Celebrating King, Chavez, and Local Leaders

Ashé Cultural Arts Center’s luncheon, held on Friday, was a gathering place for local leaders to reflect on the legacy of King and Chavez. Jo Ann Minor, Ashé’s Associate Director of Operations and Administration, summed up the luncheon perfectly in her concluding remarks: “How wonderful to be inspired by the lives of Dr. King and Cesar Chavez. How wonderful to be inspired by each other.” The event was a reminder of our own strength and ability to build the beloved community.

Looking around the Ashé Powerhouse, one could find hope in the beautiful blend of African and Latin culture among the people, as well as the decor. The table runners were made of traditional African fabrics in bright colors and intricate patterns. Both sides of the room had a display of Latin skulls and figurines typical of Dia de Los Muertos. The event began with musical artists, and then highlighted the voices and work of two local changemakers: Erika Wright, Vice President for Global Philanthropy for JP Morgan Chase & Co.; and Lucas Diaz, City, Culture and Community Doctoral Fellow at Tulane University and Co-founder of Puentes, which addresses Latinx social justice issues.

Together, these speakers wove together a narrative of connection, purpose, and perseverance that we can all be inspired by.

Wright began by telling the audience about her own history and connection to New Orleans. Though she was raised in Chicago, her grandfather grew up in the Seventh Ward, and her husband is also from New Orleans. She assured the audience that her “future is tied to the future of this city. ”By tuning into ideas about cultural pride as a form of resistance, which is present in King’s concepts of “somebodiness,” she offered New Orleans as an example of resistance. Simply by existing as a city populated by a majority of people of color, New Orleans is an example of the strength and pride of resisting systemic oppression. She also reminded us that we are a part of that resistance before then sharing a quote from King that has influenced her perspective on racial justice work:

White Americans must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society. The comfortable, entrenched, the privileged cannot continue to tremble at the prospect of a shift in the status quo. This is a multi-racial nation where all groups are dependent on each other…There is no separate white path to power and fulfillment, short of social disaster, that does not share power with black aspirations for freedom and human dignity.

This quote has helped Wright realize that it is her job to question, challenge, and disrupt systems. She wanted to look at the field of philanthropy and see how it has undercut communities of color. So when she walks into a meeting and is the only person of color in a room, she is ready to ask her colleagues to think more critically about their intentions and decisions. Wright also touched upon the idea of multi-culturalism and offered statistics on the way we as a society have “closed ourselves off to prosperity” by hindering the advancement of people of color. An equity profile of New Orleans created by PolicyLink found that the New Orleans economy could have been $18 billion stronger in 2014 if its racial gaps in income had been closed. While citing this statistic, Wright also reminded the audience, that it’s not about the money.

“Economic justice is a foundation for human dignity,” Wright said. “People want to protest because they want fairness, not an advantage.”

Wright concluded with a call for us to continue the legacy of Dr. King’s work despite the difficulty and challenges by using one of his quotes to reaffirm her own commitment to justice.

“It’s not easy to hold that purpose. Sometimes I feel like I’m flying, sometimes running, sometimes walking, sometimes crawling. But I vow to keep moving forward.”

Lucas Diaz also spoke about purpose and connection. He began by talking about how we are all connected by a more extensive narrative of social justice. Though he grew up in the Dominican Republic and was not exposed as a child to the teachings of King, he still recognizes the way he has been called into the work of King. He spoke about a growing consciousness regarding social justice that began to emerge when he was fifteen years old, and his father was murdered in the Dominican Republic.

“I began to see the world as a complex place where people were constantly struggling to understand each other and hear each other and love each other and wanted to be loved and didn’t know how to do it,” Diaz said.

He began to ask himself why he was here and what was his purpose. He wanted to be a writer, but as he grew older was pulled into the navy reserves. Later, he felt called to start an organization that would serve the Latinx community in New Orleans, Puentes. He started paying more attention to the Latinx people he’d see in the different neighborhoods, and those waiting in front of the Home Depot and Lowe’s. He thought about their struggles as immigrants. As an immigrant himself, he related in many ways to the challenges of not knowing the language and trying to make one’s way to a new place.

He began to recognize the importance of community in the way that King and Chavez organized and built community. He talked about the idea of economic justice that Wright had touched upon. “This was King’s vision of the beloved community,” said Diaz. The beloved community is a community organized around the power of love, where race, ethnicity, gender, etc., doesn’t affect one’s access to opportunity or life outcomes.
“The beloved community is a place where all people can thrive.”

Looking around the Ashé Cultural Arts Center, where about one hundred people had gathered to reflect on their purpose, it was clear the beloved community, the community that Dr. King and Chavez had envisioned, was still alive. Jo Ann Minor’s words were perfect. We can all continue to be inspired by the legacy of these great leaders, as well as the leaders around us right now at this moment.

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