During a news conference Tuesday announcing her appointment, Leah Angel Daniel said the cultural center played a vital role in her life growing up, and she wants to re-establish its role in the community, as well as help lead the effort to build a new center.
"One of the key things that we want to do here is rebuild the trust and connection to the community in the Masten District," Daniel said. "It's no secret that we've gone through tumultuous times in leadership after Agnes Bain passed away."
Daniel, a doctoral candidate in executive leadership at the University at Buffalo, said she drew inspiration from Bain, who was executive director for 41 years before her death in 2020.
"It's a privilege to walk in her tutelage," she said.
The center has seen considerable turbulence since Bain's death. There have been several interim executive directors and unwanted attention after Tina Washington Abubeker accused current board members of unprofessional and unethical conduct when she resigned in September 2021. Most recently, James Pitts, who filled that role as a consultant, left abruptly earlier this year.
Bishop Michael Badger, board chairman, defended the board and expressed confidence in Daniel's selection. "She brings a wealth of expertise and a profound commitment to this community," Badger said. Daniel is also a graduate of the Empire State Development and East Side Avenue community-based real estate training program.
"There has been a leadership vacuum since Ms. Bain passed away, and what we have now is someone who will take that mantle and move forward," County Legislator Howard Johnson said.
Daniel, who said she had a special passion for working with at-risk and foster youth, said she wants to make the center "a safe haven – a place where people feel like home."
"I grew up in the foster care system, and what I felt here was safety, warmth and love, and being able to learn things about my culture that I could not learn on television or in books otherwise. I am hoping to rebuild that intergenerational community again."
She said she hopes to hear from community members about how they want the center to be used.
The African American Cultural Center offers a summer program, after-school program and the Paul Robeson Theatre, which is offering a full season this year under the leadership of veteran actor and director Verneice Turner, who is serving pro bono.
Renderings drawn by CJS Architects were unveiled by Pitts in March for a new cultural center that is seven times the current size, with a 250-seat theater with more than double current seating, to replace the 77-year-old home at 350 Masten Ave. The estimated cost was $18 million, Badger said.
Mayor Byron Brown, he added, has committed $1 million to the project, which would remain at its current location on Masten, along Glenwood Avenue.
"That's going to start us off, and I think there is a lot of good will in the community to see this project done," Badger said.
But on Tuesday, the focus was on Daniel. "I look forward to a long, long tenure," Badger said.
Article written by Mark Sommer at the Buffalo News.