Ready or not, Black History Month at Yale’s Afro-American Cultural Center promises to deliver the goods. And despite how New Haveners may have been made to feel in the past, all events will be open to the public.
This revived commitment to the New Haven community comes from Dean Risë Nelson, the New Haven-raised director of Afro-American Cultural Center (Af-Am House) who is in her third year at the helm.
“Every day I consider myself doing it for the culture,” she said during the latest edition of #ForTheCulture month on WNHH FM’s “Werk It Out” program. “It means doing what I do for my ancestors, doing what I do for future generations to come so that they have a pride and dignity and knowledge of where they come from and where we come from.”
Nelson said as the director of the oldest and largest black cultural center in the Ivy League, she’s felt an obligation to reconnect with the community and rebuild relationships that may have been damaged in recent years.
“I’m trying to bring folks and communities and organizations and coalitions together so that we can be stronger and it’s not just one person or a few people here and there lifting this load,” she said. “It’s so that we’re all doing this together; not just the campus but across the community.”
Nelson said after she worked at several different universities in cities from Boston to Indiana, it was time to come back to her hometown of New Haven to contribute to Yale’s developing culture and diversity work and help rebuild Yale’s relationship with the community, which she said was in desperate need of repair.
“It’s significant that I’m the only director who has come from New Haven,” she said. “And I grew up here knowing that Yale was not for me. Or at least feeling that, when I would go on campus, the looks that I would get were as if ‘You do not belong here,’ or ‘This is not for you.’”
But back then, she said, at least the Af-Am House was always accepting. Citing one of the four points of the Af-Am House’s original mission, Nelson said connecting “Black Yale” and New Haven has always been at the core of the organization’s programming and activities.
“So I am trying to actively returning it to that,” she said, and she’s using Black History Month to do it.
Nelson said she’s gone into neighborhoods and churches armed with flyers and business cards to make sure people feel welcomed and supported by the House. Her commitment to New Haven even extends to youth, she said, as proven by her bringing a couple hundred New Haven Public School students to Battell Chapel for a keynote given by Bree Newsome, the Black Lives Matter activist who scaled a flag pole at the South Carolina state house to remove a confederate flag.
Black History Month kicked off with Newsome’s talk and a lecture by Dr. Cornel West during the first week of February. Nelson said there’s still more to offer the community and the campus.
“When you say something is free and open to the public, that can’t just be a tagline or a phrase that you put at a bottom of a flyer,” she said. “Most of the events I have are open to the public … and it’s rare at this point that we have events that are specifically for Yalies only.”
Before you head downtown to hang out at the House, here’s what Nelson says you should know:
• They’re located at 211 Park St.
• And you should just come by.
For a full list of events and activities, check the House’s calendar.
Click on or download the above audio file or the Facebook Live video below to hear the full episode of “Werk It Out” on WNHH FM with Dean Risë Nelson.