Remi Harrington's Urban Folk Art Exploratory finds a home with the Kalamazoo County Land Bank

Remi Harrington and Kelly Clarke with the Kalamazoo County Land Bank have collaborated to create important change in the community. By working together on development projects and having hard but important conversations, Harrington and the Land Bank’s work has resulted in strides to increase equity in land ownership in Kalamazoo.

Kelly Clarke met Remi Harrington in a Fifth Third Bank parking lot while both were working a financial literacy event. Clarke, executive director of the Kalamazoo County Land Bank, still remembers her first impression of Harrington.


“I remember thinking at the time, ‘wow this woman is going to do some amazing things,’” Clarke said.


The fact that Clarke still remembers this meeting, Harrington says, is proof that the Land Bank centers building relationships in their work. 


Ever since, Harrington and the Land Bank have collaborated to create important change in the community. By working together on development projects and having hard but important conversations, Harrington and the Land Bank’s work has resulted in strides to increase equity in land ownership in Kalamazoo.


Most recently, Harrington collaborated with the Kalamazoo County Land Bank to turn an old print shop at 10 Mills into an official home for her Urban Folk Art Exploratory.


Listen to Clarke and Harrington describe their first meeting below

Kelly Clarke and Remi Harrington

Remi Harrington has stepped into many roles in the Kalamazoo community regarding advocacy and nonprofit/human services work. She was the former Community Farms Coordinator at Kalamazoo Valley Community College Food Innovation Center, a dance instructor, and is the organizer, administrator and cofounder of Zoo City Farm and Food Network.


One of the more recent roles she has taken on, is developer. 


In 2016, Harrington completed her first development project, Tegan’s Hopeful Storybook Garden. Named for her daughter Tegan, the storybook garden is an interactive learning environment in the Edison Neighborhood, based off of a story she wrote for her daughter. 


Now, Harrington has purchased property to house the Urban Folk Art Exploratory, for which she is the founder and executive director. 


Harrington founded the Urban Folk Art Exploratory in 2005, to provide a voice for the hip hop community to activate social change through the arts. Hip hop is more than a million dollar industry, says Harrington, it is also a facet of Black culture.


Listen to Harrington talk about the importance of Hip Hop culture

“It’s this entire culture surrounding us being us as Black Folks,” Harrington said. “When I think about this art form creating this genre, I think there are elements of something spiritual in it; I think that there is testimony in it; I think that there is ministry in it.”


Harrington centers the energy and resilience of what hip hop represents with the Urban Folk Art Exploratory. Having a home for her organization at Merchants Crossing opens up possibilities. She plans for the space itself to not be one thing, but many.


“It's an art gallery, it’s a creative co-working space, it's an art studio, it's an event space, a retail center, it's a lot of different things,” Harrington said. 


Harrington says art and design is an important outlet for sharing the narrative surrounding the Black experience in this community, and around the world. She describes this work as “community specific.” She first conceptualized the Urban Folk Art Exploratory while working with the Boys and Girls Club in the Edison neighborhood, so she feels adamant that her work continue there. 


Listen to Harrington talk more about her story

To get to this point, Harrington worked with the Land Bank to find the best options to suit her goals. Harrington remembers a previous employee going through every available parcel with her, one at a time, to find what fit her needs regardless of the time commitment.  


Harrington praises Clarke and the Land Bank for centering relationship building in their work. 


“We haven’t always agreed on everything, but the relationship and the things that we do connect on, has always been centered, and I think that's how you built community,” Harrington said.


Clarke sees a lot of value in her relationship with Harrington. Clarke describes their relationship as a mentorship on both sides. Both are constantly learning and growing from each other’s knowledge and guidance. 


“I always feel challenged to think when I’m with Remi,” Clarke said. “Then to have an honest dialogue about some really thorny issues at a level of detail that maybe doesn’t always take place, and with a commitment to be together in that conversation.”


Harrington says they are able to interact in these open and honest conversations because of institutional humility. Institutional humility is the idea that everyone can learn from, better themselves, and benefit from what each individual, community, or cultural group has to offer. The Kalamazoo County Land Bank, according to Harrington, has embodied this idea in all of their interactions.


“We listen to each other to really engage in the hard conversations,” Harrington said. “What I am sharing with you can inform shifts that will have a longitudinal and comprehensive benefit for the people that are like me.”


Listen to Clarke and Harrington speak more about their collaborative relationship

Clark says that the Kalamazoo County Land Bank is making a conscious effort to bring people of color into their agency in meaningful and respectful ways. To do this work effectively, it cannot only be a reaction to a moment in time, said Clarke, it has to be ongoing, and intentional. The Land Bank has been doing this work since their beginning in 2010.  


“To be able to work with amazing, talented, and creative partners like Remi is allowing us to be part of a solution that lifts up people of color, and gives people of color agency and empowerment to bring their creative talents and their tenacity to the table to rethink what these properties could be,” Clarke said.


Making sure that equity lives in land ownership is very important, says Clarke, because inequity has lived there tenaciously for far too long.


“It's been a powerful tool to create inequity in the past,” Clarke said, “and when handled carefully and with intention, it can be a powerful tool to reverse some of those patterns.” 


The Kalamazoo County Land Bank aims to repurpose, renew, and reconnect abandoned property. It is one of 40 such agencies across the state of Michigan, and 180 across the country. The Land Bank is most active in locations where there are industries which are no longer functioning, like paper mills across the state, or the car industry in Detroit. 


“There’s a lot of loss associated with property abandonment… At the same time, there is this incredible opportunity to rethink what the urban landscape could look like,” Clarke said.


Properties in the Land Bank’s inventory tend to be in areas where the geography is the most stressed. Clarke says this often aligns with historic practices that have been racist, including redlining. These communities also tend to have a high population of Black and Brown people.


The Landbank is being intentional to reverse the inequity that has been prevalent in the practice of land ownership. It is partly because of land ownership’s discriminatory history that Harrington feels so strongly about owning her own property now. 


“I think property ownership is very important because that was, historically, a component of citizenship in America,” Harrington said. “Only white men, landowners, were able to be citizens in America.”


The Landbank, in their efforts to be an equitable agency, is working against a history of mistrust inherent in a government agency that holds land. Especially when it comes to people of color. 


The Kalamazoo County Landbank has made equity, diversity, and inclusion a long-term goal. Harrington says that the work shows. 


“The Annual Report was so good!” Harrington, referring to the annual report recently released by the Kalamazoo County Landbank. “The Land Bank has done a lot of revamping in the last couple of years. I mean, it has Black folks all up and throughout that.” 


Listen to Clarke and Harrington talk about changes in the Land Bank

Clarke acknowledges her organization’s successes, but is under no illusion that this work is in any way done. 


“We are always going be learning, we are always going to be growing and doing better,” Clarke said.


As for Harrington’s Urban Folk Art Exploratory, the tentative date for its completion is still up in the air. Harrington jokes that she has chosen a less than ideal time to pursue a project like this, with cost of materials high and availability of contractors low, but that she feels secure in her skills as a developer to make it happen. 


With structural change happening constantly at the Kalamazoo County Land Bank, it seems likely that we will continue to see Black and Brown developers and small-business owners, like Remi Harrington, continue to use property ownership to see Kalamazoo’s urban landscape reimagined. 


Raine Kuch Community Documenter/Journalist