People don’t really make the world go ‘round — it’s something to do with angular momentum. People do put a unique spin on Greater Lansing, though, and City Pulse's annual "People Issue" celebrates that. This is not another “most influential” or “most famous” list, but rather a bright bouquet of interesting people from the Lansing area with various backgrounds and experiences worth sharing. Their stories were coaxed from them by our team of reporters and edited for length; their beautiful selves were captured by master photographer Khalid Ibrahim. Now isn’t that better than a whole issue on angular momentum?
Haimen Al-Sumaidee, Refugee job development coordinator
Haimen Al-Sumaidee, 48, is the point man directing new refugees to jobs in Greater Lansing. Al-Sumaidee went through the refugee program himself after fleeing from Iraq. While living in Baghdad, he was a lawyer and program manager of a contracting company working with the U.S. government to redevelop Iraq during the war. This work was dangerous. He was nearly executed in 2006 when kidnapped by a local militia that held him ransom for two days. When he got back home, he reunited with his family and fled to Northern Iraq — leaving his house and all his possessions behind. In 2013, while driving with his family on a freeway, Al-Sumaidee was followed by a car that swerved toward him while he rounded a cliff, railroading his vehicle off the side. Badly injured, Al-Sumaidee survived with his wife and daughter, but his 13-yearold son died days after the incident.
He had to leave. Coming to Lansing in 2016 on a Special Immigrant Visa, Al-Sumaidee worked three part-time jobs to make ends meet. He was hired as a refugee job development coordinator with St. Vincent Catholic Charities in 2017. Since the ‘70s, St. Vincent Catholic Charities has resettled over 17,000 refugees in Greater Lansing.
— DENNIS BURCK
What was it like to live in Baghdad during the war?
I used to work as a private lawyer with my own office in Baghdad. During the war, everything changed. There were no courts or governmental offices. There was nothing I could do to make a living. At the same time, we were very optimistic that things would change for the best of the country, but things went bad fast. Bad politicians and militias rose up to control the country. They started to eliminate a lot of people: professors, teachers, engineers, lawyers. Two of my best friends had been assassinated. Judges were kidnapped and killed. It was chaotic.
But you still persisted in rebuilding Baghdad. When did your vision of recovery change?
During the times of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the U.S. government left Baghdad and the Iraqi government did not renew our contracts. Our people started quitting jobs. Militias began ruling the cities, and I was forced to leave. In 2013, I received emails and phone calls threatening that this time they will kill me, because I worked with the U.S. forces and I am Sunni. We couldn’t survive this anymore, so I went into the U.S. Special Immigrant Visa program. I honestly had never thought about it. I was thinking about rebuilding my country. Sometimes I talk to my former colleagues and we say ‘How much life, effort, time and money we gave? It’s all gone in the wind. All gone for nothing. Billions of dollars with a lot of our people killed and kidnapped.’
What is going on in refugee resettlement programs?
All the resettlement agencies are suffering financial problems. There is a lot of reduction. We don’t have staff to do all we used to do. Every one of us has a specific job title, but it is really two or three in one. We don’t complain because if you believe in what you are doing with your life and job, it’s OK. I saw what the agency did for me and my family. I consider myself very fortunate: I had language, skills and a degree. Most people don’t speak the language or have any skills or degrees. Some people were living literally in forests. They need help to survive.
A popular counterargument to helping refugees is the U.S. should better focus resources on its own struggling citizens. What do you have to say to this?
It is not right when people say refugees are taking benefits and jobs. I interact with hundreds of employers with thousands of available jobs.
With most jobs, refugees do not even compete with someone for a position. Over 70 million Americans are on benefits and in 2018 only 22,000 refugees were admitted to the country.
Most only have it for several months before working.
What misconceptions are there about refugees?
It is not like immigration where someone wants to come to this country. We have been forced. I left everything: my home, my childhood, my memories. I miss it all. There were no more options for us besides to die or leave. We do not want to beg for help; we prefer to live with our dignity. We were thinking about our children to have safer lives. Work was part of our life. The benefits we get are for three or four months to help us survive. Back home I had a house, a car and property. My kids could go to the best schools. It was hard to accept a new life here, but we appreciated it.
Oscar Castaneda, Advocate for immigrants
Oscar Castaneda has been a resident of Lansing since 1998, immigrating from Guatemala on a far-reaching journey that included college in Mexico City and Japan, and later a successful career at Michigan State University. He chairs the Civil Rights for Immigrants Task Force at Action of Greater Lansing.
Castaneda has faced his own struggles within the United States’ immigration system, and they continue today. He’s an advocate for immigration reform, and through his role with the task force, he helps to provide direct services to immigrants as they navigate the complexities of the federal immigration machine. — KYLE KAMINSKI
Help me understand how your personal experience with immigration led you to advocacy.
I first came to the United States with a visa that required me to go home after three years. It’s plain and clear now, but it wasn’t really clear at the time. There was no Internet. I applied for a working permit and they gave me one. And then, boom, they said I was supposed to leave.
And then I started to litigate. I started litigating and fighting for my status here. Because of these things, I learned more about the immigration system and really understood how unfair and broken it is. Most likely, I will not get a green card. I will always be on work permits. It’s been over 10 years now.
How does your work with Action of Greater Lansing make an impact?
The long-term goal is total, full and comprehensive immigration reform. We break the work into a few things. Lobbying is one. We really want to change the structure, and find ways to make a real and consistent change. We work with many organizations around the country. A lot is broken within the immigration system.
For better or worse, there are 11 million people without legal status. So, what are you going to do? How are you going to fix it? Politicians are afraid of it. They just chicken out rather than make real decisions. But someone has to make these decisions. If they say, kick them out and send them back to wherever they came from? OK, do it.
I don’t think that they understand how much it would cost to send 11 million people back home. The fact is that these people are working. And they’re actually making a lot of things cheaper in this country. So, a full comprehensive immigration reform would try to lobby this and work to help people to realize the problem.
There are also a lot of people that don’t understand their rights, and we do training with them and teach them.
What do you think it’ll take to shift the tide on immigration reform?
It doesn’t make it to the news.
Nothing has the priority lower than immigration. Besides the real act of getting help to someone in desperate need, I think that this brings up the whole concept of creating awareness.
I was talking the other day about Donald Trump, who creates such chaos. Maybe that chaos would prompt people to take action. But with this, it’s not only him. It’s the whole system. During the Bush days, legislators didn’t want to take action then either. Other bills have been put forward but people aren’t talking about it.
What do you have to do to fix the system?
You have to act. The United States has been so ambivalent to immigration for many years, I think that some kind of crisis needs to come for the country to act on this. As I said before, it’s 11 million still here in this country. Something needs to be done.
What do you think about the hateful rhetoric from the Oval Office? Has it made an impact?
You know, there are a lot of people with dreams. We should pay more attention to them. It makes sense to look around for someone to blame. I tell people: If you get to know an immigrant, you will change your mind. Politicians are politicians. They are just saying what people want to hear and people need somebody to blame.
Many working-class immigrants come from countries where they’re told their whole lives: Keep your head down and you’re going to be fine. For the last 30 years, we have people who have just kept their head down. Now, in this foreign country, they feel that they have absolutely no rights at all. From that perspective, we want to help.
Any advice for people? If you get to know an immigrant as a friend, you will change your mind about immigration. Don’t listen to the rhetoric. Don’t place us in different categories. Listen to all of them, take a look and make your own conclusions.
Aarin Dokum, Nokomis Center interim president
Aarin Dokum, 45, didn’t realize he was doing something revolutionary when he learned the Ojibwe, Potawatomi and Ottawa language called “Anishinaabemowin” growing up in Wikwemikong on Manitoulin Island. It was all he knew until he attended grade school for English. Now, according to the 2016 U.S. census of Native Americans and Alaskan Natives, 73 percent of natives only know how to speak English and this number is rising. Making things more difficult, the Native American language has only been written down largely within the last century using the English alphabet, which cannot convey certain Anishinaabemowin sounds and tones. Facing the attrition of his native tongue, Dokum leads a dedicated group of students working to preserve Anishinaabemowin at a weekly donation funded class in Okemos. — DENNIS BURCK
You grew up on unceded land on Manitoulin Island. What does this mean?
Within the island is a reservation called Wikwemikong that isn’t really a reservation because it was always owned by us. It wasn’t someplace we were set aside to live; It was a place that was cherished from the beginning. I grew up there and wasn’t really exposed to traditional lifestyles except we had a house and cut firewood. On that island, there are no non-native influences.
How did you learn the language? It is my first language. Growing up, my grandparents did not speak English. At home it was always Anishinaabemowin until I went to school. Luckily, in high school and elementary school, we started learning Anishinaabemowin as if we lost it. It was my first language so I really thrived in school. English was also really instilled at me at the time. Honestly, I enjoyed it. But I took my own language for granted; not knowing the importance and not maintaining it.
How did you learn about your history?
During my youth, we went to a Catholic church and we were devoted to it. I was even an altar boy. It wasn’t until later in life I learned about traditional native stuff. Then I thought I better take a second to look at where I really came from which my parents never exposed me to. I was stubborn in high school. We were taught about a lot of treaties and wars, a lot of reneging of treaties and I never paid attention. I was more focused on the language and thought it was more important. I think it still is. It was just recently I started listening, trying to make sense of things, and I’m still learning. I’m still trying to grasp how and why we are here today walking along with the rest of the nations and nationalities.
How do the statistics on fluent Native American speakers make you feel?
I look at the numbers and it’s embarrassing. I know that is a strong word, but I think the numbers should be a lot higher. This is hard to say, but a lot of non-native people are totally ignorant and say, ‘Suck it up or get over it. This was decades ago.’ True, and I do understand what you are saying, but there are people who suffer a lot as far as not knowing their language. It wasn’t our fault. Somebody needs to be an advocate to help give that part back and not create a fight over it. I am on the fence: I want us to walk in harmony with non-native people, but still take this opportunity and resources we have to put the language back into us.
How was Anishinaabemowin taught?
It has been messy. Honestly, the language was never written. It needs to be learned through immersion and you need to have a linguist help you understand it and use the tones.
A while back, native fluent speakers were against it and would say it is not a written language, but something you teach when growing up. It was something to be learned in the village. I agree it should be taught at home, but we couldn’t learn it at home because we were kicked out and told ‘Learn English — It is a new country.’ We were colonized, and there is still a lot of bitter people about that, rightfully so.
Why is it important to preserve the language?
Our language is our culture. It is an upbringing. Let’s go back in time if it was only us Native Americans. Everything we said to our families and everything we spoke to our children, to our parents and community had a specific meaning. Because it is being taught in high schools in northern Michigan, I want to teach students in the Lansing area. These students will most likely move down this way and I want them to continually hear what they were taught as kids. It is not something we should do, it is something we have to do.
Tana Fedewa, Advocate for survivors
Tana Fedewa, 37, is the director of Michigan State University’s Sexual Assault Program. She’s a licensed social worker, specializing in trauma-informed services, response and intervention at MSU and neighboring communities. She worked at MSU while disgraced sports doctor Larry Nassar was convicted of sex crimes.
Fedewa hopes to expand the holistic services offered through MSU’s program to include opportunities to heal through movement, art, music, animals and mindfulness. Eighteen employees and one service dog compose her staff, with a total reach to more than 700 survivors (and counting) this year alone.
— KYLE KAMINSKI
Tell me about the impact your office makes on campus.
We’re trying to make it a place, a community, a place where survivors feel like they matter and they belong.
When I started, our program was in the basement. It felt like we were just shoving the trauma in the basement. Out of sight, out of mind. There’s been a big cultural change at MSU, in terms of recognizing the impact of sexual assault. We’re not in the basement, but I still don’t think we recognize the depth and the breadth of it yet.
We’re trying to figure out how to reach people for what they really need. We’re trying to bring them some humanity, comfort and community. During finals, we had coffee bars and activities to take a break. We realize not everyone heals in a linear, traditional way. Therapy is not always everyone’s first step. It can be intimidating.
Our canine advocate, Justice, has been an amazing transition for people. We’re also getting people involved with acupuncture, yoga and movement. Sometimes that’s where they want to focus on — that mindbody stuff.
For many, it’s like the trauma doesn’t allow for them to be engaged socially or go to work or classes. They may have to withdraw from the university. I don’t think people understand the financial side. Last year, we started a small survivor emergency fund in our program to help survivors. That has been really helpful.
There are so many things that need to be done during the process, so we’re trying to just help people understand and make informed choices. A lot of times, that ends up leading into therapy if we’re connecting with people.
How did the Larry Nassar investigation impact things at your office?
So many people were experiencing a level of institutional betrayal. What do we need to implement? How do we make changes that outlast the current administration? How do we use this momentum to figure out changes?
People just needed to be heard. I think we met with almost 40 different groups of people in a few months to just sit with them, hear them, absorb it and figure out. We brainstormed with them: What would that look like if it were to be different? It’s a change in the making. I think that helps me to stay focused on why I do this work.
I think this a momentous time in terms of really moving the needle on awareness and actual action. We can be a service model. Right now, we are not. But we’re actually looking at what would it take to do this the right way.
What’s the biggest challenge? It’s the ethical conflict. Social workers believe in fighting for social justice, but some of it is outside of my control. The new Title IX recommendations coming down from Betsy DeVos’ office are going to make it very difficult. The challenge is being part of a process that you know isn’t fair to survivors.
It’s not trauma-informed and it could cause more harm, but it’s our office’s responsibility to support them.
Inside, I’m crawling out of my skin because I know that none of this is right. It’s all wrong.
We know so much about sexual assault on college campuses, yet there’s this idea that a lot of people are being sexually assaulted, but very few people are sexually assaulting people. If we’re reducing that accountability, then we are allowing more people to be sexually assaulted. It just feels like we’re going backwards sometimes.
What’s next? My hope for 2019 is that we shift into a place where we have some sort of guiding principle and make good choices because they’re the right things to do. Survivors deserve to be treated with the utmost dignity and respect. If we have those values and we make decisions based on that, things are going to get better.
We need to believe people, validate them, and lift them up for their courage and their resiliency.
Ezra and Marshall Kelly, Trans twins
Ezra and Marshall Kelly, 21, identical twins, tattooed and draped in striking outfits, are a fixture of Lansing’s east side. Fashion, music, painting — the pair posit themselves as jacks of all trades. Together they form the group Nonbinary, which sounds like a sonic blur between soundcloud rap and Depeche Mode -- a genre they call “electronic erotica.”
The Kellys were aware of their trans identity from a young age and made their transition together nearly every step of the way. Ezra and Marshall described going by different names each day while they were toddlers. Outwardly queer during their time at Haslett High School, the disrespect led to dropping out in search of finding their own way. Soon after, they obtained their GEDs and worked various jobs, supporting themselves without the burden of school.
Today, they’ve become social media sensations -- drawing tens of thousands of supporters on platforms like Instagram and visiting Chicago and Los Angeles to meet other online influencers.
— SKYLER ASHLEY
Describe your group Nonbinary.
Where does your sound come from?
Ezra: I call the genre electronic erotica. That’s really significant. It sounds like a mixture of things like Lady Gaga and Depeche Mode.
Marshall: It’s also very emotional and very performance-based. People listening to our music, even if they don’t enjoy what it sounds like, when they see us perform it live, that’s when we get a big response.
When did the two of you realize you would transition together?
Ezra: We were 2 years old when we started really presenting very masculine and talking to each other about gender without realizing what it meant. We didn’t realize what transgender was, but we would like to pray to God and be like, ‘Oh, can we wake up tomorrow and be boys?’ Marshall: We would have new names every day, like Buddy, RJ, Mikey, Tony, Antonio, Luke, Dylan, Hayden — a million different names.
When Ezra came out as trans/nonbinary there was a year gap before you, Marshall, came out as well. What was that period like for you?
Marshall: When Ezra came out as trans/nonbinary I didn’t really know what I wanted. I didn’t know if I felt like I was nonbinary, or if I felt like I was a boy, or if I just felt that way because Ezra did. I didn’t want people to assume I was just copying Ezra.
Ezra: And I knew that, because we had talk about it for years.
Marshall: Ezra told me, ‘I’m not going to think you’re just doing it because I am.’ To us, it was like a secret. We didn’t know what being transgender was, but our entire lives we had talked about literally being transgender, you know what I mean? It’s like we didn’t know the word.
You two are extremely fashion-forward. What influences your style?
Ezra: I really like Japanese fashion, anime characters and my drawings. I like the way that certain things fit certain body types. That’s where I come from. But I also love to style other people.
Marshall: I also think it’s a mixture of so many different fashion senses. I like to put together streetwear and goth. I just like looking like a vampire every day. If it looks like something a young Robert Smith would wear, that’s my outfit.
What is the respectful way to approach a nonbinary person with questions about their identity?
Ezra: Anyone could come up to me and ask questions. you know. But like, I know for most of the trans community, they don’t want that. I think it’s fair to not want to answer questions and stuff, but I just think that the education is just so important. Like we aren’t learning it in school, like we aren’t learning this anywhere. I had to learn it on Tumblr.
Marshall: If they have like real genuine questions, they aren’t being harmful. They’re genuinely just curious. I mean they could ask you a question that’s super ignorant and super rude. But I don’t think that’s their intention. Like Ezra said, I’ll answer it, but you probably shouldn’t ask anyone else that question.
Ezra: Try to stray away from asking about somebody’s past life. It’s very traumatic to think about who you had to pretend to be. If I picture my life at that point, it’s literally like I’m looking at someone else. I never imagined that I could possibly get to where I’m at now. All I’ve ever wanted is to be who I am now.
Tiesha King, Lansing’s dark artist
If you appreciate Lansing as a city that’s home to death metal, punk rock, drag shows, burlesque dancing and popup art bazaars, Tiesha King is somebody you should thank. King’s production company Dark Art of Michigan has grown into a beast of its own — her shows are not just a smattering of bands playing to half-awake drinkers.
Instead they completely transform the Avenue Café into a veritable haunted house. At King’s shows, it’s always Halloween.
King, 45, originally hails from Ft. Wayne, Indiana, and moved to Lansing from Denver. She began booking metal shows initially at Mac’s Bar in 2013 under the name Beyond Dead Productions before deciding to branch out beyond just music at the Avenue in 2015. Since this year, she’s also opened Thrift Witch — a vintage clothing/consignment store in REO Town Marketplace — and is partners with Sean Peters, owner of Lansing tattoo shop Eclectic Art Tattoo Gallery. — SKYLER ASHLEY
How did you go from booking metal shows to the bigger productions with Dark Art of Michigan?
When we switched over from Mac’s to the Avenue, nobody had a beef about it. It was totally cool. We had a great time and I said, ‘Man, Sean has this back stock of like 30 or 40 paintings, what am I going to do with these?’ So it was my idea to use the walls of the Avenue to host an art show. So we kind of started doing art shows that were followed by bands. Then it was art shows with bands and vendors. Then it was art shows, bands, vendors and performance art. It’s just been seamless.
When did burlesque and drag enter the mix?
I’ve always been into performance art in some capacity, but with my crippling stage fright it wasn’t really something that I pressed. I started working with Autumn Luciano, from Decadent Dolls and Tease a Go Go, as her street team leader. I was meeting a lot of people that worked with her, and a lot of people from Spiral Dance Bar that told me, ‘Hey, I’ve got a spooky act, can I be a part of your show?’
As a performance artist, I just liked the fact that you’re getting up there and you’re doing something that’s maybe a little risqué. Growing up in the LGBTQ bar scene, I'd always gravitate toward t-girls and drag queens who liked to dress extra. It was a natural thing for me.
How did you acquire your taste for punk rock, goth and metal?
When you’re on your own as a kid, you run into a lot of artists and musicians and other people that are low on the payment scale. Those are the kinds of people that you gravitate toward, and those are the kind of people that felt safe to me.
The band that did it was the Misfits — that was it. I was like, ‘Oh man, these guys like horror stuff AND they’re punk rock? Holy shit!’
Tell us how you started your store Thrift Witch.
There have been people that have started out with Dark Art of Michigan and have gone off and are doing great things. So Thrift Witch, I think, is an extension for our frequent Dark Art vendors. People would talk to me in between shows and say things like, ‘Hey, I need to get with that baby head candle lady’ or ‘Where’s the spider lady? I need to get with her and buy something.’ And I’m often the middle man. So when I opened the store, the idea was to give the Dark Art vendors a year-round place to sell their stuff.
What’s it like booking shows and running a thrift shop in Lansing?
Well, Lansing’s a hard nut to crack. I’ll tell you that. Coming from Denver, there’s was so much of everything. There would be three or four burlesque shows in the city, everybody knew it was happening and nobody got mad. Whereas in a town like Lansing, you have two metal shows in the same night and someone is asking that you do the shows in the same venue or on different nights. As far as Lansing is concerned, there’s always more that can be added to the roster of things to do. My end-goal is to have a wax museum in Lansing. If you’re into horror stuff that’s the top deal. You can find conventions everywhere, but a real wax museum or like a haunted house that doesn’t move? That would be a big deal.
Rev. Phiwa Langeni, Salus Center director
Opening the Salus Center for the Lansing LGBTQ community in 2017, the Rev. Phiwa Langeni, 38, sought to create a community space where all were welcome to worship. Langeni, an ordained minister by the United Church of Christ, seeks to mend the contentious relationship between Christianity and the LGBTQ community through a service of acceptance, love and faith. Salus, the Latin word for wholesomeness, was chosen to symbolize the spirit of the center for Langeni and LGBTQ community it serves. — DENNIS BURCK
Tell me about the “Salus” word choice?
Salus is a Latin word meaning wholeness and well-being. It is the root word for salvation, for example, but it doesn’t have all that baggage. Looking at the etymology to find a word to shape what it is I’m hoping to cultivate here, I literally have to lean back to the Latin word. All these other words come with a lot of baggage and a lot of not what it was once intended. I also like the use of a word that does not exist in our common parlance where we get to define Salus. What is wholeness and well-being? How do we be radical in simple acts of care? That is what I’m trying to do here, to shift culture so a place like this doesn’t have to exist.
What made you want to become a reverend?
It was quite accidentally. I was born and raised in a Christian tradition, but in my late teens I came to realize I am queer. There wasn’t really room for that in the tradition of my birth. I actually left the church for a while and thought, “If that’s what your God is about, I’m not interested.”
I was an undergrad in Alma, Michigan, and a friend of mine invited me to a Pentecostal church. There was something authentic about their worship. The theology didn’t fit with my childhood church experiences. In the church one day, there was a preacher who said the word “vocation.” I had heard this word a billion times before but for some reason when he said it, it landed on my spirit and I knew I had to do it. I spoke to some of my undergrad advisers and said, “What do you think about me going to seminary?” They said it made a lot of sense knowing who I was. I almost wanted them to say no.
When did you want to become a reverend in an LGBTQ setting?
It was 2014 and I had a few years being ordained. I heard of Leelah Alcorn in Ohio. The only reason we know about her is she had a death note come out after she threw herself in front of a truck. In her note, I realized she really did not want to die. Her parents had raised her Christian. They caught her being not a straight cisgender little boy and there were consequences where they would pull her out of school, isolate her and not be allowed to interact with folks. I don’t even call it a suicide, but death by Christianity.
It wrecked me. We were literally dying, so I thought how can I be a representative of the church and spiritual leader about my own identity?
What difference has the center made for the LGBTQ community?
It forms a wonderful, quirky and diverse small community of folks to be able to just be together. We start fostering and making connections that haven’t already existed. Now we are breaking apart the isolation that often accompanies any marginalized identity, especially those who are layered with different minoritized identities.
To dismantle the power of isolation with such high rates of suicide — it helps shift the power and weight of people having to carry their burdens on their own.
Every week, we have an opportunity for people who share any parts of their story. Some of the most beautiful and vulnerable stories have been shared in this space. Just being able to reflect back the sacredness in people’s stories, in their struggles and joys helps them illuminate the divine and sacredness of who they are. It is one of the most radical things we can do as a clergyperson, especially when the Christianity of our day is spouting lies that say the opposite of that.
My work during worship service is not about converting people. Who am I to make claims on other people’s lives and experiences? It is to speak life back into the folk for whom religion and Christianity have depleted their lives. To be able to reshape it to be more consistent to a God many of us believe to be love. Love is not hurt. Love is not supposed to be violent, deadly, uncaring or uncompassionate.
Bill Lett Retired owner, Lett’s Bridal
Bill Lett, 92, is a Lansing legend. Born in Lansing, Lett owned the stylish and very successful Lett’s Bridal Shop for over 60 years and has lived in the same West Side house for about as long. — LAWRENCE COSENTINO
You had a close shave on your first day of life, didn’t you?
When I came into this world, I weighed 12 pounds. My mother was a week overdue. During the procedure, the doctor told my grandma, ‘Gertie, we lost the baby.’ My mother and dad didn’t have any money so they lived at my grandma’s house, on Howe Street between Shiawassee and Ionia.
When I came out, Grandma grabbed me from the doctor and put me on the coal furnace we had in the room. When I hit the coals I started to holler. My grandma said to my mother, ‘Rosetta, you brought him into this world, but he belongs to me.’ And that’s the way I was raised, by my grandma. She made all the major decisions.
What was life like when you were young?
I was shoveling coal with my dad.
We were very poor and worked very hard. My dad bought a house at 1304 W. Maple. We lived there for years and then the Depression came.
I got a job waiting tables at the Deer Head Inn when I was 14 years old. It was a good experience for me. People would tip me well to wait on them because they liked me. I was full of fun. I realized you didn’t have to kill yourself working. You could make money by talking!
You spent some time in Sugar Hill, Harlem, New York, right?
My cousin Bill Sherrill’s sister was Joya Sherill, who sang for Duke Ellington. Bill and I went to New York City and I stayed there for a couple of years. I met a lot of wonderful people there. Duke Ellington was one of my friends. He was unbelievable, gracious man, just a wonderful person.
How did you meet your wife, Ruby? I was in a bar in Detroit and I looked in a mirror and saw these beautiful red lips. I thought, “I’ve got to meet this girl.’ I walked up to her and told her ‘My name is Bill Lett. This is your lucky day.’ She didn’t give me her phone number that day but she did the next time.
What got you into the women’s clothing line?
My first son was born in 1950 with club feet. The doctor told me it was going to cost $7,000 to correct it. I was making about $50 a week at Oldsmobile Forge, at the hammer shop.
I thought, how am I ever going to raise $7,000? I drew my whole savings, $50, out of the bank. I got $2 worth of gas, drove to Detroit, bought $48 worth of ladies’ stockings from a jobber and sold them door-to-door.
Why stockings? They were hard to get during the war and after. You’d have to stand in line. Stores would have a sale once a year where each woman was limited to one pair. The line going downtown would start at St. Joseph Street! My mother always took me with her so we both could buy a pair. I figured, if women would stand in line at 5 o’clock in the morning to buy stockings, that item is in demand.
What was your shop like? I ended up having a very successful ladies’ retail store. For a long time it was on Logan Street, now MLK, where the Hall of Justice is now. Women came from Chicago, Ohio, all over, because I would buy suede coats with mink collars, unique stuff. If a woman really wanted to be different and beautiful, she came to Lett’s Bridal.
Brides are notoriously demanding.
How did you deal with that?
I didn’t have any trouble. One lady called me, she was unhappy about the dress. She was cursing at me. I said, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to make you happy. You’re not going to curse and I’m not going to curse.’
What’s your secret for life at 92? I turned into a strict vegetarian. My wife told me, ‘I’m from Georgia. We eat pork chops.’ She decided she’s just as soon be dead as eat pork chops, and it did kill her. She died in 1995. It also killed our two sons. Every day, my wife cooked pork chops. Our two sons both died of liver cancer in 1996, from the grease from the meat. They ate an abundance of it. And I am very, very healthy.
Are you glad you didn’t stay in New York?
I’m more of a small-town guy. I treated people the way I wanted to be treated and I was very, very successful.
Theresa Rosado Journalist, artist, activist
Less than two years ago, journalist, artist, photographer and activist Theresa Rosado turned her historic, 100-year-old house on Mt. Hope near REO Town into Casa de Rosado, a gallery and community hub with a feel completely different from any other art space in town. The gallery feels like home because it is her home. Offbeat exhibits range from art inspired by social justice issues to the forbidden pleasures of velvet art and photographs of male nudes. — LAWRENCE COSENTINO
What made you want to start your own gallery?
I would bring my work to galleries and not get a call back. I walked into one space that had a gallery in west Michigan. The owner said, ‘We don’t take paintings with people in them.’ I had a lot of paintings with people wearing traditional shirts. As a young artist, I was exploring Boricua identity, Puerto Rican identity. A lot of us could get in for Hispanic heritage shows, but for the rest of the year it was pretty slim pickings.
How did you find Casa de Rosado? I lived by the hospital on Greenlawn and I would take my dog walking every evening. I walked by the house a number of times and I’ve always admired it.
It reminded me of a painting I had made of my grandmother, in a very similar house. I painted her in shadows. They represented spirits looking out the window. I lived in apartments for a long time. I wondered how it would feel to have your space, your house.
How do you think of yourself, identity-wise?
I call myself a ‘quarter Rican.’ My dad is from Macedonia and my mother’s father, a hillbilly from West Virginia, married my grandmother, who was Puerto Rican.
What are some of the gallery’s high points for you so far?
This year’s Día de los Muertos celebration was just out of the park, one of the largest we’ve had, both in people building ofrendas [colorful displays devoted to a loved one who has died] and the general public. One particular ofrenda, a young man built it for his mother. His father would come and sit on the couch right next to the ofrenda for hours, just sit there and look at her picture and meet people that knew her. The Nora Chapa Mendoza exhibit — it was great to see the turnout for that. People do want to see paintings that explore identity and meaning.
The black velvet, the rasquache — it was amazing that something as mundane as black velvet would be a draw for people.
That’s what I appreciate from my culture. It’s so vibrant and colorful. In a world that shies away from that, it’s very comforting to have other people gather and appreciate color.
Do you feel that Lansing a welcoming place for diverse kinds of people?
Yes. I’ve lived in a lot of different towns throughout the Midwest, and this is a town I’ve come back to, because of the people and how welcoming they are to people of all cultures and backgrounds. It’s a very unpretentious town.
We have MSU, LCC and the state Capitol. For anybody interested in fighting for civil rights, it’s a town that makes a good platform for it.
What are your priorities in the year ahead when it comes to politics and social justice?
How our community responds to immigration is at the forefront. Minimum wage legislation. Attacks on the LGBTQIA community. On every one of these, the moment we get a few steps ahead, there’s some politician that wants to take away these rights that were fought for. It feels like we’ve been on our toes for a while, but the last two years have been a different level.
You do most of your own maintenance and repair work, right?
I do the things I can handle — roofing, gutter cleaning, some of the plumbing, electrical repair. It’s challenging, but this is a great town with old plumbers in it, and they’ve seen everything. Some of the pipes are too thick for me to cut. They go downstairs and say, ‘Yep, this is about a hundred years of cobbling.’
What’s the scariest thing you’ve run into?
Not a lot of the doors have knobs on both sides. If you close it, there’s no way to get out. I have to remember not to close the doors until I put knobs on them. I’ve been trapped in the basement for an hour. I had a doorknob fall off on the upstairs while I was working outside and I was trapped on the roof for a while. I have some friends with keys in case I need help. They come and rescue me. I have my cell phone on me at all times and the batteries charged.
Do you ever regret taking on the house or the gallery?
Not at all. It’s very challenging but I love every minute of it.
Robin Schneider, Advocate for marijuana
Robin Schneider, 40, has served as the director of the National Patient Rights Association, chairwoman of the Lansing Medical Marijuana Business Association, board member at the Capitol City Compassion Club and most recently as the finance director for the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol.
Her fundraising efforts helped to champion the recent ballot initiative and subsequent legalization of recreational marijuana in Michigan. She’s committed to protecting fundamental rights of entrepreneurs in the industry and patients who need continued access to medicinal bud — both in Lansing and throughout the state.
— KYLE KAMINSKI
Why get involved with the medical marijuana industry? Where does that passion come from?
I had a parent that was incarcerated for marijuana use. That is an experience that deeply changes your life and has affected my entire family. It’s multi-generational damage. I think growing up and thinking that all of this happened because of cannabis — it just didn’t make sense to me. And so, at a very young age I joined the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Law and became an activist for drug policy reform.
Did it take a while to push back against social stigmas surrounding marijuana? What was that like?
Early on, when we were advocating for legislation that would legalize marijuana businesses and products, our message was not well received. Legislators were just uncomfortable with the conversation because it had been illegal for so long. It was just an uncomfortable topic for them to even discuss, so they didn’t want to do it.
I think what changed the hearts and minds of the Michigan legislature was the medical side of the industry and when patients advocated on that end. Pediatric mothers of children with seizure disorders, cancer patients, HIV patients. There was a massive, statewide effort to get the patients to their respective legislators to tell their stories.
Do you think there is still a “Reefer Madness” mentality out there in the community?
There’s still some stigma. I think the war is clearly over in Michigan, but the work is still not done. For instance, I’m looking forward to helping our community restore its relations with law enforcement. That’s going to take time. My community spent years being raided, arrested and incarcerated. They’re still afraid of law enforcement.
What do you think about the way the medical marijuana licensing system has been working?
The program did not get off to a great start. The licensing process is much slower than it needs to be, and it’s hurting patient access to all the wonderful forms of medicine that should be available right now. I think the key problem with the existing program is the politically appointed Medical Marihuana Licensing Board.
That board is doling out licenses, picking and choosing the winners. That’s an inappropriate task for a politically appointed body. They’re making arbitrary and capricious licenses denials for very made-up reasons. The appeals process is there, but it’s very clear to me that the board is hurting the integrity of the program.
There are some good board members, but there are a particular few that pose some real and righteous concerns. That’s why we didn’t think a licensing board would be appropriate on the recreational side of the industry.
We’re talking about former lobbyists with connections to people who received the first licenses. I have a lot of concerns about transparency, and I’m looking forward to our new governor and attorney general taking a robust look at the situation. They have the ability to take the necessary measures to clean up the board and the program.
So marijuana has been legalized, but this doesn’t mean you’ll be off to an early retirement.
The industry is just a baby right now, and there’s a tremendous amount of work to be done to make sure that we get through the licensing obstacles with unfairly denied applicants. We need to make sure they have their due process and ensure that there’s enough of a product supply to support the market. We have to fix a lot of issues.
This is still a new, emerging industry. Everybody’s learning the rules and regulations and best business practices. Considering all of the remaining issues, I’d say we’re 60 percent of the way there. The war is over but we still have to clean up the mess. I’m looking forward to some new state leadership to help us clean that up as well.