Photo by Zach Grossenbacher
by Zach Grossenbacher
The Link Centre lives in the sprawling remains of what was once Harrisburg Baptist Church on West Main Street in Tupelo. It’s a winding affair, a series of ad hoc additions that, if you pay too much attention, stop making complete sense. Small staircases make up for mismatched hallways, and light switches aren’t always where they should be. At the middle of the Centre are the two women who run it: Melanie Deas and Asia Rainey.
Melanie is a Tupelo native. When she was eight, she decided to ditch Mississippi once and for all.
“I was 17 before I got out, and I was never coming back,” Melanie said, “I mean, never ever.”
Her resistance to returning was so well known that when she got the phone call asking if she want to be the Director of the Link Centre the only explanation she could fathom was that something must be wrong with one of her parents. Melanie’s mother started the center, so it must have been a sign of her failing health that the center was asking her to come back home.
Thankfully, that was not the case, but she returned home anyways.
“There’s something about North Mississippi that puts a chip in you that brings you back,” Melanie said.
Asia, on the other hand, is from New Orleans. Brought up in the 9th Ward, she found the city a nurturing place to be an artist.
“It’s a Mecca of everything creative and artistic,” she said. “You’re in the thick of so much stuff all the time.”
But as the years went by, she realized that she wasn’t being challenged by the culture there.
“It was too easy,” Asia admitted.
After completing two consecutive artist fellowships at the Link Centre, where she worked in the community to proliferate the Arts, Asia found herself looking to leave New Orleans. In her search for a new home, Tupelo was an unexpected front runner. When Asia called Melanie to see if there was work for her at the Link Centre, Melanie took the words out of her mouth.
“She said she had to ask for some help,” Melanie said, “And I said, “What? You wanna move here?”
“Next thing you know, I had packed up and moved to Tupelo,” Asia recalled.
It didn’t take long for Asia to start getting a foothold in the community and furthering the Centre’s mission of working in the community through the Arts.
“On my first trip, I asked somebody where the soul food was, and they pointed me to Aunt B’s,” she said.
After several visits to the restaurant, she found out that the owner was a musician, who was drawn to the spoken word. Soon, they started a spoken word night, and to Asia’s knowledge, there hadn’t been one in Tupelo before.
“To say that I was a part of that starting was really cool,” Asia said.
For Melanie, it was less a matter of exploring a new place and more of rediscovering home.
“My mother was the organist in this church,” she said of the building that became the Link Centre. “There is a picture of three-year-old me in my office, cutting the ribbon of the gym that is now the Police Athletic League.”
According to Asia, Melanie can make her way through the building without ever turning on a light.
“The light switches are all over the place,” Melanie said. “It’s just more efficient to walk in the dark.”
Like the physical building that houses the Link Centre, so much of what these two women do is pieced together. They help run over a dozen programs, from the monthly music mix, which features a different genre every month, to housing the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra for a string of shows every year.
“What we do is about community,” said Melanie.
They are engaging as much of the community as they can through their efforts.
“We always say there is something for everyone, and if you want something and it’s not there, we’ll make it up,” she said.
Working together proves to have own its challenges. By the nature of their work, and by Melanie’s own admission, things can get hectic.
“There wouldn’t be room for three people to sit down in my office,” she admitted.
“I have to sometimes Jedi mind read to make sure I know [what’s going on],” Asia said.
“She’s really good at that,” Melanie said.
“Balance is the key,” Asia bounced back.
The Link Centre encapsulates the flexibility necessary for community work. This year, they hope to undertake an ambitious project that is part Race dialogue-part art project. Their goal is to start working to undo some of the divides in Tupelo. As with all things they do, they will approach it with honesty, good spirits and a paint brush.