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The People Issue

Flowers are pretty scarce around New Year´s Day, so we decided to celebrate another spin around the sun by picking a bouquet of 10 interesting people who reflect the variety and vitality of life in Greater Lansing. They´re not necessarily the 10 best or the most famous, but they certainly caught our attention. We hope you enjoy sharing their diverse experiences and looking at their fascinating faces, captured in all their variety by photographer Khalid Ibrahim in his Lansing studio, EatPomegranate Photography. All interviews were edited for length and clarity. — Lawrence Cosentino
Suban Nur CooleyWriter and editor

Suban Nur Cooley has been a world traveler since birth. Born in Switzerland to Somali parents, Nur Cooley, 36, lived in Kenya and Somalia before her parents fled to Australia in 1988 to escape the impending Somali Civil War. She moved to Lansing in 2006 to marry her husband, Caleb Cooley, whom she had met online. A writer and editor, Nur Cooley recently started doctoral work in MSU’s Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures Department.

— Ty Forquer

You grew up in Australia and you love traveling, so what keeps you in Lansing?

When Caleb and I decided where we were going to start together, we had the option of him moving to Australia or me moving to Lansing. I like adventure, and the thought of living in America for a while seemed enticing. But the thought of not going back to Australia was not an option. Still, in the back of my mind, I’m always going back, even though I’ve been here 10 years. We bought a house, then we had a child and I got hyper-involved in the community.

I love the community here. I’ve met some of my greatest friends here. I love the capacity to have an impact, because of the size of the community. I have grown to love Lansing, as much as I didn’t want to.

Tell me about your research at MSU.

My research is looking at the Somali diaspora and the ways they are connecting online, specifically women, to create what’s called a “transnational imagined community.” The diaspora is spread across the globe; they engage a lot online. What the women are doing that is interesting is that they’re bucking against the norms of Somali culture, which is Islamic and patriarchal. So they’re challenging some of the patrilineal elements of our society. My research looks specifically at the narratives of women who are engaged in that practice and how they’re building a voice and an identity for themselves as members of the diaspora.

How do you feel about the political climate in the U.S.?

When you live such an intersectional life — being a woman, being black, being from Somalia, from a Muslim community — it’s very hard to navigate current news and media without feeling weary and concerned for the global landscape. It’s a hopeless feeling.

That’s why I went back to school, feeling that hopelessness and thinking that if I could educate a few people to understand the ways that refugees aren’t that different, that would be monumental. I think that’s the problem with our world today, that we’re so siloed. People from different cultural backgrounds and orientations and life experiences are not connecting as much as they should. That, alongside what’s happening in the media, generates a fear that shouldn’t be there.

What do you think Americans, especially the media and politicians, fail to understand about refugees?

They’re more concerned with the impact of the influx of these populations without considering why they would choose to leave. What people aren’t seeing is that they’re not leaving because they want to leave. Most of the time, they’re seeking asylum, because they are in places that are not safe. For people in the Western world, it’s very hard to comprehend what that uncertainty and unsafety feels like. So they’re more inclined to be afraid of the people coming in without considering what refugees had to go through to even be in our communities in the first place.

What is the best way to help local refugees?

The best thing to do is, at the very beginning, educate yourself with what has caused the conflict in their home country. Look into it, read about it, ask some people who might know about it.

I ask people to imagine if things got really bad here, and you had to move to Japan. And you have three months to learn the language and get a job. And maybe you’re a scientist, but nobody cares. You have to go back to school. Think about what it would be like to restart your life somewhere where you don’t know any of the cultural customs.

There are lots of organizations in Lansing; the Refugee Development Center and St. Vincent Catholic Charities do a lot of great work. It’s a great way to get to know some of these people from different populations.

Now it’s more important than ever to reach out to communities of color, people of color, migrants, refugees who are in your communities. Because they may have felt vulnerable before, but they definitely feel more vulnerable now. Even for those like myself, who grew up in the West, it’s a very isolating feeling to think that someone would distrust you because of what they have heard about your population, without knowing anything about your population or the people in it.

{::PAGEBREAK::}Robin SchneiderMedical Marijuana Advocate

Robin Schneider, 38, of Lansing, is the executive director for the National Patients Rights Association, an advocacy group for medical marijuana users based in Lansing that has done work in seven states.

— Berl Schwartz

How did you become involved with medical marijuana advocacy?

It really bothered me that we were mass incarcerating people for using marijuana. I’d known so many people who had their lives absolutely ruined, so my involvement had to do initially with social justice. But also someone close to me had cancer, and I saw the medicinal value in his treatment. I watched him struggle to obtain it and became an advocate for that person and began my journey as a medical marijuana advocate.

You worked for years on new state regulations for medical marijuana, which were passed last year and will take effect this year. What are their pros and cons?

The benefits are that we clearly have a framework for safe access through licensed retail facilities, regulated growing, medicine that is safe for human consumption and a reduction in police raids against manufacturers.

The negative side is the bills overregulated the industry, which will cause an increase in the cost of the product.

Did big business get too much?

There certainly were corporate interests behind the scenes attempting to manipulate the legislation. Corporate interests came out of every industry imaginable, from transporting to testing to tracking. They certainly gave input into some of the harsher regulations that I’m not so fond of. But when you look at other medical marijuana licensing across the country, I would say ours is pretty free market.

How is the city of Lansing faring on trying to create an ordinance to regulate dispensaries?

The issue has been drastically overcomplicated. It’s very plain and simple. You can zone and allow licenses and vet your applicants. What you can’t do is write regulations that conflict with the new state law.

The ordinance should be short and simple. What I’ve seen is certain Council members very blatantly attempting to use exclusionary zoning practices to disallow the businesses.

How many dispensaries do we need?

I don’t know that the city needs 70, but I’ve seen zoning proposals that would take it down to five, which is not enough. If we decrease the number too drastically, we are going to have other public nuisance problems, such as overcrowded parking lots and lines out the door. A reasonable number is somewhere between 25 and 30.

Do you favor legalizing recreational use of marijuana?

I believe it’s going to happen in 2018. We have to stop mass incarcerating family members for using marijuana. It should be regulated similarly to alcohol, although not with three-tier system (growers, wholesalers and retailers) like alcohol has. I don’t have a problem with responsible adult use.

Our resources need to go to educating our youth on keeping them drug free. As a mother, I know firsthand I’ve succeeded at that. I’ve done extremely well at keeping my children drug free. Our policies of prohibition have created more potent drugs and made them more available to our children. Between my husband and me, we have six, ages 8, 9, 11, 13 — twins — and 16. I keep my children drug free by knowing where they are and whom they’re with at all times. I do not ever leave them unsupervised, and we talk about drugs a lot, very openly, very freely. There are no questions that I am not prepared to answer with scientific explanations.

I use health policy as a way to guide my parenting on drug education. Especially in the teenage years where the brain is forming, it’s extremely important to monitor your children to make sure they’re not experimenting with any drugs. I would say the age of 21 would probably be the age where children are ready to make decisions for themselves. I would encourage my children to go beyond the age of 21, and I’ll assist my children with remaining drug free beyond the age of 21.

Do you use medical marijuana?

I first used it to wean myself off pain medications I was prescribed for a back injury. Then I had a pretty serious stroke that left me with physical and cognitive damage. The cognitive damage especially was pretty extensive. I had to learn how to type again, work on my speech, learn to drive again. Entire words were forgotten. I’ve made almost a complete recovery. I’m convinced that being treated with CBD (cannabidiol, one of the active ingredients in marijuana) within 24 hours made all the difference in my recovery. I continued to use it during my recovery. Once I made my recovery, I stopped. I’m a mother and I work full time, so I really don’t have time. But if I needed it again, I wouldn’t hesitate.


Nic GareissDancer and musician

Nic Gareiss spent 36 weeks on the road last year, dancing and playing music throughout the U.S. and Europe. But when he’s not on the road, he calls Lansing’s Eastside Neighborhood home. Gareiss, 30, holds a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Central Michigan University and a master’s degree in ethnochoreology from the University of Limerick in Ireland. His musical collaborations include groups like This Is How We Fly, an international quartet that blends folk traditions and contemporary influences.

— Ty Forquer

When did you decide to pursue a career in dance?

I have been dancing since I was 8, but I didn’t intend to do it as my profession or as something to sustain me economically. I went to school for music; I studied anthropology. Then in grad school, I continued to study dance and anthropology, mostly with the goal of getting a university position in an anthropology program.

But when I was in grad school, I had a couple of conversations with some musicians and dancers that I really respect, and I had been performing all along, so I decided that I was going to take one year and see if I could do it full time for a year. That was 2012. I booked an entire year of work. I made a spreadsheet and figured out how much I needed to make every month, and I realized it was possible. And I kept doing that every year since.

How do you describe your sexual orientation?

I’m pretty attached to my gender — I use pronouns he, him and his — but I would probably call myself queer, in the sense that I have magnetism towards bodies that are similar to mine — but not only those similar to mine, many different kinds of bodies.

You grew up in a conservative community. How were you able to come to terms with that part of your life?

I was 16, and I was deeply involved in a church at the time, and I came out on a microphone in front of the church. They were actually really welcoming, and I continued to be active in that church for many years, but later my path veered in a different direction.

I was probably 21 before I stopped thinking about it as something I wanted to fix or wanted to change. The prevailing attitude in my community at the time was that it’s OK to be gay, as long as you’re trying to deny your impulses. I was reading a lot of (Émile) Durkheim, and I was imagining what life could be like outside of the community I was involved with, and I think I realized, I resolved that I didn’t want to change that part of me. That was a part of me that I not only wanted to accept but that I wanted to celebrate, to make it part of my political identity, my artistic identity and my daily life.

How does that part of your identity show up in your art?

It’s taken me a while to figure out a way to integrate these parts of my identity. But I do recall the first time I ever wanted to be a professional dancer was when I saw a man dance on stage at the Wheatland Music Festival. There was an Irish dancer named Liam Harney performing, and I remember thinking two things. The first was, “Wow, I want to do that.” And the second was “Oh my lord, that man is beautiful.” So in a way, I’m realizing that those things were maybe always connected.

But I’m starting to figure out ways to integrate my own queerness into the work that I create. I’m making a one-hour-long dance show set in houses, and it commemorates the 80th anniversary of a law that was passed in Ireland. The clergy put pressure on the young Irish government to ban people from dancing in their homes, and they required the citizens to rent a parish hall that would be well-lit and supervised and maybe help bypass the trouble that comes with people being in dimly lit places, holding onto each other, their bodies in motion. You can imagine that kind of sensuality would be alarming to a Catholic government. And as a kind of retroactive justice, I’m creating this piece that will be explicitly for houses. And in that piece, there’s a solo square dance that has a nod to queerness and what it would be like if you grew up in Appalachia and you felt a disconnected perspective from the people around you.


Robert SongPresident and CEO of Maru Hospitality Group

Robert Song opened his first Maru sushi restaurant in Okemos in 2009. In November, he opened his fifth Maru location in Detroit, and he plans to open a sixth in Kalamazoo this spring. Also slated to open this spring is Ando, Song’s new Asian comfort food restaurant, on Grand Rapids’ west side. A native of South Korea, Song came to Chicago with his family when he was 15. He moved to East Lansing in 1994 to attend Michigan State University and graduated in 2000 with a degree in dietetics.

— Ty Forquer

Was it always your plan to go into the restaurant business?

I thought I’d have to get a 9-to-5 job with a suit and tie and a briefcase, as many of my friends did. Engineer, lawyer, doctor — one of those kind of jobs. So I was pre-med, studying physiology. But taking all of those science classes wasn’t something I saw myself doing for the rest of my life. I didn’t do well, initially, in science classes. I decided to study dietetics instead.

I got a job at Ukai, where I worked for two and a half years. I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life, so I thought I had better study. So I studied for the GMAT and LSAT, still thinking I would need to get a “real job.” I thank God every day that I didn’t go to law school, because I would have been a horrible lawyer.

As I was really thinking about going, I was approached by my best friend, who had a friend starting a restaurant in Midland. I went through the construction process. I was involved in every facet of the restaurant, from hiring and training to promotion, ordering, you name it. I worked there for about eight years. During that time I proposed to my wife and started traveling, thinking that at some point we would open our own restaurant. And I kept studying. I studied companies like P.F. Chang’s, because in the mid- ‘90s they had just a handful of restaurants.

About 10 years ago I got serious about starting something. And that’s when Maru Okemos was born.

You mentioned P.F. Chang’s as a model. How big would you like Maru to get?

People ask me that, and I don’t say like, “At some point I’ll go public, and I’ll raise money, and I’ll sweep the Midwest and then the country.” Yes, I studied that; I know that option. But from nothing to where I am — the challenge is the size. I can’t maintain my competitive edge, because it involves painstaking time and training to understand the idiosyncrasies and little details, not only in the food, but in the operation. Otherwise, you lose good people and you start accepting mediocrity.

How big would I become? If I figure out the way to maintain what got us here, I don’t think there’s a limit. Over the years, I mopped the floors, cleared the tables, cooked the rice, made sure the plating is right, everything. We were able to grow because my people do things so much better than I would have. So if we continue to build that team, we’ll see what opportunities lie ahead.

What are you looking for in the people you hire?

When I hire chefs, I want people who are dexterous. If you’re all thumbs, you’ll be too slow. I want people who are dedicated. Without commitment, it’s too tough, too difficult, too painstaking to become a master. And you have to be desperate. I was desperate to succeed. There was no other option. I’m not looking for the most talented people. I’m looking for people who are committed. I can buy talent with money, but I can’t buy commitment. You may not be the best, but if you’re committed to learning and to the team, that will make the difference.


Jeff ShoupMusician

Drummer Jeff Shoup, 43, has succeeded where many others have failed, booking and performing at a regular jazz night in Lansing for over two years. Jazz Tuesdays at Moriarty’s Pub showcases a wide variety of local and national artists in a congenial (and usually packed) room of devoted fans, with Shoup himself behind the drum kit most nights. When we talked in mid-December, Shoup had just snagged a gig as jazz instructor at Hope College.

— Lawrence Cosentino

What do drummers know that other musicians don’t know?

We know what everybody’s butt looks like.

Is there an artist who knocked you out that we wouldn’t necessarily expect?

There was this one band, the Aquarium Rescue Unit with Col. Bruce Hampton. He’s like this cult figure, like Frank Zappa or Stravinsky. I was driving one snowy morning to a 6:45 a.m. to a band practice at St. John’s High School, and WDBM played this track. I’d never heard anything like it. It seemed like they were right at the intersection of jazz and rock.

Skip to a couple years later, Oct. 8, 1993. Aquarium Rescue Unit played the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor. I still have my ticket stub. I couldn’t legally drink, so I just wormed my way to the front of the stage and stood there all night, basking.

How did you end up studying jazz at MSU?

I very naively walked into the music building in August 2000, a week before classes started, with my cymbal bag over my shoulder. I had no idea you’re supposed to audition a year ahead of time. I’m standing in the lobby, not quite sure of what to do. It so happened this was Rodney (Whitaker’s) first year as (jazz studies) director. He pulled me into a room where there was a drum set. I put my cymbal up on the stand. I hadn’t been in the building five minutes and I was playing with Rodney Whitaker!

You dropped out in 2003 and didn’t finish your master’s degree until 2014. What happened?

I got sucked back into the mortgage industry. I started looking at the people I was working with, the kinds of things we were doing — do I really want to do this the rest of my life? Or even for a year? I went back to MSU and got a digital media degree, went out and got a job (at an internet consulting company) and I hated it. Every morning the elevator opened on the eighth floor, I could feel a piece of my soul being chipped away.

Meanwhile, MSU’s jazz studies had gone from five kids who were into jazz to this huge thing with a master’s degree. They needed somebody to play in Octet V, and they called me. I dragged my drums in for the first rehearsal, heard these kids and I was like, “What the fuck happened here?” In the four or five years I was gone, the level of talent went through the roof. I remember washing dishes with my wife and telling her I wanted to go back to school, even though I was the breadwinner at the time. She was like, “Go for it.”

How long has Jazz Tuesday’s at Moriarty’s been running?

We’re coming up on two and a half years. It was an almost instant success. Within six months’ time, instead of me calling people to get them to come in on Tuesdays, people were calling me, trying to book a gig there. Two and a half years later, we have nationals — Brian Charette, an organist and pianist out of New York and a columnist for Downbeat Magazine. Dmitri Matheny, a trumpeter from Seattle, is coming next month. The way it took off, I can book different stuff in there all the time. That’s what keeps people coming back.

How long do you expect it to last?

I don’t see an end to it at this point. Moriarty’s is making money, I’m making money. I get to play with all these bad cats.

It even had an effect on me getting the gig at Hope. The director of the program mentioned that he looked up my videos online. I have a YouTube channel for (Jazz Tuesdays) and I have almost 11,000 views. My name is plastered all over the internet with guys like Rodney Whitaker.

I see no reason for it to end. I’m enjoying every minute of it.


Jeana-Dee Allen and Dylan RogersOwners of the Robin Theatre

Jeana-Dee Allen, 33, and Dylan Rogers, 29, are the married couple behind REO Town’s Robin Theatre, a 1917 building they laboriously rehabbed and transformed into a cultural hub of the resurgent REO Town district south of Lansing’s downtown. Since the theater opened in 2015, it has almost instantly turned into a busy and eclectic venue for local and touring performing arts of all kinds, from poetry to folk music and jazz to puppet shows and comedy.

— Lawrence Cosentino

Where are you now in your overall plan for the Robin Theatre?

Jeana-Dee: We’re already at our five-plus-year plan. We’ve recruited national artists to come and perform. A music superhero of my life, Don Flemons of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, came here a couple months ago. It was wonderful. It feels very unreal to be where we’re at right now.

Dylan: We have a unique situation. We own the building, we fixed it up ourselves and we live in it.

How far ahead are you booked?

Dylan: Into June. I can squeeze someone in on a Thursday, but we don’t have a weekend until then.

Have any acts worked out better than you expected?

Dylan: Comedy Coven has done a monthly standup comedy showcase since the beginning. The core group is three 20-something women who live in Lansing. They are kind of like millennial — Jeana-Dee: Grandmas. Dylan: — Internet savvy, New Age wisdom-spouting witches. It’s fun and unique, not only in Lansing, but to the world. We’re proud to have it. Their shows here have gone from just getting on their feet to selling out the theater, for comedy, on a Tuesday night.

Dylan, you almost moved to the Pacific Northwest like many young, creative people who grew up in Lansing. Why didn’t you?

Dylan: I feel like Lansing has great momentum. That momentum, especially in the arts, is going to lead more creative people to be here. We want to provide a space for anybody who has an off-the-wall idea, maybe something that isn’t happening yet in Lansing, they didn’t feel like they had to move to Detroit.

Jeana-Dee: I saw this space as a much larger and extended version of our front porch. This is our home. You can’t ignore it when something is going on downstairs. You hear every shake, people dancing. Everyone’s welcome on the porch.

Dylan: People give a damn. That’s what made us want to stay in Lansing. The Comedy Coven — they had that experience too. They’re young, hip women who are staying in Lansing because they feel it, too, and there’s just going to be more. A lot of folk musicians love performing here, because there isn’t a noisy bar 50 feet away. You can get up and perform your song you poured your heart into where people can listen. At this point, we’re flooded with talented people and it’s only going to get crazier.

How are the two of you different from each other?

Dylan: I learned my work ethic from Jeana-Dee and her family. How deep do we want to go here? I come from a huggy, feely family. Talk about our feelings, hug it out.

Jeana-Dee: Saying goodbye in the Rogers family takes about 10 hours, because we all have to hug each other about three times. I’m from Flint. If you don’t have something, you make it. If you’re feeling sad, too bad, because we’re going to go to work.

Dylan: High-functioning anxiety (points to himself) and calm, strong, skilled (points to Jeana-Dee).

What’s the next phase of your vision for the Robin Theatre?

Jeana-Dee: To have a more curated series. So Dylan could say, “I want four puppet acts, three folk performances,” almost similar to the Ten Pound Fiddle, maybe pick up an odd event here and there, but have a whole series you can publish.

Dylan: I get contacted dozens of times a week. I want to do all of it, but we have to keep it balanced. We’re at three to four events a week on average. Any more than that would be kind of nuts.

Jeana-Dee: I feel like we are almost unlimited because the neighborhood has been really supportive. We never would have been able to finish the upstairs if we hadn’t had a crew of friends helping out. I feel like anything’s possible because we are so fortunate to be in Lansing, where people are willing to work for something and support each other.

Dylan: We’re kind of putting the plane together as we fly.


Abolarin Agbona Veterinarian

Dr. Abolarin Agbona — known as Dr. Bola to the folks who bring their pets to his Comprehensive Animal Hospital on Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard on Lansing’s south side — arrived in the U.S. on Thanksgiving Day 1992. From there, the Nigerian veterinarian and his then-wife traveled to Michigan.

Todd Heywood

How come your clients don’t call you Dr. Agbona?

They call me Dr. Bola, because my name is too long, and they can't pronounce it.

What’s your background?

'm from Nigeria. From a small village actually in the central part of Nigeria. I came from a polygamous family. My father had six wives. I'm about the 20th of 21 children.

Why did you enter veterinary medicine?

To be honest, I really don't know. It could be something that is in the subconscious, because my father had a ranch. My father had a cattle ranch. My mom raised goats and chickens.

What brought you to the U.S.?

Well, my ex-wife was born here actually but she had Nigerian parents. Her parents were here when she was born but she grew up in Nigeria and we met and said, "Oh, let's just go to America."

Did you have a plan or was it just, "Let's go to America; let's go have a grand adventure"?

That is one of those things that when you are in Nigeria you just wanted to come to America. If it is, possible every person in Nigeria would want to be in America.

That is the vision. It's almost like the ultimate for them because of movies, what they hear and stuff like that. Life is groovy in America. That is the perception. We were part of that too. We thought we can fulfill the American dream.

Did you originally come to Lansing then when you came here?

We stayed in Cass City with a family of friends of my ex-in-laws.

You do a lot of work with one of the cat rescues.

It's part of giving back, part of just making a little contribution that we can make to society really. If those cats can find homes, loving homes and stuff like that, that’s great. I love animals.

What's the one story you would point to to say, "This is why I keep doing what I keep doing as an emergency vet"?

There's this lady that brought a female cat that got hit by a car. It was breathing really funny. They brought the cat in to be put down. When I did x-rays the cat had what you call a diaphragmatic hernia. There's a form that they sign to give me authority to put the cat down. I just said, "I'm going to give it a shot for the surgery." Luckily, I did the surgery and the surgery was successful. The cat survived. I called them and I told them the story. The lady teaches kindergarten so they wrote, the children, the kindergarten, they wrote a thank you, funny scribbles, all of them and brought it here to give to me to thank me. I said, "Look, that’s my job. I'm a veterinarian." To me, for the most part, it doesn’t even look like work to me. It's just what I love to do.

What would be your message about pets in modern America as an outsider?

Having a pet is a responsibility. It's something that you have to really think about because when it goes beyond the euphoria, then the work just started. Unfortunately, accidents do happen. You have a sick or injured animal, and you don’t have the money to take care of it. That is when people start to do desperate things sometimes, put them down. Is it disposable? You just put him down. People really have to think twice about that. It's a lot of responsibility.

To balance out that responsibility as a pet owner, you're also getting a lot back from it.

It's just like if you want to give back if you love animals so much but you can't afford it, go to the shelter and volunteer once in a while. Wait for that time in which you probably will be in a better position in terms of resources to take care of it.


Debbie Carlos


Debbie Carlos, 37, is a Lansing-based photographer who dabbles in ceramics and jewelry design. She is also, along with local artist Amalia Boukos, cofounder of the pop-up creator’s market River City MRKT.

— Allison Hammerly

How would you describe your own work?

I always find that question to be so hard. It just comes natural. I'm not really trying to make anything that adheres to a certain idea or theme. I just do it because it's instinctual, in a way. I guess it's always a mix of instinctual and informed. To put it simply, it's a lot of nature, a lot of plants, a lot of landscapes. I've also done a lot of domestic scenes.

I guess I would call my work sort of diaristic. Nothing's really set up; nothing's studio. It's always stuff from my everyday life — disparate images that put together create a narrative. That narrative doesn't necessarily have to speak to my life, even though the images are from my life. I hope that the images, or the experience, are universal in a way.

Many aspiring artists are told there’s no money in art and that they should get a “real job.” How did you fight that notion?

Even though I've heard it from other people, nobody's ever said it to me. And I feel like I wanted to be an artist so much that even if somebody did say that to me, I'd be like, “But I love it. Why not?” You’ve just got to do what you love.

How did the River City MRKT come to be?

Amalia and I became friends. She was familiar with my work, and she found out that I moved to Lansing, so she asked to come visit my studio. We kept in contact for about a year and talked about design and found that we had a very similar aesthetic. We lamented that there wasn't really a place for it here in Lansing quite yet, so we thought, “Why don't we just do it?” So we did.

And Lansing's great for it, because things are much more affordable here. It's an easier kind of space, and more people are willing to work with you than in New York, Chicago or L.A. People aren’t as jaded.

You also curate the art shows at Strange Matter Coffee Co. in Lansing. How would you describe the art you bring in?

I try to do stuff that is interesting, but I’m also trying not to show work that’s too political or too pointed. I don't want to show work that would make anybody upset. But I still want it to be interesting so that it could spark conversation.

Are you talking about visual themes in the work? Or is it more of a conceptual thing?

I think it needs to straddle both. I think it needs to be aesthetic and also have interesting ideas behind it. One thing that I've always found insulting is when people describe somebody's artwork as “pretty.” It's neither here nor there. It looks good, but it's sort of flat at the same time. So when I hear people describe a work as "pretty," I'm always like, “That's not a good thing to say.” I'd rather you hate the work than to find it merely pretty.

What artists are you following right now?

My favorite photographer has always been Rinko Kawauchi. She's a Japanese photographer who photographs everyday life in a really beautiful way. Her work can be really emotional for me.

I really love outsider art, or sel-ftaught art. It's a way of working that is so different from mine. It's almost like they don't have the baggage of having art history knowledge. They're just making work because it's so innate within them, getting rid of all this energy. I love how excessive it can be, just full of lines and detail. When I make work, I feel like it's very empty. It's just the opposite of what I do and I love it so much.


Geri Alumit ZeldesDirector of journalism graduate studies at Michigan State University

Geri Alumit Zeldes, Ph.D., 45, is director of journalism graduate studies at MSU, a mother of four and a prolific filmmaker. She has created 13 documentary films, been the executive producer of two radio series and a video series and has been consulted on a comic book. She is work on her most recent film project, “Flint Med,” which follows MSU medical students embedded in Flint. It is slated for release in fall 2018.

— Eve Kucharski

Your work combines journalism and documentary filmmaking. Did you grow up wanting to be a reporter or television broadcaster?

No, I wanted to go to law school. I worked for the Michigan Daily while I was at the University of Michigan, because it was located across the street from my dorm. Reflecting on that experience, I really enjoyed reporting. I went back to Indiana University and got a master’s degree in journalism.

I did feel like this was kind of prophecy for me to become a journalist. My grandmother had always been a great storyteller and I remember her telling me growing up that she really wanted to be a journalist.

Why did you decide to pursue a doctorate degree?

I knew I wanted to do it sometime in my life, but the opportunity came a lot sooner than I thought. I was working at WLNS- TV, and I had applied for a Ph.D. program. I applied late, missed the deadlines. But for some reason Ohio State University and MSU recycled my application and said, “We’d like you to consider a Ph.D. program.”

Do you feel your different cultural background shapes your filmmaking?

Absolutely. I think I have a sense for telling different stories because I’m from a different ethnic group. Not being able to relate to a lot of the stories that I see on TV or read gave me this personal initiative to try and find stories that weren’t covered by other people.

Do you speak Filipino?

No. I tell my mom that I really regret that they didn’t speak to us. They had intentionally decided not to speak with us in the various dialects they spoke, because they wanted us to integrate into the U.S. culture immediately. My three siblings and I, we can understand it but we can’t speak it.

Is inclusivity one of your main drivers when telling a story?

Yes, because those stories are the most interesting. There is a void in the research literature on the stories that I focus on. That’s why I go after them, because there is this gap in history. For example, “That Strange Summer” looked at two Filipino nurses. I was personally motivated, because I wasn’t aware of how the two nurses were convicted of poisoning patients at the VA Hospital in Ann Arbor.

Is there one creative project you’re most proud of?

“The Death of an Imam” I’m really proud of and would like to revisit that story. It was my directorial debut. It was a hard story, about the death of Imam Luqman Ameen Abdullah in Detroit. I was critical of the news media; I was critical of the legal system. I was critical of journalism especially, and I had to keep telling myself, “OK, start interviewing these people, go into these environments where they’re hard, where people are yelling at you, where people were sending you death threats via email.”

How do you juggle family life between being a professor, filmmaking and your other work?

It’s really hard because I experience half a dozen heartaches every single day. I’m always feeling like I’m on the loose, on the run.

I feel deficits all the time from my family. The commute from West Bloomfield does help me. It gives me an hour and 17 minutes to think about how I’m going to make this day great. Then, when I’m done with the day, it gives me an hour and seventeen minutes to prepare for my kids.

Have you ever thought of leaving Michigan to pursue filmmaking elsewhere?

I’ve thought many times about going other places to cover some stories, but truly I have never run out of story ideas that are close by.

You’ve never done a story in the Philippines, but do you think you will one day?

One day for sure. I’ve always felt like there was a story inside of me that I want to write about. One medium that I would like to exercise, one of these days, is to write a book about spooky, crazy, mystical, mythical stories about people from and of the Philippines. That’s definitely on my to-do list.


Farha AbbasiPsychiatrist

Dr. Farha Abbasi is a psychiatrist at Michigan State University. She’s working diligently to create spaces where Muslim people not only can accept, but can openly discuss mental health issues. She’s a frequent guest on Michigan Public Radio’s “Stateside.”

— Todd Heywood

You’re from Pakistan. Tell us a little bit about growing up there.

I'm from Karachi, Pakistan. My father was a politician. Journalism was big in our family. He founded a regional newspaper. Pretty much I grew around two things: journalism and politics. The most interesting thing for me was how I saw my father using it more in social service.

I was in my first year of medical school when the Russian invasion in Afghanistan happened. I saw the country being transformed right in front of my eyes. I think that's where Pakistan's complete culture and lifestyle changed because the refugees were coming in and the border is very poor.

You won by lottery to get your green card. How did you decide: "Well, I'm going to apply.”

Actually my father-in-law applied for us. He was at some shop and saw this lottery thing. He just applied for everyone. We were like, "No way. There's no way we are going.” Then things started changing in Pakistan. The Taliban were then young kids with guns. The only brand of Islam they knew was militant. That started spilling over in Pakistan.

When did the Pakistan you grew up in stop being that Pakistan?

When Musharraf took over. I had three girls. I didn't want them to be raised where they have to be segregated, have to cover their head, or have to have gunmen for their protection, for them to do anything.

I was raised in a family where education was very important. Never in my house was I told, "You are a girl. You cannot do it."

Do you regret not doing journalism?

I always regretted it until I became a psychiatrist. I am pursuing my journalistic instincts and stuff. I really found my passion.

I realized that mental health just does not mean mental illnesses. Mental health also means civic duty, social service, justice, advocacy. To me, all that is now combines as my work under psychiatry.

What is your key memory of 9/11?

I was sitting in front of the TV and I see the towers falling. I'm crying uncontrollably because this is exactly the thing I'm running away from. I remember going to Hiawatha School and the teacher saw me and got up and hugged me and said, "We will get through this." I think that's the moment I felt like I'm an American.

Do you remember the first time you voted in an American election?

I voted for Obama. I think not many Americans realize that when you vote here you are not only impacting America, you are impacting the rest of the world. That, to me, is very humbling and empowering.

What role does your faith play in informing that view of mental health?

I would say I always feel faith is like a knife. If in a surgeon's hand, it can be used to save lives. If in the wrong hands, it can be used to take life, right?

I believe that spirituality, religiosity, spirituality, or whatever you practice, is a very important part of your resilience. I also believe that religion should not be intolerant. Religion should not be used as a war weapon. Religion should not be used as a political tool.

It has everything good, bad, or ugly. One thing is the belief, the faith, and one thing is the people who practice it. That impacts the religion and how we perceive the religion. That deliberately the interpretation of religion has become very patriarchal.

It was a very empowering religion. Unfortunately, most of the cultures that Islam came into was patriarchal societies. I believe if you give men a chance ... .

Tell me about the broader construct of mental health and the work that you're doing there.

What is really shocking is that we are living in the 21st Century and the stigma around mental illness is as deep in America as anywhere else.

When I was seeing the profound work that we are doing, people don't reach their full potential if you are not mentally healthy. I truly believe that. That's the concept that I got from Islam. Until an individual is healthy that individual will not have healthy relationships. It's the same concepts. It's right there in front of our eyes but why aren't we adopting or creating policies to reflect that is my questions.


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