Meg Farris / Eyewitness News
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NEW ORLEANS -- The 19th Essence Festival kicked off Thursday with a full slate of panel discussions in the New Orleans Convention Center, and for the first time, an outdoor family festival.

They brought their 'sunbrellas' and patriotism to the river front for the first Essence Family Reunion Day.

Woldenberg Park was packed. There was no shortage of good food, good music, and a little environmental education.

At a booth about recycling, people were taught how a shirt could be made out of five recycled plastic bottles.

Lee London, Jr. remembers playing as a street musician two years ago while trying to sell his CD on Convention Center Boulevard. Now he's on stage.

'The people responded, and in just great fashion, showing me such love. And here I am later, on the stage with Coca-Cola. Ahh, let's go,' London shouted with excitement.

And where else are you going to get the perfect backdrop for a Fourth of July festival than right here on the river, with the paddle wheelers going by?

Visitors came from just a little up the river, Reserve.

'It's a wonderful, nice experience,' said Laotis Dennis, who was there with her family from Reserve.

And from way up the river, Milwaukee.

'Everyone's really friendly. The food is really good and they seem like they're going to have a lot of events,' said first time attendee Jennifer Jones of Milwaukee.

And they remembered Hurricane Katrina.

'I knew it would come back. I said, you know, New Orleans has a lot of stuff that's good. I mean, a lot of culture and rich roots. People banned together and came down here and built it back up and I'm glad to be here. I think it's great,' said an enthusiastic Jennifer Mims-Howell of Milwaukee who has been to many Essence Festivals.

'Many people in the nation thought that it was over for the city of New Orleans,' said New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu at the opening press conference. 'And seven years later, we now have the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, the Brookings Institute saying things like that's the fastest growing city in America.'

With the party comes the serious business. Panels empowering black women.

'So now in our 19th year, our community is more influential than ever. From pop culture to politics, we're leading the conversation among women who are growing their earning power, being comfortable in their own skin, and being spiritually centered,' Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence Communications, told the audience at the opening press conference.

Another mission is to save the young men by ending violence.

'It has been the burden of black women to carry our sorrows on their shoulders and their dreams in their breast, that have made us what we are,' Rev. Al Sharpton told the audience from the podium. The civil rights activist has come to all 19 festivals.

The city's press release about the event for mother's who have lost children to violence:

ESSENCE and Mayor Landrieu will host 'Love, Loss and Life', a special prayer vigil for mothers who have loved and lost , on Sunday, July 7, at 9AM (CST) at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center on the ESSENCE Empowerment Experience Stage.

Mayor Landrieu, highlighting the city's comprehensive murder reduction strategy NOLA FOR LIFE (#NOLAforLife) and ESSENCE, referencing its Guns Down series (#ESSENCEGunsDown), will lead vital conversations and encourage collective prayer about stopping the violence and murder that are plaguing our cities.

'The loss of young people to senseless violence is a national tragedy,' said ESSENCE Acting Managing Editor, Vanessa K. Bush, 'Our community of ESSENCE readers is praying for our families. As mothers, when we send our children out into the world, we expect them to always come home. By joining with Mayor Landrieu and the City of New Orleans, we are coming together to mourn, rejoice and inspire a national movement.'

The 'Love, Life & Loss' program will include testimonies from mothers, choir performances, a moment of prayer, a second line procession and a pledge by the community. In addition, a 'Wall of Remembrance' featuring images of the children lost to violence will be created on-site and the pledge will be shared around the world via social media.

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