The Northern Nevada Black Cultural Awareness Society hosts a celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Members of the Northern Nevada Black Cultural Awareness Society gather during a recent meeting.

Members of the Northern Nevada Black Cultural Awareness Society gather during a recent meeting.

Photo/Anna Hart

NNBCAS presents an MLK Celebration Dinner at the Nugget, 1100 Nugget Ave., Sparks, at 6 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 19. For tickets or more information, visit nnbcas.org.

A crowd comprised of the executive board and guests of the Northern Nevada Black Cultural Awareness Society sits around a large table. The group of 20 or so people hashes out all of the crucial details of an upcoming, with all the lively banter of a big family get-together.

“They’ll want to freshen up, so we need to provide a hotel room. It’s in the contract, anyway,” says one member.

“There’s a real nice bathroom down the hall,” says another. "It’s big. I’ll show them."

It’s this delicate symbiosis between serious work and energetic positivity that best describes the atmosphere that the Northern Nevada Black Cultural Awareness Society (NNBCAS) creates and thrives in.

Yet George Hardaway, the current NNBCAS president and one of the original members, remembers its modest beginnings.

“There were nine of us founding members,” he said. “We started this society because there was a tremendous lack of appreciation and respect for the cultural significance of different racial and ethnic groups to American culture. … It was 1988 and we were all at Angie Taylor’s house, sitting around her mother’s table, and began to put together this structure. Then, just a year later in 1989, we were incorporated as a nonprofit organization.”

Now in its 27th year, NNBCAS continues its goal of informing Northern Nevadans and accomplishments in disciplines like music, literature, art, and dance by individuals of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, but with a strong emphasis on African-Americans.

The first step that NNBCAS has taken in achieving this mission was reaching out to bridge the gap between the organization and its intended audience.

Since its inception, NNBCAS has established an all-inclusive connection with Northern Nevada residents. From giving presentations about African-American history to rural communities in the surrounding area, to participating in panels at the University of Nevada, Reno, the group provides a wealth of opportunities to meet, interact and learn about NNBCAS’s purpose.

The biggest NNBCAS open event for the public is the annual Juneteenth festival. The word Juneteenth is a combination of June and nineteenth, which signifies the date in 1865 that news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached Texas.

For over 20 years, NNBCAS has marked this anniversary with a free summer celebration that includes food and activities. NNBCAS participates in many philanthropic efforts, such as donating dozens of pairs of shoes to the Children’s Cabinet, as well as fundraising efforts that aid various causes, like funding for young scholars to participate in tours of historically black colleges and universities.

“It’s important for people to understand the importance of African-American history,” says member Gloria Bennett Jackson. “But it’s so important for the youth to know that, and that it is part of this community—and that they can be a part of it as well.”

In a state with one of the lowest graduation rates in the country, NNBCAS emphasizes education with enthusiasm. The society hosts initiatives to encourage and ensure the success of students in the area, providing incentives like roller skating parties to kids with good GPAs, tutoring at a local Boys and Girls Club, and working with the National Guard to fund monetary prizes for the elementary through college-level students who win their annual essay contest.

“We know that students look different and they start out at different points, go through different processes, and we want to make sure that everybody has the opportunity for an equitable outcome so that they can be successful,” says Tiffany Young, NNBCAS board member, who's also the equity and diversity coordinator for the Washoe County School District.

While the relationship between academic success and raising the level of racial and ethnic cultural awareness may not be apparent at first glance, it’s a key facet of NNBCAS’ strategy.

“We work proactively, not reactively,” says Hardaway. “It is ignorance and lack of understanding that creates fear, which in turn creates stereotypes and discrimination.”

Northern Nevada has a local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), but it has a different goal than NNBCAS. While the NAACP works to remedy social injustice, NNBCAS seeks to spread awareness and uplift the status of contributions to American culture made by minority groups—to treat the causes of inequality, instead of the repercussions of it.

“I think we are a voice for the African-American community that is different, but needed,” says David Gamble, current board member and former president of NNBCAS. “We want to share our rich culture, in hopes that people will learn to appreciate it.”

Thus, it all comes back to the younger generations. In the midst of strained race relations and socioeconomic schisms, it is this demographic, armed with curiosity and compassion that have yet to become steadfastly prejudicial, that NNBCAS works to inspire.

“I truly believe that the United States is the greatest country in the world—but that doesn’t mean it can’t improve,” says Hardaway.

Currently, the organization is in the midst of preparations for its 27th annual dinner to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

NNBCAS hopes to provide a rewarding evening, beginning with a presentation featuring Dr. King’s celebrated “I Have a Dream” speech from 1963, continuing with recognizing the winning students for this year’s youth essay contest, and finishing with an address from Judge Glenda Hatchett, the event’s keynote speaker.

Hatchett is most known for her two-time Emmy nominated television show, Judge Hatchett, and also holds the title of Georgia’s first African-American Chief Presiding Judge of a state court. She is active in charity work to aid neglected children and is a respected author.

The night’s schedule carries a central theme, “Continuing the dream: We are better together.” This reference to Dr. King’s speech highlights what can be accomplished through perseverance and cooperation.

“We are not here to war against one another,” says Marsha Dupree, board member and chair of the upcoming dinner. “We are there to see what we can learn from one another, even in one room, at small tables people are connecting with one another. … It’s not to ignore the fact that we come from different backgrounds, but it is to celebrate the differences and the contributions that we all make to society.”