Giselle Nakhid leads a community dance class early one evening at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center in the Central City neighborhood of New Orleans. The class is called Sistas Making a Change, and as the name suggests, the ladies who participate in this free, weekly gathering get more than a few dance moves. They hear from experts on health topics, they share a healthy meal and they bask in a sense of togetherness.
"So not only do they get the opportunity to dance and talk and socialize with each other, they get to commune together, and eat together," Nakhid says. "So dance and movement and health, they get to learn about things that affect themselves and their families.”
That's right on target for Ashé. This nonprofit, housed in a former department store, draws inspiration from arts and culture to fuel the broader idea of a community's culture, one with the power to improve people's lives and change their way of seeing and living in the world.
"Rooting and fertilizing anything in culture makes it work better, you know? And so we began to dream of a way to be able to essentially program and create events that did that," says Carole Bebelle, the center's co-founder and executive director.
"The only place where there is anything close to a curriculum for being able to really live in a diverse world is happening in the cultural framework," she says. "And so that is one of the major ways in which we make an impact in the world, is that we really teach people how to accept folks for the gifts that they have, the look that they have, and the culture that they bring."
Ashé is deeply rooted in African American culture. Visit the center and this evidence is everywhere, from the art in the windows, to the fabrics and jewelry displayed on its walls, to the theater pieces, music performances, film screenings, book discussions, seminars and classes held under its roof. The goal is to help get past racial prejudice, to reconnect people with a fuller sense of their identity and to bridge the racial divide across communities.
"Our motto then is, ‘The past we inherit, but the future we create,’" says Bebelle. "And we are very intentionally working to do just that. To create a different future for ourselves and the community that we represent. And it's not something that we can do singularly by ourselves. It's something we have to do with other people who are not like us. Because it's really about being able to claim the respect that you're due and then to also require it from others."
At Ashé, it turns out the path to such goals can be as fun and rewarding as dancing to the music, as Gizelle Nakhid and the ladies at Sistas Making a Change prove when they gather each week.
"So to be here and to teach these ladies is like my joy, it's something I do every day, I wake up to do this every day," she says.
Visit the Center online, or at:
1712 O.C. Haley Boulevard
New Orleans, LA