What We're Reading: 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."

"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."

"Under Ecclesiastes’ watch, this has recently taken the form of I Deserve It!, a ground-breaking initiative that partners with Tulane University School of Public Health, New Orleans East Hospital, and other institutions to train and employ local artists and performers to serve as community health workers in a city where health outcomes vary depending on the color of your skin. Before the pandemic, there was a 25-year gap in life expectancy depending on a person’s race and zip code. Since COVID, that chasm has grown wider, including metrics such as infant and maternal mortality and various diseases."

"To redress this imbalance, I Deserve It! takes an approach that differs radically from the “treat ’em and street ’em” approach that dominates the social service and healthcare sectors says Avis Gray, Ashé’s leader of health equity and the former assistant chief nurse for the state of Louisiana. Indeed, the “It” that one deserves encompasses a spectrum: safety, affordable housing, healthcare, food, community, education, art, and more."

"I Deserve It! artists and culture makers sign a two-year contract to serve part-time as grassroots community health ambassadors in exchange for insurance and a full-time salary. Supported by an Ashé-coordinated network of nutritionists, nurses, and social workers, artists distribute health and wellness information at gigs, festivals, and second line parades. To encourage getting a vaccine or booster, they perform at vaccination sites-cum-celebrations where food is served, DJs spin records, and attendees leave with gift bags and balloons. They see to it that community members can access doctors, and often accompany them to appointments."

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