New Orleans Creatives Get to the Heart of the Matter

Eliminating health inequities requires the help of the city’s greatest asset: its artists.

portrait of a person in a red, white, and black print dress, standing outdoors in front of a mural.Asali DeVan Ecclesiastes, Ashé Cultural Arts Center chief equity officer. Photo: Annie Flanagan for the 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. 

streetscape / storefront imageAshé Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans, LA. Photo: Annie Flanagan for Mellon Foundation

“There’s nothing about the structure of our DNA nor the content of our blood that is any different from anyone else’s.”

—Asali DeVan Ecclesiastes, chief equity officer at Ashé Cultural Arts Center

Founded in 1998 by writer Carol Bebelle (aka Mama Carol) and the late artist Douglas Redd (aka Baba Doug), Ashé creates an ever-evolving slate of opportunities for cultural engagement in the city’s most underserved and poorest zip codes.

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. 

“None of these things are hereditary,” Ecclesiastes says adamantly. “They’re environmental. There’s nothing about the structure of our DNA nor the content of our blood that is any different from anyone else’s”

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. 

shrineAn altar honoring John O’Neal of Free Southern Theater and other ancestors of theater and performing arts. Photo: Annie Flanagan for Mellon Foundation

“Basically, you’re working as a translator,” says Stafford Agee, a trombone player with the Grammy-winning Rebirth Brass Band and a Mardi Gras Indian. His I Deserve It! docket includes working with one 84-year-old diabetic. “I help him navigate going to the doctor and understanding the lingo of what they’re saying—understand what he has to do with the medication. He doesn’t know what questions to ask, and you’re navigating him through understanding what it is he has an appointment for.”

For Agee and other musicians who rely on gigs to make ends meet, participation in I Deserve It! is a godsend, given wages lost due to pandemic-related closures and cancellations over two years.

More than that, I Deserve It! plays a vital role in the healthcare ecosystem, since, as Agee says, “people don’t really trust doctors.”

That is no surprise, says Eccelsiastes, summarizing lessons from a health impact assessment undertaken for the Claiborne Corridor project a few years ago. “People just really felt like they didn’t deserve access to care because they’re poor. They didn’t expect to be treated well,” she says. They didn’t expect to be listened to about the experiences of their own body. They didn’t understand the jargon being used with them, and so they didn’t feel comfortable enough to ask questions. Why would you trust what continually fails you?” she asks. “Who folks do trust and hold in esteem and look up to for social guidance are the artists and culture bearers—the people in the community who make music, who make Indian suits, who are chefs and culinary artists or poets, spoken word artists, singers.”

street art in front of a marigold colored buildingAshé-commissioned street art by Antonique Lang and Taylor Warren. Photo: Annie Flanagan for Mellon Foundation

“Caring for the culture also means caring for the people that make it up ... I’m big on this radical idea of what it means to imagine something new.”

—Sunni Patterson,  poet, performance artist, and activist

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.”

It means both communicating through the cultural vernacular of this specific city—through the foods, arts, and rhythyms that make New Orleans unique—as well as speaking to one another as equals.

“It's got to be in that respectful language of culture,” says Gray. “We start with the New Orleans, ‘How you doing? How your momma'nem? You live in the Ninth Ward? What school you went to?’” 

The flip side—learning how to listen—is also essential. Patterson, who grew up in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, is keenly aware of what is left unsaid in any exchange, especially at I Deserve It! events.

A traditional plate of red beans and rice may “open doors up to conversation,” she says. “It goes to maybe this person needs someone to talk to. This person may just need activities that we can provide, and here’s a list of organizations that are doing senior activities.”

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?”

“I’m big on this radical idea of what it means to imagine something new,” Patterson continues. “What does it feel like when you are moving at optimal levels? When you say, ‘Damn, I feel good today.’ Can we recreate that moment? You deserve to feel those moments.”