A few days ago I was introduced to a young woman by the name of Heidi Jugenitz. She, I’d been told by a mutual friend, was new in town, and, having read my blog, wanted to ask me a few questions. We talked briefly, and I asked if I could follow up with a few questions of my own for our Ypsi Immigration Interview series… What follows is our unedited conversation.
MARK: Let’s start by talking about growing up, if that’s OK with you… Where were you born, and what kind of kid were you?
In terms of hobbies, I enjoyed music, and I started playing piano recitals at a young age. After watching that episode of the Smurfs where the witch casts a spell that takes music away, I developed an irrational fear of waking up tone-deaf and unable to carry a tune. So basically I was kind of a high-strung kid.
MARK: I was sensitive and timid. Not so much a perfectionist. And irrational fear is something that I’ve had a little experience with… I know this is supposed to be your interview, but sometimes I feel compelled to share… Oh, and I also save what I perceive to be the best bite of food for last… At the risk of turning this into a public therapy session, I’m curious as to how you made the transition from high-strung kid into the adult you are today.
HEIDI: It’s comforting to know I was not alone in my childhood neurosis… For me, managing anxieties and hypersensitivity is an ongoing process. I think the most important part of that process so far has been developing a better awareness of what’s really important to me so that I waste less time and energy sweating the small stuff. I still stress out over trivial things, but when I do it’s usually because I’m not focusing enough attention on the things that matter.
MARK: The childhood neurosis, in my experience, was nothing compared to the adult neurosis which took its place. I can tell you more over beers sometime, but things didn’t really get bad for me until I was about 24. Depression, panic disorder, anxiety disorder. The perfect storm. I’ve found that exercise, vitamins, sunlight, working outside, and keeping super busy help. I’m sure that sleep would help too, but I can’t seem to find the time.
HEIDI: It’s amazing what a difference exercise and vitamin D make. And water. I learned to drink water — proactively, without waiting to feel thirsty — while living in the Sahel, and it’s been life-changing.
MARK: Yeah, my panic definitely gets worse when I’m dehydrated. I can’t give up salty foods, though. I was raised on country ham… Back to you, I want to ask about the time you spent in Africa, but, first, I have one more question about childhood. Did you move around a lot as a kid?
HEIDI: I didn’t move around much as a child. My family lived in the south suburbs of Chicago until I was six, then moved to the western suburbs when my Dad changed jobs. Family vacations were almost always limited to the Midwest, though once we made it as far as South Dakota.
MARK: What was your first favorite book?
MARK: What was it about To Kill a Mockingbird that moved you? I’m curious, for instance, if you saw some of yourself in Scout…
HEIDI: I don’t know if I was as much of a fighter as Scout, but the book’s portrayal of prejudice and injustice spoke to me. I don’t remember talking candidly about either of those themes as a kid, either at school or at home, so the book gave me an opportunity to think through them a bit on my own.
MARK: So, when it was time to head off for college, where did you go, and why did you pick that particular school?
HEIDI: College admissions were sort of a crap shoot for me. I applied to three schools — Taylor University (my mom’s alma mater), the University of Illinois, and Carthage College — and ended up at Carthage, which I had applied to at my dad’s insistence (because they offered early admission). Carthage ended up being a good match for me. Because it was small and not especially competitive, students who were curious and motivated were showered with attention and opportunities. I was able to design my own study abroad program in Ecuador and travel to Vietnam on a faculty-student research grant. I think that if I’d attended a larger or more competitive school, I’d have been lost in the crowd.
MARK: And what brought you to Michigan?
HEIDI: After college, I did a Masters degree at Tulane University in New Orleans, then started a career in the international health and development field. I spent roughly seven years living and working in different parts of Africa (Burkina Faso, Rwanda, Tanzania) before deciding for a variety of reasons that I wanted to return to the U.S. and put down roots here. Not knowing quite how to engineer a transition from international to domestic work, I decided a policy degree would help me re-acclimate to life in the US and open the door to new professional opportunities. (I was also craving intellectual engagement with other humans and thought that a policy program could help satisfy that craving.) I applied to several programs and chose the MPA program at U of M, which I completed in December of 2011.
MARK: So, were you out of the country for most of the Bush years? Did you miss Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, and the subsequent wars? If so, I’m curious as to how it all looked to you from abroad. I imagine it must have been a bit surreal.
HEIDI: I was in New Orleans the night George W. was elected by butterfly ballot as well as the morning of September 11th. I was living in Burkina Faso when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, and in Rwanda when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. I remember feeling very alienated from U.S. policy and government throughout those years. I was in Tanzania during Obama’s campaign and early presidency and — like the majority of the world’s population, I think — experienced a wave of optimism about the future at that time.
MARK: Care to share your thoughts on Obama now?
HEIDI: I voted for him enthusiastically in 2008 and with reservations in 2012. As a self-employed American, I’m thrilled that in a few months I should have better health insurance options than I’ve had previously thanks to the Affordable Care Act. I also think Obama has restored a sense of seriousness and responsibility to the presidency.
As someone who cares deeply about human rights both in the U.S. and abroad, I’m disappointed in some of his policy decisions. I think Obama had an opportunity to stop using our military to project U.S. power (rather than to protect the American people), but passed it up. Many of his economic policies have placed the interests of large financial institutions and corporations above the interests of the middle class and small business. He’s been very silent on poverty in the U.S., as well as on the related issues of racism and segregation.
MARK: You mention that there were a variety of reasons for your wanting to come back to America. Do you care to elaborate on any of them?
HEIDI: On the personal front, a family medical issue came up that made me want to be closer to home. Obama’s election had made the prospect of moving back more welcoming. The financial crisis in the U.S. also reminded me that there was serious pain and suffering back home, and I felt that some of the things I had learned while working abroad could also be relevant in the U.S.. Especially since the austerity policies proliferating in the U.S. today are very similar to the structural adjustment policies that have been imposed on “developing” nations since the 1950s. (Spoiler Alert: They didn’t work out so well for most countries.)
MARK: What do you currently do for a living?
HEIDI: I work as an independent consultant doing program design, management and impact evaluation for public and non-profit organizations. I’m still straddling the divide between international and local work, but I hope that within a few years I will be working exclusively on programs and projects that promote social and economic justice in the greater Detroit area.
MARK: I’m curious as to what kinds of similarities you’re seeing between Detroit and the “developing” nations you’ve done work in. And I don’t ask this as someone who’s looking to daemonize the people of Detroit, who have clearly had the cards stacked against them for the past several decades. I’m genuinely curious to know, though, if, when it comes to public health, safety, education and economic infrastructure, there may be things that we can learn from other countries attempting to pull themselves out of poverty and reverse similar trends.
HEIDI: Of the countries I have worked in, Rwanda probably offers the most compelling example of a government charting a vision for long-term development, making difficult policy decisions that align with that vision, and committing resources accordingly. Interestingly, Rwanda is also the one African country I’ve worked in where the government was not afraid to stand up to external donors. The government wanted things to be done according to its vision and plan. I’m not saying that this independent spirit has always brought about optimal results, nor that national policies have always reflected a concern for human rights, but the government’s ability to resist the low-hanging fruit and outside pressure for the sake of longer-term gains has served it well. I think Detroit as a city should be prioritizing the well being of existing residents over the well being of outside investors or imagined future residents, and I don’t have the sense that this is the case currently.
MARK: I’m not sure if I’ve got this right, but do I understand correctly that, although you bought a house in Ypsi a year or so ago, you just really moved here a month or so ago?
HEIDI: I purchased my home in Ypsi in August of last year — while working on a medium-term consultancy in Cote d’Ivoire — and moved here permanently in May of this year after wrapping up in West Africa.
MARK: Why Ypsi? Was it just affordability and the fact that we sit between Ann Arbor and Detroit, or was there something else?
HEIDI: I was drawn to the openness of the community in Ypsilanti — it has a welcoming feel to it, and not being as saturated or expensive as Ann Arbor, a potential for change and reinvention that I find appealing. I also liked the fact that Ypsi embraces its diversity as an asset and is actively looking for ways to be more inclusive (through its new Master Plan, for instance). Affordability was definitely a factor, as was proximity to Detroit and Detroit Metro Airport.
MARK: Assuming you have aspirations to be involved in the community, what kind of stuff do you see yourself doing?
HEIDI: Broadly, I’m interested in getting involved with organizations and programs that are supporting quality of life improvements and greater economic and social participation for residents of Ypsilanti. One of the things that drew me to Ypsilanti, in addition to its openness and creative pulse, was the important work being done by some of its non-profits. I’m looking forward to learning more about their work and exploring potential collaborations.
I’ve toyed with the idea of opening a small business but am not ready to take the plunge just yet. And I hope to get involved in local decision-making by participating on one or more City commissions.
MARK: Can you give us a hint as to what kind of small business you might be considering?
HEIDI: I have a few ideas, ranging from a French pastry shop (modeled after an amazing one I frequented while in Abidjan) to a DIY-themed store and creation space. But these are still pipe dreams, for the time being.
MARK: In the wake of the Shadow Art Fair, I’ve seriously considered the possibility of a DIY pop-up store. We should talk.
HEIDI: Absolutely. A pop-up seems less intimidating and could be a lot of fun.
MARK: Now that you’ve been here for a while, I’m curious as to your thoughts on Ypsi, and how they may be evolving? Are you realizing things about the community, perhaps, that you hadn’t realized before?
HEIDI: Well, there’s a lot going on here, and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface in a few months. I like the feel of the City and think it’s one of the friendlier places I’ve lived. I also like that it’s fairly diverse.
A couple of issues that are on my radar are public schools and quality jobs. I know Ypsilanti residents rely heavily (and increasingly) on Ann Arbor for both of these, but I don’t think regionalization is a panacea, and I’m hopeful that through forward-looking policies and resource decisions, the City can strengthen both YCS and local enterprise in a sustainable way. It’s challenging to prioritize long-term interests when you feel the noose (in this case the Water Street debt) tightening around your neck, but I think strong schools and good jobs are critical to the future of the City.
MARK: Do you have any questions for me?
HEIDI: I’m curious to know what keeps you and your family in Ypsilanti, how you think Ypsilanti is unique or special (if you do think so), and where you would be living if not in Ypsilanti. Also, I think your blog is highly entertaining and a great community asset, and I’m curious how you fit blogging into your daily routine.
MARK: I thought you’d ask me something like, “Where’s the best Chinese restaurant?”, but I think I can handle this.
Let’s see… Linette and I met in Ypsi, at a bar called Cross Street Station, which has since been condemned. I was playing in a noise band, and she’s the only person we weren’t successful in driving from the room. She and I started talking after the show, and, over time, we began dating. This would have been over 20 years ago, in early ’93, I think. I was just wrapping up at U-M, and she was just finishing at EMU. And that’s when I started spending time in Ypsi. (I lived and worked in Ann Arbor, and had only been to Ypsi about three times before becoming friends with Linette.) And, in May, after only having dated for a few months, we decided to move to Atlanta together. In retrospect, it didn’t make a lot of sense, but it worked for us. We started a zine together and began collaborating on projects. Eventually we came back to Ypsi, so that she could attend grad school. And, I think that’s when I really started to understand and appreciate the community we have here. I was especially fond of Ypsi’s Freighthouse, where I spent many a weekend, talking with other folks from Kentucky – old-timers who moved here during the war, to work at the bomber plant. (I was born in Kentucky, and still have quite a bit of family there.) My memories of sitting around the potbelly stove, and watching old and young people, of all types, dancing together to bluegrass music on cold winter mornings, are among the most cherished that I have. As it worked out, Linette and I left again, for D.C., and then Los Angeles, but I think we always knew that, when it came time to settle down, we’d return. And that’s what we did. When the company I was working for in L.A. went out of business, we moved back, found jobs, got married, and put a downpayment down on a house.
As for why we stay, I’m not sure I can articulate it. I think Ypsi’s the kind of place were a motivated person with ideas can not only contribute, but actually make a difference. While I’m attracted to places like Portland, and find myself, on occasion, feeling pangs of envy directed toward my friends who live there, I think that this is the right place for us. We have friends. We have a network. And, not just a network, but a network of people who can actually make things happen. This is the kind of place where you can suggest ideas… like “Let’s start an art fair that’s more interesting that they one in Ann Arbor,” or “Let’s adopt an acre of Water Street and create a commons full of native plants”… and they’ve actually got a good shot of happening. Not because I make them happen, necessarily. But because there are a lot of great, caring, talented people who want to participate, and make this a better, stronger community. And, the fact of the matter is, there’s not really much of an entrenched power structure here to stand in your way. It’s not like Ann Arbor, where there are arts commissions, and clearly defined hierarchies. Sure, there are some turf issues, but, for the most part, people are just happy to have people doing constructive things. And, it’s also worth noting that Ypsi has a long, rich tradition when it comes to innovation, entrepreneurship and boundary pushing. Preston Tucker, Iggy Pop, Winsor McCay and Elijah McCoy all called Ypsi home. That’s an amazing tradition of visionary iconoclasts. And that really resonates with me.
So, while there’s a temptation to go somewhere where things are already “working,” I think I’d prefer to be somewhere like Ypsi, where there’s still work to be done, and you can see that you’ve got a decent shot of making progress. We have everything we need to be successful. We’ve got a bright, creative, community-minded population. We’ve got incredible parks, a decent historic building stock and ample natural resources. There’s no reason why we can’t create jobs, fill our storefronts, attract new residents, fix our schools, increase our self-sufficiency, etc. I’m confident that we can do it. It’s just a matter of putting the pieces together in the right order.
And, it’s probably worth noting that it helps to have Ann Arbor seven miles away, with its museums, theaters, and jobs. As much as people, myself included, complain about Ann Arbor, and what’s it’s become, Ypsi wouldn’t be nearly as attractive, at least to me, without it to our west.
As for how I manage to get stuff done, I blame the OCD. If I don’t stay busy, I tend to ruminate on things to the point of paralysis. I’d much rather keep working. So, once the kids have been put to bed, I get to work. I probably put in about three hours an evening on the blog. I don’t watch TV. I don’t read. This is what I do. And I’ve always been that way. Before the blog, I used to make art obsessively. I need something to fill my time. I need to have someplace to channel my OCD. And this is something that I actually feel good about. (It’s better that checking locks on doorknobs for hours on end.) I feel like I’m contributing. Which is important to me. I know it’s probably unhealthy, but I have this belief that I need to justify the time that I’ve spent here on earth, like I need to make it count, if only in some trivial way. Maybe I inherited that from my more religious ancestors, or maybe it was just beaten into me as an Eagle Scout, but I have this voice in the back of my head that’s always demanding that I do more. It’s weird. And, as I mentioned before, probably not altogether healthy. It’s just the way I’m wired. Maybe it’s insecurity… a need to feel appreciated. I think, more than that, though, it’s a sense that we’re only on this planet for a very short while, and it’s incumbent upon us to do something with that time.
Sorry to ruin your Immigration Interview with my neurosis.
HEIDI: I’d still be interested in your thoughts on the best Chinese restaurant, but I like what you have to say about having a decent shot at progress and success here. That was my (hopeful) perception as an outsider before I moved here, and it has been affirmed many times over in the past months.
[If you enjoyed this discussion with Heidi, be sure to check out other Ypsi Immigration Interviews.]