Linda Goode Bryant on social justice, food and the possibility of lasting change
For the cover story of the inaugural issue of ‘Ursula’ magazine in 2018, Linda Goode Bryant—gallery founder, curator, filmmaker and activist—sat down with her friend of many decades, the artist Senga Nengudi, to talk about their shared art-world history and about art’s responsibility to social justice, in a conversation moderated by Randy Kennedy, the magazine’s editor.
In the wake of the pandemic and the worldwide protests against injustice spurred by the death of George Floyd, Goode Bryant recently picked up the threads of that conversation once again and also spoke about the newly urgent work of Project EATS—a neighborhood-based urban farm initiative that she founded in New York City in 2008 and for which she serves as president.
In July, United States Artists chose Goode Bryant as the recipient of the 2020 Berresford Prize, awarded to those who have made significant contributions to enable the success of artists in society. And in November, Goode Bryant was among the newest grantees of the New York-based arts organization Anonymous Was a Woman, which provides support to mid-career women artists and other women in the arts.
Randy Kennedy: With everything going on now surrounding the pandemic, the social justice and anti-police-violence movements and the election, it really feels like a turning point in American history, as consequential as the late '60s. You’ve lived through other such times and probably through some things that felt like turning points, only to turn back again. I wanted to see if you might talk about this year from a historical perspective, about how the moment feels to you politically. Linda Goode Bryant: To provide some context, I started being an activist when I was 12. So that's many decades that I have been an activist in different ways throughout my life. I described to my staff in a call last week what it was like when I was a teenager, when the images on television were black and white. We didn't exist on those screens except in rare moments as sidekicks or comic relief. And so to protest in the streets and really make ourselves heard seemed like a turning point at that time. What I've come to realize at the ripe old age of 70 is that change is different in every moment. So in that moment, the change was that we were being heard. We were voicing our anger, frustration, and how this was the truth to us. We certainly destroyed stores. But at that time, in my neighborhood, the stores were not owned by us. These were grocery stores that were selling us bad meat, bad produce, so destroying them wasn't like we were destroying what we needed. That's also when I started to get involved politically. I was told that I was the youngest person in the country to campaign for John F. Kennedy. I certainly was the youngest in Columbus, Ohio. I went door to door and campaigned for a president I thought would represent our interests. I define change differently with every moment. At a young age, that seemed like a turning point. By my early twenties, it seemed not so much like a turning point. What I mean by that is: at that time, we were fighting for equal opportunity, and that was our language. Then the language became the language of integration, which was difficult for me to adjust to. We weren't necessarily fighting to be integrated with white folks. And then by the ’80s, that change in language led to an enormous amount of appropriation of black culture by the larger society, and we can point to things like music and dance, et cetera. It became the nation's music, and those connections that were so essential for me and my generation growing up began to have less significance. It became this whole other thing. Do I think that was a beneficial turning point for black folks? Not necessarily.
‘Where are we as people of color creating the structural foundations that we need as a community in a hostile society to ensure that we have what we need to survive?’—Goode Bryant
RK: The cultural assimilation? LGB: The cultural appropriation. It was more than just assimilation. I was running my gallery, Just Above Midtown, at that time in the ’80s, and I can assure you that many people got sick of me ranting about it. Understandably, there was a market that was being created. And some people are going to benefit from a larger, broader market, but which people and what are the ramifications? Where are we as people of color creating the structural foundations that we need as a community in a hostile society to ensure that we have what we need to survive? At that time, I was certainly a black nationalist in my beliefs. The fast-forward on this is that I think things will change only when a number of things happen that we haven't been able to effect up to this point. First and fundamentally, each of us individually and all of us collectively need to be able to be honest—be honest with ourselves, about who we are and what are the things that motivate us. What do we like about what we perceive to be our advantages? And that applies to everybody. What do we dislike about those advantages? And are we honestly able and willing to give them up? Because I think unless we have that honest talk with ourselves and that honest talk with each other, change can't happen. We can kick the can a little further down the road, but it's all going to be on the surface.
RK: I was thinking about how you lived through the Civil Rights Movement and we're now more than 50 years from that. We are almost 30 years from Rodney King, and six years from Michael Brown. And yet what these protests have shown is that still, a majority of white of America won't acknowledge or refuse to see that the criminal justice system and the police are fundamentally built on a racist foundation. When you're talking about kicking the can, it really does seem in some ways that it's barely moved. And, in fact, in some ways after 9/11, it's been kicked back the other way because of the militarization of the police. LGB: I would say that it goes further than the criminal justice system, though that's always been involved because of the fundamental truth of what it took to create this country. Depending on your perspective, how do you look at that? And if you're coming from a place that ignores the slaughter of Native Americans, ignores the oppression of African Americans and others, you’re not being honest. RK: It's about the whole national narrative. LGB: Oh, yeah. You've got to look at the whole foundation of this country. We all have to look at it, how it still affects us, both the benefits and the disadvantages. And are people willing to give up perceiving themselves within a social narrative that says they are where they are only because they earned it and not because of structural advantages? RK: With these protests, is it your sense that some fundamental change might be effected? As you say, there are ingrained centers of power that are not going to want to give up where they stand and what they have. Do you feel like this is an inflection point? LGB: Based on my experience, I would say that watching the police clear Lafayette Park near the White House this summer with tear gas and rubber bullets for a presidential photo op felt like some kind of turning point. I had visual flashbacks to the coverage of Kent State. Kent State was significant because it showed that law enforcement was so afraid of not being perceived as powerful that they'd kill their own goddamned kids. They'd kill their own citizens to keep that facade. And that's how I felt last week. It was like, ‘Oh shit.’ Until I saw it on television last week, I never thought that we could see the potential of a Kent State again, though thankfully this time no one died. Again, that need to prevent being exposed as not being almighty and powerful is so fucking great in the halls of power. That fear is so great that our democracy could be turned into an authoritarian country because of it. That's America until that fear is talked about and people are able to own it. And until we’re able to let go of that being the only definition of being powerful. Or the only cloak, because that's all it is: a cloak. It's just bullshit. But hey, I'm also optimistic, and I believe human beings can change if they're willing to. So I hope this is an inflection point.
RK: You started Project EATS 11 years ago in the wake of the last big economic crisis. Now we're in the middle of a crisis that could end up being worse and has laid bare economic and opportunity inequality. It’s showed that communities of color are hit so much worse by pandemics. How is EATS responding to this economic and health crisis? LGB: Being based in the communities that are most affected gave us the foundation and the flexibility to respond, which is how we started our COVID-19 Initiative. Having relationships on the ground, being connected to people’s experiences there, not just today, but historically, we can be more responsive.
‘When we found out that farms were essential operations under the state pandemic rules and that we qualified, we said, ‘Okay, we can keep growing food. This is important. This is going to be a time of great need.’—Goode Bryant
RK: What have you seen and heard from people in their neighborhoods you serve about how this pandemic has hit their communities, in terms of hunger and need and loss of jobs and everything? LGB: I'd say the thing that we were and continue to be most aware of is access to food. There are only a few grocery stores in the communities where we’re located. I think one of our partners told us that there's one grocery store for 10,000 people within the Brownsville area. And elders and people with chronic diseases are very vulnerable to the virus; these are communities where you have large percentage of people with chronic diseases. Going out is frightening, so they're very reliant on the prepared food being delivered to them. We learned from our housing partners in late March, early April, that residents were asking, ‘Can we get some dry goods, some canned goods, some produce so that we can make our own meals and extend those meals further?’ We've been able to give people those options by delivering the fresh produce we grow, meat, poultry and additional produce other farms, such as Sky High Farm, donate to us, and dry, canned and other pantry food we receive or purchase. RK: How quickly was Project EATS able to respond to this crisis? LGB: It was in early March. There was an inkling the virus could have an economic impact. People saying we might have to social distance or work remotely. As an organization, we have an obligation to serve the people in the communities where we work. And so first and foremost, we had to look at how are were going to serve them during this period. We can't just serve them when everything's okay. When we found out that farms were essential operations under the state pandemic rules and that we qualified, we said, ‘Okay, we can keep growing food. This is important. This is going to be a time of great need.’ The next step was to have the staff come together and think about where the opportunities were. Just as there are always challenges, there are always opportunities. RK: In all the neighborhoods that you serve, where have you seen the most acute need? LGB: We're in three communities that we're focused on—Brownsville in Brooklyn, the Lower East Side in Manhattan, and the Belmont section of the Bronx through our farm location and partnership with St. Barnabas Hospital. Food, like I said, is critical, critical, critical. But what you hear less about in this crisis is the employment impact on youth. We work with young people. So, when the city canceled SYEP, which is the Summer Youth Employment Program, that meant there would be tens of thousands of teenagers who would not have that nine weeks or 10 weeks of work. How do we incorporate them into the process of supporting and serving the community? We hired youths who had been working with us early on, and we're still looking at how we can bring young people from around the city, from other nonprofits that are going to be able to support them but need places for them to work.
RK: Do you have any sense that this moment has increased awareness of what projects like this can do? Are there more people who understand why health and food initiatives are valuable? LGB: Yeah. This is another opportunity. Folks are more inclined. Most of us eat prepared foods. I've had a farmer or two tell me, ‘I only grow things that are put in salads because that's the only thing that many Americans make at home.’ The virus is causing many of us to cook more of our meals instead of buying them already prepared. We're seizing on that as farmers, we benefit when people are cooking vegetables as part or all of their meals and not using them just for salads. This year, we also planned to test pilot providing customers with prepared vegan meals, vegetarian-based meals. We will put these in our free food bags and see how people respond, get their feedback, and see if this is an option they will use. RK: What is your sense right now about what effect the economy is going to have on support and fundraising for nonprofits like yours? There's going to be this massive shortfall in so many aspects of society and only so many donors to go around—although, God knows, there's still a lot of wealth out there. LGB: Since COVID, we’ve been getting donations in the $25, $50 range, some a hundred, a few that are at a thousand. But we're getting those small donations online like we never have before. RK: Oh, wow. LGB: And that's people who don’t know what their employment is going to be like. People have left notes saying, ‘What you're doing is so important.’ Everybody knows how essential food is, so people connect to that. Also, we’re looking at what should be our focus in order to continue to function and to be important in supporting people during this time. One thing that is fundamental to Project EATS is that it’s designed around promoting self-sufficiency, asking: to what degree can we become more self-sufficient? Having farms in communities, working with communities to create community-based food systems, is about that. Those food systems create jobs for residents—that's what we're about. Yeah, the economy is not going to be great, but we have an opportunity to respond, to create jobs and careers through Project EATS. Also, I think this is an opportunity for groups, art and cultural groups, to tap into why art is essential to life. Don't assume everybody knows that; actually tap into that from your heart and soul and what you do. Then apply it to the opportunities that this time is giving us. Acknowledge the challenges, figure out how you're going to deal with the challenges, but also acknowledge the opportunities. Be more connected to why art is essential to everybody, not just to people who participate in the arts. That’s essential right now. We did this project where we put images from Arthur Jafa's 2018 video piece ‘akingdoncomethas’ in the publication we launched through our COVID-19 Initiative.
‘I think our cultural institutions do that too much—tell people what they need. Sometimes, you've got to be willing not to do that, be willing to just listen to people.’—Goode Bryant
RK: Your online magazine is called ‘The Companion,’ right? LGB: Yes. The purpose of that was not necessarily to introduce Brownsville residents to Arthur Jafa, an international art star. Black folks in Brownsville go to church, and since social distancing, they haven’t been able to go to church in person. So I thought: How can Project EATS provide ‘church’? We can provide that through a powerful Arthur Jafa piece. We can provide that through an enormous amount of art that's out here, but it's coming out of their need, not out of us telling them what they need. I think our cultural institutions do that too much—tell people what they need. We've got to be willing to just listen, observe, and appreciate people’s essential needs and wants. Art is one of the most nourishing, comforting, exhilarating ways to meet those needs and satisfy our wants, whether we make or engage it. RK: You launched ‘The Companion’ in the middle of this crisis. Down the road, do you see publishing as something you might have a bigger footprint in? LGB: That's my vision, but if any of my board members were here, or most of the people who know me, they would say, ‘Linda, it's just too big an idea.’ ‘The Companion’ is not there yet, but in my vision, it is about publications doing something unusual. There would be one for each community. Our communities are always told how the world sees us. I'm interested in the communities I'm from and work in, exploring and revealing the world the way we see it, what we think, how we would do it. I believe it would be different. I'm seeing this as one part of a vehicle for that. RK: We’re in an era in which traditional local journalism is collapsing, because the economic model doesn’t work anymore. There's a vacuum out there, and for neighborhoods of color there was usually a vacuum even when that model was working. Now everyone is getting news only at a national level or through a very fractured social media. There are so few local outlets based in people’s neighborhoods telling them what's happening, gathering news professionally and reporting on what people think about it. LGB: Exactly. That's what it should be—a conversation within a community about what's happening and how people are reacting to those things, a conversation from the perspective of how they see the world around them. RK: Right. Information and power go hand in hand. LGB: They do, don't they?
— Linda Goode Bryant was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio. She is the founder of Just Above Midtown, a pioneering gallery that was the first in New York’s major gallery district to champion work by artists of color. A Guggenheim fellow, she is the director of the 2003 documentary ‘Flag Wars,’ with Laura Poitras, and the founder of the Active Citizens Project and Project EATS.