ICYMI: New Orleans Creatives Get to the Heart of the Matter

From Mellon Foundation: Asali DeVan Ecclesiastes was no stranger to the significance of Ashé Cultural Arts Center when she joined the non-profit as chief equity officer in January 2020.

“This was the first place that paid me to write a poem in my early 20s,” says Ecclesiastes of the New Orleans non-profit organization that celebrates its 25th anniversary next year. “This is an organization that I have been around since its inception. I grew up alongside it.”

Indeed, Ecclesiastes grew up in the city’s Seventh Ward before heading to Nashville to study English literature and education at Vanderbilt University. Later, she returned to the city and embarked on a career in the arts and community service. She programmed the legendary Congo Square Artist Marketplace at New Orleans’ Jazz and Heritage Festival. She co-wrote Swimming Upstream, a play about life after Hurricane Katrina that was produced by V (formerly known as Eve Ensler). She oversaw neighborhood development in the Claiborne Corridor and she made her mark as an acclaimed poet and repeat contributor to TED Talks. And amidst her professional pursuits, Ecclesiastes raised five children.

A bona fide polymath, Ecclesiastes is driven by her commitment to and love for the history, culture, and people of her hometown—a city she justifiably calls “singular in terms of how much art and culture exists.” Her commitment is of a piece with Ashé’s core philosophy: to support and celebrate people who make art and the BIPOC communities that inspire it while simultaneously addressing longstanding racial and socio-economic inequities that have plagued them.

Sunni Patterson, a poet, performance artist, and community activist hired by I Deserve It! in 2021, is among them.

“Caring for the culture also means caring for the people that make it up,” says Patterson. “Caring for people that are blowing the horns, that are sewing feathers and plumes and beads, and knowing that he walked however many miles and he has asthma, second lining all these birthdays and still can't pay the light bills.”

Patterson is emphatic that her job is not to be prescriptive. She does not tell people what to do to improve their health.

“We honor everyone’s sovereign ability to make a decision for themselves,” she says. “When we go into a community with food, we don’t demand you got to change your diet. We say, ‘Here is another pot of red beans with no meat in them, and you can take some.’ It’s about going into communities and asking, ‘What is the need? Is there something that I can help with? What can I do to help weave this thread of relationships to help us expand community, so you’re not alone?”

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