The Freedom Center’s Leader Reflects Back on His First Year at the Helm

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Illustration by Zachary Ghaderi

With past leadership roles at the National Blues Museum in St. Louis and the BB King Museum in Mississippi, plus 21 years in the Air Force, 55-year-old Dion Brown’s experience guides him at the helm of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. He celebrates one year there this month.

How do museums play a role as arbiters of storytelling today?
Museums are neutral places where you can have hard conversations and everybody can be heard. When I got here I was hearing about all this teen bullying, so I told the staff I want a program led by teens, with a teen audience so they can be heard, so they can know that they’re not the only ones. And I want superintendents here because for me that’s when a chain becomes effective. He or she can hear those kids and the pains they’re going through and, if it strikes a chord with them, they can enforce it at the schools. So that people can be aware, they can be more trained, and know what to look for. That’s what museums do.

The stories that need to be told aren’t always popular. How do you reconcile that with the need to get people into the museum?
I don’t know of an unpopular story. Someone said your museum wouldn’t do a program on LGBQT [sic]. But you’d best believe [it would] if that community came to me and had a program it fits, especially when you’re talking about the bullying and lynching that’s going on against that community because of their lifestyle.

What other programs have you been involved in that make a difference?
In Mississippi I knew we were making a difference with our Art of Living Smart program when this grandmother called me and said, “Don’t you teach my granddaughter another thing because now she’s monitoring how I eat.”

People used to say, “You need to talk to the parents.” I don’t have time for the parents. They’re stuck in their mindset. But give me a kid who’s a sponge and you show them the right way and they will work on the parent and, even if they don’t work on the parent, they’re going to be a better person. That’s why I like mentoring, our teen docent program, and working with kids so much.

The Air Force is very different from museums, but were there any lessons from the military that carried over to leading cultural institutions?
I’m going to say structure. And I don’t mean that the museums I worked at haven’t been structured, but I tighten things up a bit. It’s a blessing that I can see the process side of things. If it works or if I can adjust processes to be more streamlined.

Also: team building. Dion is nothing without the team we have built and the culture. And leadership from behind. Meaning you may see me bartending. You may see me helping unload a truck for an exhibit. Once you do that, people see that if he can do it, they can do it.

What are you excited about at the museum this year?
The Freedom Center will celebrate our 15th anniversary this August. And this summer is also the 55th anniversary of Freedom Summer. So our whole year will be based around that.

Outside of your work, what do you like to do for fun?
I’ve been a gym rat since I was 13, lifting weights for over 40 years and now my mind says I can still do what I used to do but my body says, “Oh no.” When I was 50 years old I was lifting over 500 pounds. Since I’ve been in Cincinnati I told myself I’m not going to lift heavy. That’s an agreement me and my brother made. Well I said, “Let me just add a little bit more.” And then I was up over 400, and it scared me. So I was talking to my brother he said, “Yeah, it’s hard to quit when it’s been a part of your life for so long.”
So I love reading. I love the gym. And I love live music.

Music is important to you. What do you listen to?
Gospel has had the most influence on me; that has been my roots. Outside of gospel I love jazz, old-school R&B, and you know, I didn’t get into the blues until I started working for BB King, and that’s when I became an avid fan.

What was it like, working with BB King?
I loved it. [He is] one of the most humble people I’ve been around in my life. He never looked at himself as a superstar. That was just his job.

I had been working down there a good week and Mr. King had a club called Club Ebony: the oldest black-run juke joint still remaining in Mississippi. This guy comes up to me and says, “You know who that is, don’t you?” And I said, “Come on man, you know I don’t know anything about the blues.” “You might want to learn that one. That’s your boss. That’s BB King!” I went and listened to all of the music I could get my hands on. I read all the books I could about BB King. Being in the Mississippi delta, you saw first-hand what these people were singing about, and it just brings it to life. So that turned me into a live music fan.

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