New Orleans native Wendi-Autumn Moore-O’Neal has worked for justice her entire life, “I grew up in a family of creative people who work to make our community better. Last year (August 2016) I decided to organize the story circle facilitation, group meeting facilitation, and freedom singing rooted in the history of a Black southern freedom movement I’ve been doing with local organizations into a consulting practice.”
“We lived all over the city – in neighborhoods both uptown and downtown – getting a taste of life in Treme, the lower garden district and the Tree Streets while growing up. I graduated from both McMain and NOCCA for High school in 1991, went to college in Atlanta and moved back home in 2008.
I’ve worked as an educator and organizer for trans-national, national, regional, and local justice organizations for 25 years. Some of the groups I’ve worked with include Amnesty International, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, The Highlander Research and Education Center, The We Shall Overcome Fund, Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, Junebug Productions and Ashe Community Arts Center.
Q: What is the name of the business that you operate? What types of services / products does your business offer?
A: My work is with Black and similarly oppressed people who fight what harms our communities. What my work aims to do is support this community to get stronger and do better at transforming the oppressive material conditions of our lives to reflect our future dreams. I use civil rights movement history, culture and traditions to do this.
Jaliyah consulting uses story circles, freedom singing and facilitation to share civil rights movement culture, history and traditions. In this light, Jaliyah is co-hosting a big event in the spring I want people to know about.
I love sharing freedom songs because you don’t have to be a great singer to get something out of doing something together. We need practices that uplifts the spirit and grows our sense of our collective power to participate in collective struggle. Every 1st Sunday I lead a Community Sing in support of the People’s Assembly from 4-6pm.
We are pleased to offer a very special Community Sing led by Ysaye Maria Barnwell, formerly of Sweet Honey in the Rock, Sunday April 8th, 2018. I hope you can join us as we sing for the joy of singing, sing to grow more of what we need to be a stronger community that does better for working class people.
Q: How did you get started? Tell us your motivation for starting this business.
A: My father, John O’Neal, was a field organizer for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC was the youth arm of the Civil Rights Movement, in particular COFO, or the Congress Of Federated Organizations, which shared the work of organizing voting rights activities in the Black Belt South. COFO organizations included the NAACP, SCLC, CORE and SNCC, but it was the youth in CORE and SNCC who were more radical in their implementation of democratic process and non-violent direct action strategies than the older, more established, hierarchical NAACP and SCLC. SCLC, the organization Dr. King worked for, was founded here in New Orleans.
The New Orleans’ chapter of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) was very influential across the country because so many local chapter members became national staff members. These young people followed the example and guidance of National figures like Ms. Ella Baker, James Farmer, and local people like Oretha Castle’s parents and grandmother. Ms. Baker teaches that the people who have a problem know the most about what needs to be done about that problem; and people talking to each other is essential for solving shared problems. The Castle’s ran the Freedom House, their private home where they housed and fed countless civil rights workers and freedom riders.
My mother, Marilyn Norton, liked listening to Malcom X at the Audubon Ballroom in her hometown of Harlem and while she was never staff of SNCC – as a young adult she worked under Marion Right Edelman, a former SNCC staff person in programs that were established in direct response to SNCC organizing work. My parents meet at a party at Andrew Young’s best friend’s house, and were introduced by Julian Bond.
My dad co-founded of one of the organizations that established a Black Arts Movement, The Free Southern Theater. The other adults in my life were also Freedom Singers and Print makers and sculptors and poets and novelists and dancers, and jazz composers and musicians who used their craft whatever the medium to build for freedom. This meant that they created in support of people who were themselves people who are committed to being freedom fighters. So the cultural work was made by with and for people who are working for social, political and economic justice and it was reflected in the methodologies that produced their art, and the form and content.
The story circle process was borne of this kind of commitment to Black people’s struggle to be liberated.
I came along many years later, but I grew up with people for whom the civil rights movement never ended. The activities changed, new people joined, conditions intensified, organizations lived and died, diversified, grew…objectives changed to reflect contemporary happenings – but the strategies, and commitments, and end goal remained the same. Build collective power to end oppression of Black people and work for justice and beyond.
I grew up in a meeting, going to movement reunions where veterans of this war for our freedom would struggle through disagreements, gossip, sing and write as they closed out projects, or built new initiatives. Always honoring the genius and courage, strength, commitment and grit; strategic praxis and capacity of the people of Southwest GA in the Albany movement, or the children of Selma, AL or the bus drivers, beauticians, tenant farmers, country preachers and town drunks who did whatever they could to make material beloved community. These people are “Junebugs”, because everybody has a cousin nicknamed “Junebug”. Junebug represents the wisdom in the ways of common, everyday folks.
My teachers are these folks. They are dying because some of them were lucky enough to have gotten old. Although so much has been done to document much of their work – so much is also not popularly understood. So much is beyond the reach of how the dominant culture functions.
My work is my own, as each generation has their own challenges and gifts to meet. But my ways are connected to a history that is older than me. I am committed to strategies that are older than me, efforts that will need hands still after I too am dust. My work is codifying some of these ways of being that translate to being useful in the contemporary political moment. My work is remembering and connecting. My work is uncovering things so that everyone can get something out of it.
Q: What are you most proud of (related to your business)?
A: I am most proud of the documentary film, “This Little Light”, that I am co-directing and co-producing with my book club friend, Ada McMahon. I approached her about helping me make a video short I could post on Facebook to tell a story about my experience of being fired from my job because I married my wife. She agreed, since she could use it as a project to work on through her time in film school. Two years later, it’s become a full-length documentary project that tells a story of my discovery of how this experience with unfairness dictated by unjust policy and right-wing christian fundamentalism could become a triumph of growing closer to the Christ and strengthened beloved community. We are very excited to share the film in April with a New Orleans premiere.
Q: As an African American/Black entrepreneur, what were some of the biggest challenges and/or surprised you faced when starting your business?
A: I decided to name my consulting practice Jaliyah Consulting because Jali is a Mende word that describes a story telling caste who are keepers of the history, lineage and songs of their people. The Jali title is passed on from parent or uncle, and training begins as young as 5 years old. Jaliyah refers to the culture and traditions of the Jali.
Because I grew up watching my dad tell stories, sitting in on meetings and being a sounding board after rehearsals and story circles – I see myself as in a practice derived from the West African tradition of the Jali. It’s a challenge to give a nod to the many connections between New Orleans culture and the peoples of the ancient Mali Empire because West Africa is often mis-understood and unknown.
Because of racism, I thought people might respond negatively to the use of African concepts as the intellectual foundation for my business. I have been surprised and pleased to see how excited people can be to learn even the little I can share about the Jali’s role in the Mende culture and what that has to do with a contemporary freedom song in this moment here in New Orleans.
Q: What advice do you have to fellow African American/Black entrepreneurs starting business?
A: You can do it. We do not have to work for other people. We can use whatever skills and resources we have to grow everything we need to be truly successful according to values of cooperative economics.
Q: New Orleans is such a “robust” entrepreneurial ecosystem. What are the resources (people, networks, organizations, programs, books, articles, etc.) that you have found most useful in starting and/or growing your business?
A: There are more people and services than I could possibly name, so I want to just name how grateful I am for all of the sacrifice and help that I recieve. I must recognize the legacy and culture of all the displaced Indigenous, African, and Haitian people whose know-how, labor and make-a-way-outta-no-way spirit and love has been the source of wealth in the economy of this city we are all lucky enough to call home.
My wife, S.Mandisa Moore-O’Neal is a Black Feminist Civil Rights Attorney who started her own private practice and her brilliant council has been invaluable to me as an accountable community worker. My mother, Marilyn Norton, is an accountant and an experienced entrepreneur and her advice and volunteered efforts are a great benefit. My parents, including my father and his wife, Bertha Regas-O’Neal have gifted me with the legacy of the work of the SNCC, the Free Southern Theater and Junebug Productions that taught me so much about the story circle process that my work is based in.
Many of the people and organizations in the social and economic justice movement have been excellent resources, like Doratha Smith-Simmons, a member of the New Orleans CORE chapter and New Orleans music historian; Leon Waters and Malcom Suber’s Hidden History tours about the 1811 Revolt and beyond. Local members of the professional organization of community based artists, Alternate ROOTS, have been helpful to connect with peers and administrative resources – especially the incredible Sage Crump, arts administrator extraordinaire.
Shana Griffin is an incredible Black Feminist organizer, coach and genius with organizational development support. Shana Turner and Shawneki Wright with Black Swan Food Experience and Synergetic have been generous with sharing their business plan based in principles of cooperative economics. Carol Bebelle and many others at the Ashe Community Arts Center is a great champion to have on your team. Luther Grey, Jamilah Peters-Muhammed and Denise Graves with the Congo Square Preservation Society are a local treasure. LaShauna Lewis and Dr. Kyshun Webster at Good Works Network are excellent!!! There are so many people and organizations in my neighborhood that are tremendous resources as business mentors and trainers.
I am also a member of a book club that has been a tremendous support, our reading texts like Toni Cade Bambara’s, The Salt Eaters, or visiting the Whitney Museum, and the video of Bernice Johnson Reagon’s Bill Moyer’s PBS interview in The Songs Are Free – have informed much of my work.
Even as a social justice based business, the business plan elements and fundamentals are necessary – you can’t skip steps. The Entrepreneurship class hosted by Goodworks Network is GOLD! Get a business counselor!
Facebook: Wendi Moore-O’Neal
Phone: (504) 603-7158