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Cherished Memories Fuel Cultivation of Arts & Culture

Yolonda Lavender

Arts and culture are as necessary as water and air for Yolonda Lavender. Kalamazoo is the place she cultivates those elements personally and as the Interim Executive Director of the Black Arts and Cultural Center (BACC).

Born and raised in Kalamazoo, Lavender has many memories of arts and culture intermingling in the Kalamazoo area.

"I remember going to the Black Arts Festival as a little girl with my family," she said. "Then as a teenager meeting up with my friends."

Also a singer, songwriter, and a poet, the 2003 Loy Norrix High School graduate has also performed at the festival twice.

Since accepting the position of Interim Executive Director in May, Lavender said the transition from being a culturally minded, art enthusiast to serving as a BACC board member for approximately one year to becoming the director has allowed her to see the festival in new ways.

"I've been able to see it from all these angles," Lavender said. "It helps to know what the community and the artists want and need."

With the annual festival not set to return until the third week of July 2015, Lavender's day-to-day responsibilities at the BACC include managing operations, supervising staff and volunteers, implementing programs, seeking artists for art hops, and grant writing.

"I love the creativity," Lavender said of her position. "I have the freedom to be creative with art and culture. As an artist myself, that fits me very well."

Staying busy yet engaged also fits Lavender well, as she prepares to graduate from Western Michigan University (WMU) in December with a bachelor's degree in sociology.

Lavender originally enrolled in WMU, where her mother has worked for more than 20 years, after high school, but found the college experience an imperfect fit for her at the time.

Looking back she sees avenues that could have helped her graduate sooner, but also understands that who and where she is today is a result of that journey.

"When I graduated from high school I would have told myself to decide what I wanted to do and just do it," Lavender said. "I also wish I had initially attended Kalamazoo Valley Community College.

"At the same time, the path that I did take was necessary to be here," Lavender said.

Being involved in the community, making herself available to youth she has worked with in the past, and sharing experiences openly are all aspects of how Lavender stays connected. She pointed out that it is important to show others that you are willing to help, share, and nurture rather than just saying so. Lavender specifically cited her desire to share her false-start on college and eventual drive to go back and graduate with others who might follow in her footsteps.

"I've been offered many opportunities to be who I am in Kalamazoo as an artist and an advocate," Lavender said. "This is my Kalamazoo."

Having had the opportunity to travel extensively as a musician has allowed her to see how open Kalamazoo is.

"Kalamazoo is very embracing of the arts and non-profits, both of which I appreciate," Lavender said.

"Diversity within these two sectors can be worked on though," she said. "What does diversity look like here? It's a good thing that the BACC is here and a part of that culture to push towards added diversity."

Kalamazoo's location amongst Grand Rapids, Detroit, and Chicago is also an asset, Lavender said.

"The city is accessible with a big city feel," she said. "I've really been able to create a bridge between those locations to establish Kalamazoo as a place to stop, not just a place to pass through."

Lavender hopes that the public from near and far will view Kalamazoo as a destination even more during the BACC's presentation of "The Piano Lesson" on Oct. 24 through Nov. 2. Written by August Wilson, the production will be directed by WMU theatre alumni Marissa Danielle Harrington.

For a synopsis, please visit our blog earlier this week. Tickets are available online and at the door.

"We are stepping it up a lot," Lavender said. "It won't be BACC Theater as people have known it.

"Things are going to continue to be bigger," she said speaking of the BACC in general. "We are working to increase our visibility in the community as well as our partnerships with other organizations. We are putting a fresh spin on things and working to be a little bit more relevant to the whole community."

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