Carol Bebelle, Champion of Culture
The power to produce change
“Art gives society a way to have difficult conversations.”
—Carol BebelleCarol Bebelle, poet and cofounder of Ashé Cultural Arts Center, has championed arts, culture, and community in New Orleans for over four decades. With determination and entrepreneurship, alongside the late visual artist and Ashé cofounder Douglas Redd, Bebelle ignited the revitalization of Central City’s Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. Ashé is a Yoruba word meaning “the power to make things happen and produce change.” True to that meaning, in 1998 Ashé Cultural Arts Center occupied 1712 Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard as a tenant, purchased the property in 2007, and, by 2009, had developed twenty residential units on its upper floors. After Redd died in 2007, Bebelle continued their vision to use arts and culture to foster community, economic development, and civic engagement. Centering the Ashé Cultural Arts Center in African principles shaped the values and aesthetics of Ashé’s work and distinguished the center as a leader in arts, culture, and resistance. Under Bebelle’s leadership, the center curated and hosted multidisciplinary arts programs that served the community and facilitated opportunities for local artists.
Signature programs that Bebelle initiated included: the Kuumba Institute, a year-round cultural program for school-aged children; Maafa (Middle Passage Commemoration); Holiday on the Boulevard (Festival & Arts Marketplace); The Origins of Life on Earth: African Creation Myth, Thirteen Lessons, Truth Be Told/Story Circle, Swimming Upstream (theatrical productions); Redd Linen Night (an art exhibit named for the cofounder); and Exploring the Diaspora, a series of multidisciplinary exhibitions that showcased the African Diaspora and its impact on New Orleans.
In partnership with College Unbound and Roger Williams University, Bebelle also founded and served as the dean of Ashé College Unbound, which provided a pathway for community members to earn bachelor’s degrees in cultural and community development.
“We-making” and “radical hopefulness” are Bebelle’s guiding principles. “We must be present for each other in order to be resilient,” Bebelle says. Affectionately known as Mama Carol, she has served on various executive boards including the Central City Renaissance Alliance, Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard Merchants & Business Association, Southern University Center for African and African American Studies, the Dryades YMCA, and, on the national level, Imagining America. Bebelle is also the author of a volume of poetry called In a Manner of Speaking.
In 2019, Bebelle retired as executive director of Ashé Cultural Arts Center. She continues her commitment to the humanities through AKUA Productions, a consultant and production service that explores the intersection between culture, society, and human behavior. She has produced a series of public service videos, including one for the 2020 US Census. Her legacy can be seen at 1712 Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard and in the next generation of New Orleans artists and cultural leaders whom she continues to inspire.
Kelly Harris-DeBerry received her MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her new book, Freedom Knows My Name (Xavier Review Press), was released in August 2020.