For exercise, Stephen Brown leaves his home early in the mornings to collect trash around the Briarwood community. During every trip, he would walk past the dilapidated building between a run-down gas station and Alpha Investments. He lived in the neighborhood for six years, and it was always vacant.
Over the pandemic, the property grew worse in appearance as trash and grocery-store carts decorated the property. People slept under the awnings. Last summer, he spotted a “For Lease” sign in front of the building, and out of curiosity, he called the owners for a walk-through.
Turns out, the Alpha Investments owners, an elderly couple, also own the building and a few other properties across the metro area. At one point, the building was an abortion clinic and later a daycare.
Brown invited the bulk of his family to the walk-through, hoping they could use the space as a family compound due to their various businesses. The building owners had been using the building for storage, so old refrigerators and ovens sat throughout the space. The insulation and tiles were falling from the ceiling, and mold and rust were present in certain areas.
Nevertheless, as Brown stepped from room to room, he looked past all the wear and tear, and the gears in his head started to turn. He visualized putting a small studio equipped with recording devices in one room, turning another into an arts and painting room, and setting up a pop-up shop in the next space.
After talking it over, Brown and other members of his family signed a lease for the building in September. However, one by one, cosigners began to drop out of the lease, citing reasons such as financial constraints or bad timing. Eventually, Brown was the last name on the lease, though he said he would have never signed for the building had he known he would have to manage it alone.
Following some self-reflection and prayer, Stephen Brown accepted his fate and soon afterward opened the Briarwood Arts Center. Approaching its one-year anniversary, the center provides art education and workspace for creatives to hone their technical skills and to develop greater business acumen. The community center also hosts workshops, mentorship programs, events and other offerings.
Briarwood Arts Center is an idea factory open to members of the community who have ideas, but do not necessarily have the space to explore them, Brown explained. At the center, getting started is as simple as picking a date and coming in to work toward progress.
“It’s not that experts are not welcome here, but this space is kind of designed for folks who are still trying to figure it out,” he said. “(The Briarwood Arts Center is) for those who have a genuine curiosity about something, but are afraid to dip their toe in the water because they’re like, ‘What if I don’t get it right?’ But we’re like, ‘Come here and screw up!’”
‘I Am Because We Are’
Stephen Brown splits his time between his full-time job at the Mississippi Museum of Art and the Briarwood Arts Center. After his usual shift at the museum, he drives to the center to teach a music-production workshop, and then he records the Vibe Controls podcast in the music-production lab. Once he has finished, Brown will plan for the next program, which could be an ACT-prep class or the mentoring program, all while simultaneously being a full-time dad and music producer.
“It’s like all the stuff kind of overlaps,” he said.
The center offers various spaces for creativity such as Cole’s House #2. Named after Brown’s dog who was tragically murdered, the small music-production lab is where Brown teaches lessons on songwriting, music production, recording basics and the music business.
A craft kitchen houses sewing machines, embroidering machines, vinyl cutters, T-shirt presses and candle-making equipment. Volunteers, nicknamed the Craft Cartel, can also teach classes in the room.
“Instead of us just trying to shove programming down their throat, we want to know what it is they want, and then we basically go find somebody to teach it,” Brown said.
The building includes a remote office for people who work remotely, but do not want to lease a long-term office space. The office has its own keyboard and mouse, Wi-Fi, and wireless printing. The boardroom in the back of the building is used for small group meetings like firearm-safety classes and gatherings of a local anime club.
Additionally, a branding lab has a backdrop for photoshoots or professional headshots. “There’s a photography studio called 242 Creative, and they’ve done a headshot gathering here where they just posted up with all their lights and filters and stuff and invited people to come and get headshots done,” Brown explained.
The e-learning center is for SAT and ACT prep, financial-aid advice, college planning, career coaching, and GED and GRE prep. The center has an art studio, a room for vendors to do a pop-up shop, and the Ubuntu room.
“Ubuntu means ‘I am because we are’; this is our general community meeting space,” Brown said. “This is where we have our youth-mentorship programs, photography workshops, financial-literacy workshops, mural painting, hip-hop cardio, Afro-Caribbean dance classes, the krumping dance class called Groove Moves and Vibe Sessions.”
Looking For Community
Bernadette Milnick lived in Tennessee before she retired and relocated to Jackson after her son, who lives in the capital city, asked her to move. She arrived last year in August, having no friends in the community for the first few months. One day while she was in her kitchen, she overheard a news story on her TV about the Briarwood Arts Center.
She paused her task and thought that maybe she would be able to find a sense of community there. She mentioned it in a conversation with her son, who coincidentally knew the owner.
“Mom, that’s my friend, Stephen Brown,” the son said at the time. “Oh, OK,” Milnick responded. “Call him,” her son continued. “He would love for you to come by and see him.”
So, she visited the Briarwood Arts Center and met with Brown. “I really like him,” she told the Mississippi Free Press.
By volunteering with the center, the Jackson transplant says she has finally found the feeling of community she had wanted. Milnick mainly helps at the front desk and occasionally hosts meetings, though she hopes to teach craft classes in the future.
Milnick has been helping to plan the art center’s first “birthday” on Sept. 10, along with other volunteers like Braden Luckett, who has a platform called Urban World that he uses to support local artists throughout the state.
Luckett has other clients across the South in states like Georgia and Texas, but he said he feels called to do work in Jackson. “Music has always been a part of my life,” he told the Mississippi Free Press inside the Briarwood Arts Center lobby. “It’s just right now, I feel like I’m supposed to help build here.”
Through personal conversations with Brown, Luckett has determined that people can often get too caught up in needing other people to create opportunities for them instead of simply going out and pursuing their dreams on their own.
“Sometimes, you just do it yourself,” Luckett said. “(Brown has) talked about toxic self-reliance because you don’t want to feel like you can’t depend on anyone. If you want your dreams to come true, just go do it.”
The smell of Little Caesar’s pizza wafted through the room on the day this reporter visited the center before Jackson Police Department Precinct 3 Commander Christian Vance rounded the corner carrying the stack of orange boxes. The Firm Foundations, a nonprofit that mentors boys between the ages of 7 and 15, was hosting its youth-mentorship night. School had just started back, so the meeting was not as packed as it normally would be, but it proceeded as usual.
Inside the meeting room, foundation founder Christian Vance stood at the white board, initiating a game of hangman with the five youths in attendance. The category was candy and a few boys took some guesses at what the candy could be while Stephen Brown was having a discussion with another mentee about being a sibling.
When Vance was 27-years-old, he wanted to find other avenues to positively affect his community, so he got together with his other childhood friends and his father to create The Firm Foundations. The program ran out of the John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation for five years before the pandemic slowed the program down, he said.
“Steven, who is the greatest human being that you’ll ever meet in your life, called me, and he’s like, ‘Dude, I got this thing going on,’ and it was automatic: ‘Dawg, I got you,’” Vance told the Mississippi Free Press.
The nonprofit founder also coaches basketball through the police academy, so some of his mentees are also his players. He gets to maintain regular contact with his mentees through these various avenues. It’s all about consistency, Vance said.
“A lot of these things are symptoms and not the disease,” the JDP officer explained. “A lot of times the disease is low quality of life. And we attack the low quality. That’s the root. If we can attack the low quality of life, then we’ll start seeing the fruit on the tree again.”
Many of Vance’s mentees do not have fathers around, so he endeavors to act as a positive male figure in their absence. As to what his mentees get from the program, he believes they may not see their own growth just yet.
“We talk about adversity, goals, feelings, And a lot of times, I’ll come up with a topic, and we’ll just talk through it. What is adversity? What does adversity do? How does it make you feel? What are the choices it gives you? What determines the choices you make?” the founder listed.
And at times, the conversations can get so personal and vulnerable that kids will burst into tears, mentors as well. Vance said he will never give up on Jackson. His hope and prayer is that if he does not see the city become what he believes it is supposed to be, he will at least help raise and guide the next generation of youth who will live and prosper here.
“The role of a man in society is to be a repairer of the breach,” Vance said. “And that means not only am I fixing this thing that’s broken, I’m taking you through safely while I fix this thing that’s broken. And then when I fix this broken thing, I’ll find another problem to solve.”
‘Just Do The Work’
Stephen Brown said the hardest challenge that comes with running the Briarwood Arts Center can be toxic self-reliance, which can lead to burnout. “Toxic self-reliance is, ‘Man, I’m the only one who cares about this neighborhood. If I don’t pick this up, nobody’s gonna pick it up … Nobody else cares about this neighborhood, and I’m the only one who has to do it,’” he explained.
Dealing with the habit of self-reliance has been a personal struggle for the music producer, who is learning to better lean on other community members to assist him with registration, mentorship and other things. He is learning to be a better leader, he said.
“It’s an ongoing process, but thankfully I have people that have grace with me and that understand that that’s something I’m overcoming—(people who) know if they have to snatch it outta my hands to help me for the greater purpose of BAC and the greater purpose of the community, then I have to get outta my own way,” Brown said.
From his first year operating the center, Brown has learned to document everything, to not overthink as much and to not take things personally—that last point being of extreme importance as he struggles to get the Briarwood community to buy into the center. People within the immediate neighborhood rarely show up to anything, he said.
The center does, however, draw in people from Grenada, Brandon, Clinton, South Jackson, Ridgeland, Madison, Kosciusko and various other cities and zip codes across the state. The center has been on the news and people in the community know him as the man that picks up trash on the street with his trash grabber, yet he still struggles to bring them to the center.
“I don’t allow myself to take it personally. I don’t worry about who is showing up. We’re not called to be impressive. We’re called to be obedient,” Brown said. “Just do the work and leave it. Eventually, in the grand scheme of things, I have to find a better way to market what we’re doing to the Briarwood community.”
His short-term goal is to own the building instead of leasing it. Acquiring the building should take around $65,000, which the music producer does not readily have on hand at this moment.
“We are registered as a 501(c)(3) as the Briarwood Arts Foundation,” Brown said. “We got all the building permits, fire inspections. We’ve been doing everything the right way. We just wanted to show people for a full year this is what we can do with no funding. Now imagine if you were to give us some operating funds.”
Despite the center being self-funded, it has more money in its account now than it did when it first opened. In year two, Brown hopes to apply for more grants and funding now that he has shown that his business model indeed works.
“What we would want is some group of people in Shady Oaks to say, ‘Hey, there’s an abandoned building here in our neighborhood, too. Let’s get together and buy it and start the Shady Oaks Center,” he explained.
To learn more about Briarwood Arts Center, visit briarwoodartscenter.com. To keep up with the various programs and events at the center, follow their Instagram and Facebook pages. To donate or sign up for volunteer opportunities at the center, click here.