what’s happened.”
Even the center’s location in a once-blighted building on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, just south of downtown New Orleans, is a statement about culture and its power to reclaim the past and transform the future.
Fast forward to 2005: Ashé was growing in its role in the community and across the city, establishing the cultural arts center and launching its Institute for Cultural Education, which helped Head Start teachers grow in their cultural awareness and improve their ability to reach and teach children. Then Hurricane Katrina brought a new dynamic to the culture of New Orleans: disaster.
Bebelle explained, “In times of devastation and danger, what you were before is only a consideration of what you will become post-disaster. We began to see that our work was to help people to feel confident that they had the resilience to make it through. Our challenge was creating a cultural foundation for resilience and a visible demonstration of what to do to prevail against odds. We recognize that people on their own are capable of amazing things. Often the challenge is more about what to do, not whether they can do it.”
Ashé’s efforts also included coaching many of the volunteers who came to the aid of the city to recognize the emotions they were encountering themselves, witnessing the devastation in the lives of the people they were hoping to assist. Bebelle frequently met with volunteers and helped prepare them to offer their help without sharing their overwhelming emotions with those they sought to help.
She said, “Individuals and groups from across the country came to help their fellow Americans who were in situations that they’d never dreamed possible in America. Americans saved us … not our government. It’s been called the largest humanitarian response in the history of the world.”
In the years since, Bebelle has come to see that culture is a vital contributor to helping the city continue its journey post-Katrina. Ashé hosts conferences, concerts, dramatic performances, art exhibits and provides a wide range of programming for the whole cycle of life: youth, women, men, elders and special populations. In non-threatening ways, Ashé is helping people learn about other cultures and providing the opportunity for them to raise their consciousness and recognize their own biases.
Much of the work that Ashé does is what Bebelle calls, “weaving our own ‘we’ and teaching others to do the same in order to build stronger, more connected communities.”
“As people, we have a field of people who are our ‘we.’ We spend 85 percent of our lives doing things with people who look like us and act like us. Our role is to expand the ‘we,’ for people to connect with people who come from different cultures and life experiences. We have to move the dial on this necessity of diversity and inclusiveness, to give people a confident capacity to use in creating life in America going forward to the future.”
Focusing on the city’s children is important to Bebelle. She said, “The notion of looking at children as our most important asset and the future for us all is a beautiful aspiration. All of us have some time, talent and treasure we can apply somewhere else. What’s a more worthy pursuit than to have a country where all children are taken care of? What is a better way to accomplish this than to have us all pitch in and help? If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem!”