Discover the work of the Caribbean American Cultural Arts Foundation as we chat with its founder and chairman, Michael Thomas. Learn how the organization is making a difference in disaster relief, senior veteran services, and youth arts educational programming. As well as their ambitious goal to expand nationally.Support the show
Join us as we delve deeper into the importance of cultural education and embracing the nuances that lead to better understanding. We discuss the Foundation's efforts to connect with African-American and Hispanic communities and their unique partnership with Four Seasons that celebrates diverse culture and people. We also examine the challenges of being a black-led organization and the need to stand up for our right to be heard. Finally, we touch on the rich history of Jamaica and its connection to the civil rights movement, and why preserving and celebrating Caribbean culture is so vital. Tune in for an enlightening conversation with Michael Thomas.
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Speaker 1: Hello everyone, welcome to another episode of Carry On Friends, the Caribbean American podcast. As always, i'm excited that you are joining us. My name is Kari Ann, if this is the first time you're listening, and my guest for today is Michael Michael. Welcome to the podcast. How are you? I'm doing well yourself. How are you doing? I'm doing good, thank you. So why don't you tell the community of friends a little bit about who you are, caribbean country, your presence and the work you do?
Speaker 2: Okay, so I am the chairman and founder of the Caribbean American Cultural Arts Foundation. I know it's a mouthful. I'm originally from the United States, virgin Islands, the St Thomas And so our work really started back in like 2017 when there was two devastating storms ahead, well, really truly, throughout the Caribbean. Honestly, surely, it was not a good year for hurricanes and we hope that we don't see that again, but the climate changed. We're always in anticipation of that. So our work really started off in the disaster relief area And then we went on to do senior veteran services and also youth arts educational programming. And on the disaster relief side and preparedness, they had a chance to work with FEMA, hhs, cdc through those storms because they came to Atlanta, georgia, evacuated people from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and so they stayed about almost two years here in Atlanta And we teamed up with Golden Cross I think everyone knows Golden Cross and provided meals for them. It was about 300 people, different locations, and so that was a catalyst to really kind of kickstart Caribbean American Cultural Arts Foundation.
Speaker 2: And from there we went on to the youth arts educational program. It's called Cultural Connect And the reason why we do that program is to help build emotional intelligence for young people, especially underserved communities who do not have the opportunity to travel to the Caribbean and be educated about the Caribbean and Latin America. You know, i always tell them it's people that look like you that are in leadership roles right, and so we educate them about the Caribbean, the arts, the dance, the food, music. We did one with Westminster Academy in Atlanta and we did like a virtual marine biology class. They loved it, right, and so our program, we plan to expand on it and take it national and really kind of educate the community, especially the African American community, about the diversity in being black in America.
Speaker 2: Right, and so, with that as well, we had an opportunity to during the pandemic to get a grant from our Folsom County, georgia and we provided over 120 seniors and veterans free dental care so that dentures cleaning everything, and so we plan to expand on that program as well, because the seniors are also paramount. We really want to connect the seniors to the young people and they could share their stories. We couldn't do that during the pandemic, but that's the level of work that we do at the Caribbean American Cultural Arts Foundation and we're so excited about the direction that we're headed to and how far we really came in. Just a matter of five years.
Speaker 1: Wow, that's a lot of work that you've done in the five years. So the last point you said was you were looking forward to what's to come. What are you looking forward to? And you're based in Atlanta What's the reach for the organization?
Speaker 2: Our plan is you know, back in the day I'm dating myself, but you still have a cartoon called Pinky and the Brain We're taking over the world.
Speaker 2: So we're planning to take it over the world one step at a time and really expanding throughout the United States to predominantly Caribbean areas New York, texas, even Los Angeles, of course, florida as well, and those are the areas that we're looking at in reference to just right now expanding our programming and then looking at doing it throughout various different states and countries as well And really kind of building that bridge between the Caribbean region and United States, to start up with Caribbean region, latin America, caribbean region, africa, caribbean region, asia, and I'm looking at expanding that over the next decade or so as we grow. We have some great, great board right now of professionals that are of Caribbean and Hispanic descent that are making up our board, and you know we are just kind of working diligently to carefully execute what we have. And so you know, if you want to learn more about the organization, you can go to Caribbean cultural arts with an S. That works, so that's CaribbeanCulturalArtsWithAnSorg.
Speaker 1: So, michael, tell me a little bit about you and your experience just being in a—truly a duality. You know you are technically a US citizen, but you are of a country in the Caribbean and navigating that very unique situation that you, puerto Rico and, of course, guam and other territories have, but because you're in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, so talk to me a little bit about what that experience was, with technically being a US citizen but living in the Caribbean, and what that meant when you came here and how people see you.
Speaker 2: Wow, I laugh but it's not funny. But the US part is good because then you get a jobs and you get—you know, it makes life a lot easier and I think that's my—my father's from Antioa and my mother's from Anguilla, right. And so then you moved to the US Virgin Islands because back in the 50s, 60s—the oil refinery, right, the oil refinery.
Speaker 2: And then there was a lot of racism going on in America. It was a true story. My mom comes I was in school for a law deal at the Art Institute and mom, she decides to go on a bus all wheelie-need by herself. I tried to warn her but she didn't want to listen And she comes back in a tizzy. She's like 50-something at this age and she says I can't believe. There's a guy and he's white and he decided he's not going to sit next to me. I cannot believe this. I've never experienced this And I'm like, wow, 50-something, and you never really experienced what racism, is right? So we live in a bubble. You know, in the Caribbean We live in a bubble. We don't have to worry about police pulling us over and all that stuff, right? So, coming to America, it was really about educating especially people that look like me. Right, because a lot of my Caucasian counterparts they have done already travel to the Virgin Islands or Jamaica and they go on vacation. Oh yeah, we're there, you know. But there was people that looked like me, that they were asking wild questions Do you live in a hut, do you? you know what kind of food you eat and do you like? it was just wild.
Speaker 2: And a reason why we started a cultural connect program was on the shared fact that in June, those storms, we had a lot of people that evacuated. That was on dialysis and cancer And one of the nurses there was a lady from Puerto Rico and she said my husband is delayed on his plane by one hour. And the nurse turns to her well, he's going to be delayed even more because he has to go through customs. And everybody turned around and they were like what are you talking about? And so one of the other nurses, that from the island, say are you okay? Do you check your own temperature? She said you know, puerto Rico is a US territory, you know. So it was not funny, but it's just lack of education.
Speaker 2: As you know, as Caribbean people we tend to get upset and we was like oh, how dare they? you know? and it's just like when you look at the social economic situation, especially for African Americans in the United States, you got to be like, okay, why did you ask me that question? And then you have to understand there wasn't access to, to all of that what we accustomed to Like. I think a lot of people back in the day would say, oh, these Jamaicans, these people from the Caribbean, came on a banana boat. But you know, the banana boat stopped many, many, many years ago. That's number one. Number two we're coming on American and Delta. We're coming on flights. And so I remember, never forget, i was in college and one young guy, african American guy, he's like I've never been on a plane And we had, like it was myself and other people from the Bahamas, and there was an audible gas like how could you not have been on the plane? Like you know, we cannot fathom because we are so accustomed to knowing that you have to get on a plane to get somewhere right, and so that is some education that needs to happen.
Speaker 2: We have a lot of champions in the community That's like, yeah, we need to definitely educate these people about this, and I think that's coming because you know, i always say why we do Caribbean American cultural arts and our captains of industries to educate.
Speaker 2: No matter what island you're from, you are viewed as one.
Speaker 2: Once you have access, you are viewed as one landmass for some reason, and so you got to understand there's power and unity And that's what we champion in the Caribbean culture.
Speaker 2: We have people from all over Guyana, virgin Islands, Jamaica, the makeup or aboard even Latin America. And that's because we want to make sure that we reach every aspect, nook and cranny of that represents the Caribbean region, because even though I'm from a US Virgin Islands, you can sit down with 10 US Virgin Islands people and be like, yep, we've been asked crazy questions. And the first question is like, are you from Jamaica? Like they think everybody's from Jamaica. So it's an interesting situation And so I think education is power And if you educate people and we're starting with the young people, here's why Because if you plan to see like a mustard seed and you let it grow by the time those people get to college and the boardroom, as they grow, there's less resistance for the next generation of Caribbean people coming out, because then they can have a formidable dialogue with potential leaders in the community I want to say community, corporate community And so that's what we look at and really champion.
Speaker 1: So the organization has an annual event. Could you talk to me a little bit more about that event and what you aim to do with that event? So?
Speaker 2: it is our fifth annual Captains of Industry Gala And that really came out of the same storms and we said let's give back to disaster relief. And so every year we host this Captains of Industry And it came from. Initial, we used to do the Caribbean American Moving and Shakers. It started off exceedingly small, like a networking event, and we recognize people from the Caribbean and the entire diaspora And it's really to educate people and say, look, these are some major players that you look up to that is from the Caribbean.
Speaker 2: As you know, there's so many different stars that are from the Caribbean or Caribbean descent Jay-Z, beyoncé, just to name a few.
Speaker 2: Of course, everybody knows Rihanna And people look up to these people, but are they looking at their cultural background? when it comes to greatness, we know, of course, mark Skavi and others that have really led the way for civil rights and other things that are in America, and so that's what the whole program is about really kind of celebrating the professional diaspora that is of Caribbean American descent, of those that are impacting Caribbean Americans in the United States, and that's what the captains of industry is about. And the big thing is about this organization is after we do that fundraiser. Last year we launched our Kickstarter grant and we recognized several organizations from majorits. We also did book scholarships for Tennessee State University. They have a whole delegation of Caribbean students and we give back to them the Atlanta Jamaica Association Scholarship Fund. So we give back scholarships to students in Jamaica as well, and so it's not just an event to have an event, it's an event with a purpose And it helps us continue the programs that we do.
Speaker 1: So, as you're on the podcast and we have listeners from all over the country they're probably concentrated mostly in New York, but from all over the country and all over the world, so big up wherever you are listening. How do people get involved with the organization?
Speaker 2: So of course, you could go to the website. I always say donate, donate, donate CaribbeanCulturalArtsorg. You could also send an email and say hey, i would like to get involved, i like to donate my time, i like to do something with the organization, and we're always willing and opening doors. You can just send an email to connect at CaribbeanCulturalArtsorg, so that's connect at premiumculturalartsorg, and they could assist in that way, especially if they're in the New York area. Please do send us an email because we wanna come to New York and have allies in New York. That's on the ground, because New York is it's a complex city. Right, you have Manhattan, brooklyn shout out to Brooklyn You have Bronx, so you have the different boroughs, and so we wanna make sure that we effectively reach our target market in New York. So definitely, if they could reach out to connect at CaribbeanCulturalArtsorg and we'll take it from there.
Speaker 1: So you mentioned all the celebrities who have Caribbean heritage, some of those proudly announced that Caribbean heritage, some of them, you may be surprised. Is that important for people to know if they don't wanna tell anyone? is that important to celebrate them if they is not celebrate them? Maybe that's not the right word I'm looking for.
Speaker 2: I think one of the things is it's bigger than the honoree. I always say that right, it's to educate those that don't know. Right, and sometimes it's even our old children that do not know. Right, i got one of the honorees last year. He said we were so happy because he brought his sons there And the sons were able to see how all these people have impacted change in the United States. Right, and I think that's one of the things that we champion, because, at the end of the day, is really about education. I think if people are educated and informed, they make less slight remarks and they now can embrace cultural nuances better. Right, and so it's interesting because when we so crazy, when we did the meal program here in Atlanta, a lot of the African-American nurses that was there they were like man, you guys really know how to do oxtails. It's like you know. Like you know, it was like okay, i always say this there's oxtails and then there's Jamaican oxtails.
Speaker 1: There's a difference.
Speaker 2: I gotta give credit what it is right, and so that's one of the things that they had loved the most when it was the oxtails, right. And so there's cultural nuances that tie us all together And it's just to identify them and make sure we bring that connection together. You know, and part of that is breaking down the wall of ignorance and saying, hey, i'm gonna extend the olive leaf and you extend it back And you'll be surprised. We learned that with the Hispanic community and we reached out and they can open up their arms to us. One of our board members, ivan Shamiz. He is the regional manager for Univision here in the Southeast region And so he is like such a champion of the organization.
Speaker 2: And, of course, our another board member, yvette Thomas Henry. That's why we're hosting our event on Sunday, june 18th, hosting after four seasons at Atlanta. And so part of that is because we have built a relationship with four seasons and they invest in a program. They're like, hey, we're gonna spend all our diversity and inclusion money here and give you extra amount of real estate and you know, you bring your people and we can give you a run of the building. You know, people are always amazed when they find out. It's a very unique partnership or relationship and everyone on the creaming gets to dress up and look nice and you know it's not just a ball but it's a celebration of culture and people.
Speaker 1: When we look at Caribbean culture, because when I think of cultural arts, i also think of how we are represented in media right And how the Caribbean, unlike other cultural demographics, doesn't really have a strong media holding. So if you wanted to see CenoVision-related content with Asia, you know there are channels for that. We already know that there's a lot of Spanish channels. You know there's a lot of programming and content that you can go to. X-channel, this channel. Talk to me about the gap that you're seeing in Caribbean American media lack thereof And go ahead.
Speaker 2: Yeah, so definitely. You know I also control the Caribbean Media Network website And part of that is you would be surprised how many people in media is really, especially at BET, other networks that are a part of the instrumental part of media coverage in the United States. I think part of it is. I look at the Hispanic community. It's one unified front right. I remember when the Prime Minister, jameer Kakeem, took Lanter and he mentioned he said look, you know, everybody wants to own a restaurant, right, but if you come together and you build a multi-million dollar business, instead of making $50,000, $100,000 for the year, you could make 10% of a million dollars or 10% of $10 million and be at a millionaire. And so it's coming together as one. An understanding of building a network. Do I feel that Caribbean media is marginalized? Oh, 100%. I think there is a value to what we're doing as media outlets, because I was sitting with an HBCU committee in Atlanta for the Atlanta Hawks And I shared my opinion. I said look, the problem with African-American at this point you had the BET News. They're like we have no news outlet Univision, telemundo, they all they tell the Hispanic story And there's no major black network that's telling the story. So who's telling your story? You're waiting for somebody else to tell you the story. They can't tell you your story, it's not going to be authentic, it's not going to be clear And it's going to be marginalized. And so if African-American media is being marginalized, then we in turn end up being looped into that right.
Speaker 2: And I championed Byron Allen for some of the work that he did. He sued everybody. He sued everybody McDonald's, everybody Because at some point you got to say look you guys, you're the problem, the ad agencies who refuse to do placement, and they add you to oh well, you don't have enough impressions, you don't have all of those things. That kind of push you out of the box, right. And so it's like, even with our foundation, we end up in a quite an interesting conundrum.
Speaker 2: During the pandemic We just applied for a grant with the Community Foundation here in Atlanta and come to find out, oh no, they had some race issues And the lady was not giving funding to black-led organizations. And that was shocking to me, because this is Atlanta, it's like you can't get him black in this city. And so I sent her email. I was like this is crazy, and I think they kind of stood back, and part of it is we have to have some, you know, cojones as black people and say, look, this chipping, this has to stop, it really has to stop.
Speaker 2: And I think one of the things is with Byron Allen. He's like, yes, it has to stop. Oh, you're not listening to me. Oh, let me take you to court, because that's when you're going to start listening to the judge, right, and it's unfortunate, and I champion the work that he's doing because it's like he goes for us and then everybody else could follow up and benefit from it. And we're not going to see the benefit of that for another five, 10 years in its full glory, because everything takes time, right. But I think that's why a lot of Caribbean media outlets is being marginalized, because the African American media is a marginalized I remember it was, i think it was the Black News Network and they folded, you know, like last year, and Byron Allen bought them out now and is reviving it, right.
Speaker 2: But it takes community leaders like that to stand up and say, look, we're not going out without a fight, you know. And so I think that's what the whole thing is. And you know, especially in New York, there's so much powerful Caribbean media outlets, right, and so I think that's the thing in New York that could really champion everything, but it becomes saturated, especially in the South. You know places like Atlanta and Florida. It's kind of like, well, we're not too sure And it's like you know, i have to say, many times there's people that look like us that tend to do that right, and so we have a lot of gatekeepers, and so that's the problem that I see a lot of time The gatekeepers is not coming to the forefront and you know, arguing for us, if we want to call it that, and I think that's one of the things too.
Speaker 2: And the reality is is like you got to go with, you know like blind justice. You know, bust down the door and be like I don't care what you say. Okay, you stand right there, i don't walk around you. You know like NBA thing, okay, you know, ali, oop, i'm going to go and one right And just keep moving. That's the best thing to do.
Speaker 1: You touch on so many things, things that I've experienced and you know to your point. You know like black media is marginalized. You know black creators don't get the same funding as non-black creators. It's all across the board. And so we just have to, like you said, figure out how we're going to organize and mobilize and maybe sometimes not wait on a handout. You know, just kind of.
Speaker 2: Right, you know I have a say to them and think people are like oh man, I got. So you know I'm a tall guy, so I'll be like okay, so you don't want to write? Pretend I'm white, write the check. That's what I say. Pretend I am white, so write the check. That's all I say, because at the end of the day, this is what you're doing. It's like oh well, you know anything. And you're like no, no, no.
Speaker 2: And one of the things is we got to do our research. When we go into these deals and find a lot of our Cartesian counterparts are getting paid And you say I need to match it. I'm playing it simple, there's no way around it. Oh well, no, i'm sorry, we need to match it. No deal, i will walk away. And you know one of the things, issa Rae, she said the same thing.
Speaker 2: It was interesting when she did an interview. She said, you know, she walked into a thing and she pitched this real series that went off For several years And the lady said, oh, i'm not too sure. She said, oh, i'm sorry, yeah, you can tell me about my black insurance, i'm so sorry. And so she ended up hosting different shows And she's like you know and she's like you know and really I'll tell you is, the lady is no longer in the position that she's in, right, and so sometimes we have to speak up for ourselves. I'm not afraid to be the bad guy. I am bad to the board. I will be like I know this is what the status quo is. I'm going to bust down the door and knock it down, and I think that's some of the things that we do with Caribbean American Cultural Arts Foundation, because sometimes people try to pigeonhole you and like, oh no, this is what you need to do. It's like, nope, my mother didn't raise me to underestimate myself, and that's what a lot of Caribbean people pride.
Speaker 2: I think sometimes we live in the Americas and we kind of water down who we are And we got to realize your parents and your grandparents, they work really hard to get you here And so you cannot water down who you are for anyone. That is who you are, that's your culture. You have come from a rich history, especially the Caribbean. We were not the best slaves to came off the boat. That's why they kicked us off in the Caribbean. So you know we got to fight. You know I remember talking to a colleague of mine, african American, and she's like how did you guys get free hours? Like, listen, every island has its own story And you have to ask yourself how did these slaves on these different islands, surrounded by water, there was no boat coming to rescue you, to free you, what's it? You got a revolt And so they were like this is what you guys are. So spicy. You're just so spicy, like, yeah, we are, because we learn how to fight And part of that is also handing down that education and generations hand it down.
Speaker 2: And you know, in the Virgin Islands the slave was Queen Mary And she literally destroyed. There was a whole song about it Queen Mary, where are you going? What next? She stopped from one side of Synchrooi and bunched right up to the opposite side And it was it's historical context And they said slave masters all run to the governor's house. The governor had to send over a letter. They had to ship the letter. So they were in the house for like a tourniquet Because they had to send a ship to get help. It was a serious thing but you know, it freed the slaves And that was one of the things that you know it's catalyzed. And of course, you know the Jamaica, they have the story as well. I think it's a nanny And I mean it's like so much history.
Speaker 2: Haiti, because Haiti revolted, that's how America ended up getting, you know, louisiana right, and so all of that's historical context. And I'll be honest, i'll be truthful and I'll go on record and say, like, without the Caribbean influence to in America, i'm not too sure African Americans would have been this far if you want to call it being far in America If you didn't have the Marcus Garvey's and the revolts and different things that was happening and people coming out to the Caribbean and say, oh no, we're not going to sit in the back of the bus, we're going to be champions. And that was also interesting because we had in 2019, our Marcus Garvey leadership award went to Ambassador Andrew Young And several people asked me why you choose Andrew Young. Is he from the Caribbean? I said no, but you're going to wait and hear his story. And so he gets up on stage and he says you know, jamaica plays a very important role in the civil rights movement because when they could not sit in Diners and you can sit in the bus, they would fly to Jamaica and realize hey look, there's police here There's different like and they will felt so relaxed there.
Speaker 2: That's where they plan out a lot of the civil rights movement in Jamaica, and so that's how Important that was right. And so you know our rich history. You don't want to water it down whatsoever because it is just. It's so rich you know you might have to need a chaser with it. We want to call it that.
Speaker 1: Michael, thank you so much for coming on the podcast and sharing what you've learned. That story from ambassador Andrew young, i think I've shared before the commencement speech that dr Martin Luther King gave at the University of the West Indies in the 60s, you know, and pictures of them always in Jamaica. So thank you for sharing a snippet of that story and talking about the Caribbean American Cultural Arts Foundation. And so why don't you tell everyone we're? we're on social media because it's Caribbean cultural arts Pluralorg. That's the website any social media handles that you want to share.
Speaker 2: So you all you got to do is pull up at Caribbean cultural arts, at Caribbean cultural arts, and you should pull up our Instagram. You should be able to link through our world Facebook Not being on Twitter that much, but we do have a Twitter page But you should be able to pull up all our handles and connect with us is at Caribbean, without any cultural arts, and you should be able to pull us up on social media.
Speaker 1: Wonderful. Thank you again for being on the podcast and I'm hoping to continue connections with you and the organization And, as I love to say at the end of every episode, walk good You.
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