Planners of African American Cultural Center in Virginia Beach are collaborating with local schools,

A move to the center was the focal point of a celebration April 26 at the Westin Town Center. An “Evening with our Friends” brought together area leaders and members of the community to kick off the capital campaign for the African American Cultural Center in Virginia Beach.

Keynote speaker Dean Risë Nelson of Yale University, encouraged making the center a reality.

“It’s critically important in these polarized times,” she said. “A cultural center is a centering space, drawing in all members of the community for reflection, celebration, education, socialization, and then radiating out into the broader community to positively impact lives.”

Nelson is an assistant dean of Yale College and director of its Afro American Cultural Center, affectionately known as The House.

She spoke to the audience via Skype, after weather canceled her travel. She provided a virtual tour to demonstrate how The House serves the “town and gowns.”

It opened in 1969 against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War, “when the nation was deeply divided and anxious, much as we are today,” Nelson said in a phone interview with the Beacon. It is the oldest among the Ivy Leagues and the largest Afro American Cultural Center in the Northeast, open to the college campus and New Haven neighborhoods.

Its programs include cultural, educational, spiritual and social events, as well community outreach through tutoring, career mentoring and meeting spaces.

“Our center was started by dedicated, young undergraduates, who show us what a belief and hope and a vision can do,” Nelson said.

Belief, hope and vision also belong to Dr. Amelia Ross-Hammond, founder and executive director of the African American Cultural Center in the works for Virginia Beach.

“We want to foster community by bringing people and families together,” Ross-Hammond said, “providing interactive education and celebrating African American history and culture in the region.”

The project aligns with the city’s 2030 Arts plan to celebrate history and diversity, and is expected to be completed in five years on about five acres on Newtown Road. The capital campaign will fund construction of Phase I at $9 million, with targeted completion and opening in two years.

Phase I includes a multi-use arts center with exhibition areas, great room and spaces for a resident artist, education, programming, administration and storage. Phase II will include an indoor venue, outdoor film and performance areas, kitchen, café and improvements to the Lake Edward Park community basketball courts.

The “Evening with our Friends” event included a diversity discussion with Malcolm Ashley and students from Norfolk State and Virginia Wesleyan universities. There was also an Urban League of Hampton Roads Young Professionals presentation, and a performance by NSU’s Dance Theatre under the direction of Dr. Tarin Hampton. Hors d’oeuvres and drinks were enjoyed to music by The Ferguson Group.

Ross-Hammond said the local center is collaborating with Virginia Beach City Public Schools, ODU, NSU and VWU, and have been invited to consider The House as a sister center.

“For the oldest Afro-American Cultural Center in the Ivy League to reach out to our emerging center is just amazing,” she said.

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