Change at Lynden
It is time for change. That change requires us to do the cultural, economic, and political work that ensures that “Black Lives Matter” is more than a slogan and that the system of oppression that has circumscribed the lives of Black Americans is dismantled—the same system of oppression that has circumscribed the lives of Indigenous Americans and persons of color. Over the past two weeks, the people of Milwaukee have been inscribing their anguish and their anger over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery–and so many others–on our streets and in our public spaces. Here and across the United States, we raise our voices against systemic racism and injustice, against racial terror and police brutality. This is a call to action.
This moment of national reckoning coincides with the completion of a process of change at Lynden. Although we began the legal work to realign our organizational structure with the needs of our community well over a year ago, and have been convening the new board since last summer to shape our goals and vision, it wasn’t until late May that we received notification from the IRS that Lynden Inc. is now a tax-exempt public charity. This enables us to separate the care and maintenance of the facilities, grounds, and collection from the design and implementation of educational and public programming. It allows us to formalize our relationships with community stakeholders and to amplify the voices of the artists, organizers, and activists who are at the center of our programming.
Lynden’s official birth comes at a moment when centering the voices of artists and audiences of color could not be more important. As choreographer Reggie Wilson, a member of the new board, observes, “We need to commit to not forgetting.” Wilson is joined on the board by Margaret T. Lund, David Ravel, Lajwanti Waghray, and Sarah O. Zimmerman.
In 2015, we began working with artists, scholars, educators, and community members to intentionally construct a space for artists of color working across disciplines to celebrate the radical Black imagination as a means to re-examine the past and imagine a better future. In developing Call & Response and defining Lynden as a place where Black creativity is nurtured and celebrated, we have been guided by artist Folayemi Wilson’s statement that Black creativity is “a unique technology of Black agency, resistance, and survival.”
To do this work effectively and sustainably, it is necessary to interrogate and deconstruct the paradigms and processes of contemporary art production and presentation. Call & Response is artist-driven: one artist calls another. It is inherently non-hierarchical. It provides space, resources, and time—often over the course of many years–to Black artists to ruminate, to collaborate, to experiment, to envision legacy, and to make work if the moment is right. At the most practical level, we put money into the hands of artists to do what they need to do.
Over time, the work of Call & Response artists like Arianne King Comer and Reggie Wilson created openings for other communities of color to participate. The space of Call & Response grew to accommodate opportunities for artists and people of color—citizens and the stateless, immigrants and refugees–to work together, and to address—through dance, batik, gardening and cooking, and music–the inherited and acquired histories that define and ingrain racial injustice in America. Lynden became a site for intimate conversations about institutional racism and anti-Blackness, whether they took place over harvest meals prepared by Scott Barton and Portia Cobb or during the rehearsals for Reggie Wilson’s CITIZEN. As Comer says, “We use art and then we can talk–that’s why the dance, food, and storytelling is important.” Call & Response artists, and the experience of Black Milwaukeeans, have remained essential to the way we approach our work with refugee communities.
It was a Black community activist intent on building bridges between her refugee clients and their Black neighbors who first brought refugee women to Comer’s informal batik workshops in 2017. This led to the formation of a Refugee Steering Committee and, in 2019, to HOME, a community-directed outdoor festival celebrating the food, art, performance, and crafts of Milwaukee’s refugee communities. For committee members like Somali refugee Sumeya Osman, Lynden is a place where “we can bring our voice,” a place where refugees are respected and their ideas matter. For Comer, who joined the steering committee after running a drop-in dyeing studio for hundreds of visitors during HOME, her interactions with refugees stirred up deep emotions “mirroring racism, caste system, cultural diversity and cultural conflicts. I had no idea I was going to go through all of that and yet I knew the power of it at the end of the day.” For both Osman and Comer, these encounters are about “teaching, understanding, connecting, learning”—about making themselves visible to each other.
As one of its first initiatives, Lynden will partner with the Refugee Steering Committee to launch the virtual platform for HOME 2020 on June 20, 2020, World Refugee Day. Later in the summer we will present an online Call & Response festival that will revisit some of the work we have done with Black artists over the past several years, re-presenting it in the context of the present moment.
As an institution, our programming history only serves as a benchmark. It is against this benchmark, and with our new responsive structure in place and a greater capacity to fund our work with artists and organizers of color, that we must measure ourselves as we commit to the work ahead.
In the weeks and months ahead, we invite you to use Lynden’s beautiful acres not as an escape but as a respite, a place to gather strength as we work together to end racial injustice and oppression. We have waived all admission fees for the foreseeable future.
Polly Morris, Executive Director, and the Lynden Board of Directors: Margaret T. Lund, David Ravel, Laj P. Waghray, Reggie Wilson, and Sarah O. Zimmerman