Reggae and Soca beats, the scent of mouthwatering food and bold, vibrant Caribbean colors of red, green and yellow infuse the air with an intoxicating feast for the senses at the annual Caribbean Food and Music Festival hosted by the Central Alabama Caribbean American Organization (CACAO).
It’s a scene that CACAO and festival founder Pauline Ford, a native Jamaican, first envisioned more than a decade ago to bring together Caribbean nationals in Alabama to meet, socialize and educate community members about Caribbean culture.
“The dream of CACAO began as an idea shared among friends,” said Ford, who immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 15, living in several states before finally settling in the Birmingham area where she knew only three Jamaicans.
Today, CACAO’s festival attracts more than 5,000 people to the Birmingham area with festivities that include live bands, parades, dancing and music.
“CACAO was initially started as a social club to provide Caribbean nationals in the area a place to meet and socialize, but it soon become apparent that this goal could be expanded to educate and entertain the residents of Central Alabama, many of whom had questions about the Caribbean’s history that they were not aware of,” Ford said.
An explosion of Jamaican, Haitian, Cuban and other Caribbean cultures, CACAO’s 2023 Central Alabama Caribbean Food and Music Festival is set for June 10 from 11 a.m. – 8 p.m. at Debardeleben Park in Bessemer, Alabama.
Attendees can expect a vibrant, family friendly celebration of Caribbean culture with live Reggae and steelbands, Caribbean cuisine, merchandise vendors and a colorful costume parade. The free event — made possible by corporate sponsors and a grant from the Alabama State Council on the Arts — is open to the public.
“This will mark the second year of the festival since the COVID-19 pandemic briefly put a halt to the festival and other CACAO events,” said Gina Sealy, CACAO’s current president and a native Barbadian. “It continues to be our largest and most successful campaign to promote Caribbean culture. We work extremely hard to ensure the festival is a first-class, destination event.”
Celebrating Caribbean culture through community
CACAO’s community outreach initiatives have become central to the way the nonprofit gives back to communities and spreads awareness about Caribbean culture and history. The organization’s annual events – a summer picnic, holiday dinner and dance, food and music festival, and Caribbean Heritage Month celebration – are held to bring together members of the Caribbean and larger community throughout the year.
“We offer a scholarship program to help financially support Caribbean students,” she said. “We’ve awarded scholarships to students at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, The University of Alabama, Tuskegee University, Auburn University and Jefferson State College. Our goal is to continue to bolster our scholarship program to support students’ educational dreams and goals.”
The success of both CACAO’s festival and scholarship program has come with some growing pains, Sealy said. One of the organization’s greatest challenges is operating with a limited budget, she said.
CACAO also does cultural presentations in local schools and churches with the goal of educating the community about Caribbean history. The organization also supports schools through its scholarship program, which serves as a resource for Caribbean high school students who travel to the area to continue their education at area colleges.
“We find operating with a small budget, coupled with a spreading knowledge about the presence of the organization to be one of our biggest challenges, which is why we work tirelessly to involve the organization in as much free media and community events as possible,” she said. “Most of our funding comes from the solicitation of sponsorships from local organizations while other funding comes from membership dues paid to the organization, as well as CACAO’s annual Christmas Dinner and Dance.”
As the only authentic Caribbean organization with a board comprised of several nationals representing the region, CACAO plans to expand its reach into other Alabama cities such as Montgomery. CACAO board members represent Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad, Panama, Guyana, St. Kitts and the Bahamas so they will play a vital role in helping the organization to grow its presence in the state, Sealy said.
“Most of our members gravitate toward CACAO based on nostalgia for their home countries while other members join based on their travel to and affinity for the region,” she said. “Offering events and programs that speak to our member’s Caribbean heritage is important along with our ability to attract others by delivering a credible, well-run organization that enhances the education and diversity of the community through the inclusion and celebration of the best of the Caribbean.”
Get Involved in CACAO
Are you interested in becoming a member of CACAO? Learn more by visiting www.cacaoonline.org or connect with CACAO on Facebook. You can also contact the organization at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-683-5324.
About “Going All In”
Each week, inCity Magazine is featuring a “Going All In” grant awardee to spotlight how nonprofits are making an impact in our communities. Apply online for this in-kind grant valued up to $600 for marketing and productivity services for your nonprofit.