So a podcaster, a poet, a public servant, a chef, a diversity officer, an artist, rabbi, a township clerk, the owner of a community hub and the director of a women’s center walk into a room ...
But not the same room, and not at the same time. After all, this is January 2021, and City Pulse’s annual People Issue had to go completely virtual, like everything else.
At the start of each year, we pluck a bouquet of 10 people who inspire us, pique our curiosity, reflect our diversity, and give us a window into our neighbors’ lives, passions and struggles.
They are not necessarily the most newsworthy, prominent or influential people of the year, as other lists would have it, but they make for an interesting virtual dinner party.
Some of them, like octogenarian Lansing public servant Willard Walker, have lived in Lansing for decades; others are relative newcomers who are quickly making their mark on the city.
They are from all over the country and the world, and they bring their diverse life experience to their day-to-day life in Lansing. Walker is from Alabama. Chef John Aste grew up in Miami. Poet Chana Kraus-Friedberg grew up in Brooklyn. Guadalupe Ayala, Lansing’s first diversity and inclusion officer, grew up in El Salvador. Rabbi Amy Bigman was born in Chicago and raised in Detroit.
With such different backgrounds, life stories and cultural touchstones, this group resists generalizations. However, one thing you can say about this bunch is that all help to weave, and are woven into, an ever-evolving tapestry of community life. Chef Jose Aste named his food operation Tantay, a word from the native language of the Incas that means “to bring people together.” Melina Brann got help from the Women’s Center three years ago, when she was new to town and struggling through a divorce. Three years later, as the nonprofit’s director, she helps other women deal with employment challenges and domestic abuse. After discovering art late in life, artist Bob Rose found his passion creating and discovering art in public places, even in 100-year-old sewer designs.
Jerry Norris passed up more profitable business opportunities to be the founder and owner of The Fledge, a community center, charity hub and performance space for young artists. His motto: “Genius is lost in poverty.”
“There’s so many people living in poverty in Lansing,” Norris tells us. “So, why would I move anywhere else and do something else? Why would I start another business to try to hoard wealth, when I could do something that had more meaning? “
It’s also pretty obvious that all these people are do-gooders of the sort that H.L. Mencken referred to, with acid humor, as “uplifters.”
And what the hell is so funny about uplifting?
“When you center experiences of some of the most marginalized people, that’s when you really lift up everyone,” podcaster Cameo King tells us
Fight it all you want, but this group’s passion for whatever it is they do has a way of sticking to you, like glitter. Amy Bigman, the rabbi, goes around the house all week singing the Bible verse she uses to start her service. Aste isn’t happy until he’s up to his neck in Peruvian cuisine and dreams of turning his kitchen into a community hub. King, the podcaster, becomes a different person — she calls it her “full version” — when she serves up raw truth in her “Good Girl Podcast.”
Even Meridian Township Clerk Debbie Guthrie, charged up by her background as an athlete and sports broadcaster, wakes up in the morning obsessing about — wait for it — her 10-step plan for processing FOIA requests. “I can’t wait to get to work and write it down and share it,” she enthuses.
In the face of such “grit, glam and guts” (the name of King’s nonprofit dedicated to uplifting young women) there is no choice but to submit — and learn.
One thing you won’t find much of in these interviews is a morbid fixation on what a horrible year 2020 was. Of course, some of our featured people talk about the pandemic’s effects on their lives and interests. Poet Chana Kraus-Friedberg notes a resurgence of poetry in a year of isolation and strong emotions. But for the most part, the focus is on the future.
A special nod goes to our annual People Issue photographer, Khalid Ibrahim of Eat Pomegranate Photography. Ibrahim’s emotional insight, keen eye and technical mastery have helped him capture the personalities of our People Issue subjects for years, but this year threw a big curveball at him. Thanks to digital wizardry, on top of his aforementioned skills, Ibrahim was able to work his usual magic without enjoying the basic connection of being in the same room as his subjects. (Like Waldo, look for Ibrahim in each photo.) We hope such technical gymnastics won’t be needed next year, but if we can learn anything from Ibrahim’s work, and the words of the people on the following pages, it’s that there are all kinds of ways to weave a community tapestry.