About ten years ago on an early spring morning at Cadwalader Park, Trentonian Columnist L.A. Parker was struck with an awe-inspiring vision. As he hit golf balls into the clear sky, something occurred to him. “I thought, wouldn’t it be great to have an African-American inspired celebration in the park,” said Parker during an interview with TrentonDaily.
Not before long, Parker created The Trenton African American Pride Festival at Cadwalader Park to build a sense of pride among African Americans and to also showcase African diaspora roots and culture. “For the first event in 2011, rain was in the forecast and it actually showered that Friday… I told people that we can’t do anything about the weather, so let’s just do it,” said Parker. “On Saturday when that park filled up with about 5,000 people, bright sunshine filled the park for the entire day.”
The event was wildly successful, bringing people together from various walks of life and debuting with great weather despite the worrisome forecast. “At the end of the day, when the last trunk slammed, the skies opened up and it poured for the next two hours,” said Parker. “You’ve got to have faith and keep moving and try to have impact on things you can control.”
While Parker’s vision was to celebrate African American pride, the event began to evolve in many ways. Due to directional changes with respect to the core scope and operation of the event, Parker made the decision to step down at the end of 2012. The following year, Latarsha Burke was voted in as the Executive Director. With limited knowledge of fundraising and business engagement, Burke was suddenly in the position of managing a large group of people and reporting to about a dozen board members at the time.
Having worked for more than 20 years between New Jersey State’s Department of Children and Families and the non-profit sector, Burke has seen intimately the challenges that face the city’s at-risk youth. Spending countless hours with families in need, Burke advocates for them and provides needed resources through her work. While the work is rewarding, her senses have always pointed toward something deeper. She wanted to do more to help people and families.
Prior to her role as Executive Director of the festival, Burke volunteered for the African American Pride Festival at Cadwalader Park, working with Parker to coordinate event logistics. Burke experienced the rush of 5,000 people at Cadwalader Park during the festival’s debut in 2011. The following year, that number grew to about 7,000 people.
Continuing the great work of this initiative, Parker generously offered help during this time to ensure a successful transition. A community stage sponsored by Thomas Edison State University, a Caribbean stage, and a main stage were added to the festival to meet overwhelming demand. Partnerships with sporting organizations in the city brought awareness to the community about various activities available to youth like football, baseball, basketball, soccer, lacrosse, and even fencing.
The name of the event was eventually changed to The Trenton African American Cultural Festival – and in 2014, an arts exhibition was added to the festival weekend in partnership with the Trenton City Museum/Ellarslie Museum. By the end of 2015, the attendance at the festival reached a whopping 12,000 or so people according the Burke.
“All events are absolutely free to the community because we don’t want finances to be a barrier to anyone enjoying arts and culture,” said Burke.
Given the massive growth of this event, Burke decided to consult with several members of the community to rethink the mission, purpose, and coordination of the initiative –particularly understanding the realities and responsibilities of hosting such a large event impacting so many people. She was advised to take a couple of steps back, look at where the organization is headed, and establish a non-profit status.
“I’ll never forget the night I told my team that we weren’t going to do the festival next year,” said Burke. “It was rough, but we applied for an attorney through the New Jersey Pro Bono Partnership and for the entirety of 2016 we engaged in the process of obtaining our non-profit status, which we finally received in June of 2017.”
Along with this change, Burke renamed the organization to The African American Cultural Collaborative of Mercer County. “I didn’t want to restrict what we do to the park,” said Burke. “I wanted to take it downtown, crosstown and across the county.”
Burke remains hush about what (if anything) is being planned for next year at Caldwalader Park.
“If they do decide to bring it back, I hope that people get behind it and support it,” said Parker. “I hope that events that occur in the city, for the right reason, are always successful.”
From Parker’s original vision that morning at Cadwalader Park to Burke’s new direction and focus for the initiative, there is certainly a feeling of hope among all that this event continues and inspires generations to come.
For more information on The African American Cultural Collaborative of Mercer County, visit http://www.taacf.com.