Carol Bebelle lives right around the corner from the cultural hub she co-founded and nurtured: Ashé Cultural Arts Center on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. In her home, hues of turquoise and orange fill the living room. The ambiance is warm, with portraits of her along with other women like Queen Reesie of Guardians of the Flame. Paintings of the city, African art and sculptures hang on the walls.
Bebelle is draped in her favorite color – purple. Her headwrap is twisted across her hair. She’s sitting on a blue couch next to a pillow with Maya Angelou’s picture on it and the name of one of the author’s autobiographical works: “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
Known as Mama Carol in the community, Bebelle is one of New Orleans’ most beloved matriarchs. At 73, Bebelle is as busy as ever. She was named a community scholar for Tulane University’s Center for Public Service. She works with Southern University’s School of Social Work and Institute of Mental Hygiene. Bebelle is also a mentor with the Mellon Foundation and does work with Planned Parenthood.
It’s Women’s History Month and women are to be celebrated, Bebelle said.
“The decision to celebrate women and women who have done exceptional things as well as women who have not done things that have risen to the level of celebrity, but just have done remarkable things … I think is a very human and a very respectable and sacred thing,” she said.
Bebelle is one of those remarkable women.
A native of New Orleans, she graduated from Loyola University in 1970 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. She received her master’s degree in education administration and supervision from Tulane University in 1973.
For more than three decades, Bebelle worked in the public sector including for the school board and as “an administrator and planner of education, social, cultural and health programs.”
But after 30 years in city government, she decided to devote her time to uplifting the creators, entrepreneurs, and artists in the city she felt were an unused resource to improving the development of communities.
“Mama Carol Bebelle is a woman of vision, but she’s just not a woman of vision – she puts feet to her visions,” Jamilah Peters-Muhammad, a health and wellness specialist at Ashé, said.
A vision realized
In 1998, Bebelle co-founded Ashé Cultural Arts Center with Douglas Redd.
They had a vision to “use art and culture to support human, community and economic development.”
Bebelle saw the need for a quality space for artists and created it. She provided a safe place for New Orleans’ cultural bearers and residents in the city.
“She didn’t do that for her, she did it for her community,” Peters-Muhammad said.
The impact has been clear.
Cherice Harrison-Nelson, also known as Queen Reesie, refers to Bebelle as “sister.” She recalled a moment when Ashé first opened. The former school teacher had an idea to host a family picnic for students and parents. Bebelle opened up the doors of Ashé. It was a way of “building school and community,” Nelson said.
“She wants artists to work in the community in a way that galvanizes community around their personal assets and their inherent greatness,” Nelson said.
Artist Ayo Scott can testify about the impact Ashé and Bebelle has had on his work and career, noting that Ashé has “given so many local artists their first real chance to share their work with the world in a relevant and respectful way.”
“I am grateful for Ashé not only allowing me to exhibit some of my own works, but they also allowed me the space and opportunity to curate shows to share the work of other artists in my circle as well,” Scott said. “I’m a part of an art collective called Pass It On that has been hosting open mics and art exhibits for 13 years. When we needed a place to house our event Ashé was happy to open their doors to our programming.”
Another impact has been on women’s health.
When Ashé started, one of the first programs created was geared toward improving the health of Black women. Sistahs Makin’ A Change, “is a multigenerational, multidisciplinary health and wellness class held twice a week.” The class meets “in a circle of mutual support to wiggle our way to wellness.”
Sistahs Making A Change is still going on 25 years later, said Peters-Muhammad. “We know that when we get to women, women then bring it to their families and then to their communities,” she said.
Ashé became an environment where parents could bring their children, where communities could gather, and a place where everyone’s ideas, gifts and humanity were valued.
And though she is no longer at Ashé, Bebelle’s essence still exists there.
“She has helped to change the image of what culture is and who culture bearers are in this city,” said Asalia D. Ecclesiastes, the chief equity officer at Ashé. “She understood the importance of starting an institution,” that catered to “Black people, Black imagination and Black artistry.”
Her next chapter
Those who have worked with Bebelle acknowledge her commitment to the arts and her community — whether it’s helping to sew a bead on a suit or spreading the word about voting rights. She believes that we should all play a part in improving our communities.
“We all need a Carol Bebelle in our life,” Nelson said.
In this next chapter of her life, Bebelle has become an artist as well. She formed her own production company, Akua Productions Nola in 2018. She uses it as a platform to tell cultural stories and to support the growth of equity and justice in society.
One of her current projects is the weekly podcast “Arise,” which focuses on getting people to reset and think about how they want to start their day. She encourages listeners to carve a moment to reflect and create a purpose for the day.
“If you stumble into the morning, and stumble through the whole day, you can lose your whole life like that, and so Arise is saying this is a new morning, a new day,” Bebelle said.
Tia Smith worked with Bebelle on the “Arise” podcast.
“One of the most significant things about Carol Bebelle that we should all pay attention to and also apply is that she’s consistent in her advocacy for cultural artists, visionaries and the community,” said Smith, who is also a research manager at The Opportunity Agenda.
Recently, Bebelle produced a CD called “The Medicine Bag.” It features a series of jazz and blues songs dedicated to healing. Bebelle wants listeners to feel good about what’s going on in their lives and in their world, she said. She was inspired by the pandemic in 2020, in which she experienced her own family tragedy when her younger brother died of COVID at age 63.
Dwan Adams, founder and divergent cultural strategist of NTRL|Ground Consulting, describes Bebelle as “eloquent and relevant.”
“She gives her all while lending an ear, a hand, a hug, a voice of reason, a verse, a song, a home-cooked meal, name it,” Adams said. “There’s an invaluable lesson in every interaction. She exemplifies the difference one person can make when you use your gifts in service and gratitude.”
As a role model and inspiration to others, Bebelle wants to continue giving artists and community members a platform to express their voice and gifts.
“I’m Mama Carol. I’m Ms. B. I’m Mama C and I’m MC. All of these are terms of endearment to me and they say to me that who I am and what it is that I’m doing in the world is some form of nutriment to others,” Bebelle said.
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