While I’d talked with Ypsi High art teacher Lynne Settles a few times over this past year, about the HP Jacobs mural that she and her students had created on the side of Currie’s barbershop, and other community art related things, I didn’t realize until a few weeks ago that she was actually a relatively new transplant to Ypsilanti. Well, upon finding that out, I asked if she’d be willing to sit down for a formal immigration interview. Fortunately, she agreed. Here are the results.
[above: Photo of Settles from episode 32 of the Saturday Six Pack. Image courtesy of Kate de Fuccio.]
MARK: Do you know the circumstances of your birth?
LYNNE: I know that I was sort of a sickly baby. I was preemie, and had asthma.
MARK: How premature were you?
LYNNE: I was born two months premature.
MARK: Did you have any siblings?
LYNNE: Yes, I now have one brother, and two sisters.
MARK: Are you the oldest, youngest, or somewhere in the middle?
LYNNE: There were five of us. I had an older brother who passed away about three years ago. So now I have two older sisters. One is in Michigan, and one in California. I also have a younger brother in Colorado.
LYNNE: I was always the creative one. I was my mom’s helper in decorating during the holiday season.
MARK: Where were you born?
LYNNE: Pontiac, Michigan.
MARK: How are you most like your parents?
LYNNE: I relate to children easily, like my dad. Kids from the neighborhood would come over to our house just to see my dad. And I’m probably most like my mother in that she always seem to have a project that she was working on. She was either decorating our home, or doing something for the Sunday school class which she taught…. She wanted to be public school teacher, but couldn’t.
MARK: Why couldn’t she become a teacher?
LYNNE: My mother is 92 years old. When she was 13, her mother passed away. Being the oldest child in the family, it was her job to help raise her siblings. Also, as she was living in the south at that time (Tennessee), I’m sure it wouldn’t have been either encouraged or supported, given that she was an African American female.
MARK: What’s the best advice that your mother ever gave you?
LYNNE: Treat people the way you want to be treated and the way you want people to treat your children… because what goes around, comes back around to you or yours.
MARK: What was it about your dad that made the kids in the neighborhood seek him out?
LYNNE: I think it’s because he was friendly, easy to talk to, and funny. And there was no judgement. I know that’s what I liked… besides him being my superhero.
LYNNE: Both of my parents came to Detroit for work. My father came up from Baton Rouge, Louisiana to work at General Motors. And my mother came up from Tennessee.
MARK: How did your father get the job at GM? Did he have friends from Baton Rouge that had already made the trip north and found work here?
LYNNE: Yes, he had friends who had come before.
MARK: How did your mother and father meet?
LYNNE: My mother’s cousin set them up.
MARK: Did your parents talk with you about their decisions to move north? I’ve read about the Great Migration, during which an estimated 6 million African Americans left the rural south to make lives in the north, but I don’t recall ever having spoken with anyone about having made that journey, and I’m curious to know how easy or difficult of a decision it was…
LYNNE: They never really spoke to me much about that. What they did say was people came up in groups and stayed with people who had already made the move… family and friends.
MARK: I asked earlier how your were most like your parents… How are you least like then?
LYNNE: My parents are from a generation that didn’t share their life stories openly. They kept a lot to themselves. Me, I have no problems sharing, hoping it will help someone else.
MARK: What is it about yourself that you find yourself sharing most often?
LYNNE: When people find out that I’m an art teacher, they want to know if I create my own art. And they’ll ask what type of art I like. In the last five years, I haven’t really done anything of my own, though. I’m always creating, making things for my students, our home, our friends, but it’s been awhile since I’ve made art. I use to, but it became difficult to keep it up while teaching. For me to create art, not only do I need the space, time but also the peace of mind. I used to try during Summer breaks, but it just wasn’t enough time, especially with all of the other family things.
LYNNE: I like to create 3-dimensional art, so I worked in sculpture and ceramics.
MARK: What kind of kid were you?
LYNNE: I was quiet, shy and creative.
MARK: What form did your creativity take as a child?
LYNNE: LIke I said before, I had asthma as a child, so there were days when I couldn’t go out and play. So I would sit in the house and make dolls. I’d make them from almost anything that I could find.
MARK: Do you still have any of the dolls?
LYNNE: No, my mother kept them for a while, but got rid of them when I moved out to go to college.
MARK: Do you remember any of the dolls specifically? Can you describe one of them to us?
LYNNE: Their bodies and hair were made out of either masking tape, newspaper, or tissue paper. I would draw the faces on, and details of the clothes.
MARK: What was the best meal you ever ate?
LYNNE: Wow, I’m now sure. I like food.
MARK: OK, if not the “best” meal, can you tell us about a memorable meal in your past?
LYNNE: When I was in college, my husband at the time and I had the privilege to have lunch in New York City with Maulana Karenga, the founder of the African centered holiday “Kwanzaa.” The holiday, if you’re unfamiliar with it, focuses on seven principles to live your life by… Two of them are Nia and Imani. And we had named our oldest daughter Nia Imani.
MARK: What do you remember of your lunch with Dr. Karenga?
LYNNE: The three of us spoke about education, and the work that we were doing in the community. Most of the conversation was between my then husband and Dr. Karenga. He congratulated my husband on earning his PhD, and, then, together, we let him know that we had named our oldest daughter after two of the principles of Kwanzaa. He was honored, and told us to keep up the good work.
MARK: Where did you go to college?
LYNNE: Howard University.
MARK: What made you choose Howard?
LYNNE: I choose Washington D.C. first, then Howard. And I chose both for the same reason. I read that both were good for African Americans.
MARK: What was your experience as a young African American woman growing up in Michigan?
LYNNE: My parents tried to shielded us from a lot, and they did. My childhood was good. I had what I needed, and we got to do special things, like take trips. I remember some racist moments that I didn’t quite understand fully then…
While driving down south with my parents, I remember us wanting to stop and go to the restroom, and my dad saying that we couldn’t stop at a certain one because it was “for whites only”.
In school, I wanted to wear my hair in an afro, and my mother said that I couldn’t, because she was afraid that I would get hurt.
I also remember my best friend, who was a white girl, and I were going to get an apartment together. It was perfect for our budget, and we liked the location and everything, but they turned us down because I was black. I was really shocked.
MARK: Were you politically active as a young woman? And, if so, do you remember the moment when you decided to get involved?
LYNNE: I was never really political. I was more social, trying to do things in the community, like I am now, to help children move forward using art.
MARK: What do you think of the current conversations on race that are taking place in America? Are you at all encouraged?
LYNNE: I think that we’ve made a lot of progress, but we still have a long way to go. We’re living in a very historical period. That is scary, yet necessary. I believe what Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “No one is free until we all are free.”
MARK: What brought you to Ypsi?
LYNNE: A teaching job. Plus my husband already worked in Ann Arbor.
MARK: And you teach at Ypsi High, correct?
LYNNE: Yes, I’m the art teacher.
MARK: Where did you move to Ypsilanti from?
LYNNE: Westland, Michigan.
MARK: How does Ypsi compare to Westland?
LYNNE: I like Westland, but they don’t have a downtown. I like small town downtowns.
LYNNE: Not a lot. I knew that Eastern Michigan University was here, but that’s about it. I’d never been here. I’d just passed through.
MARK: Did you visit before deciding to move here? Did you consider living in other communities in the area?
LYNNE: I did visit. We drove around, checked out neighbourhoods, went downtown. I liked the historical characteristics and cultural diversity.
MARK: Why did you decide to become a teacher?
LYNNE: While in school, my counselor told me I should major in art education… that way I’d always have a job. So that’s what I did. I was offered a job teaching elementary art, and I enjoyed it, so I stayed… I really wanted to work in the education department of a museum, though.
MARK: I’m sure it seemed like you’d “always have a job” at the time, but we’ve seen a number of districts slashing their art budgets these past several years, which, I think we probably agree, is incredibly shortsighted…
LYNNE: All children need art. It’s not about trying to make them artists. The value goes beyond that.
MARK: Any regrets about not pursuing museum work?
LYNNE: No regrets. I like getting to know the students and their families.
MARK: How has the teaching profession changed since you first started your career?
LYNNE: Wow. There have been a lot of changes; the way students behave in the classroom, parent involvement, workload… We do so much more paperwork, and there’s less time for teaching. And we have more students in the classroom. Overall there are just more responsibilities.
MARK: What’s changed about student behavior, and what do you attribute it to?
LYNNE: Morals and values have changed in society. Many value things more than people now… That’s just my opinion.
MARK: How, in your opinion, do we go about changing that?
LYNNE: I really don’t know. We have to do some re-education, but that’s going to be hard when so much that we see around us tells us different. As a teacher, I can tell them one thing, and they walk right outside of school, and it’s different.
MARK: I met you several months ago, when you were working on the HP Jacobs mural with your students. Was that the first mural you’d ever worked on with students?
LYNNE: Yes, it was the first one I’ve done out in the community. I did a mural of my own years ago, though. And I’d done one at another school with students, but that one wasn’t in the community. It was in the school.
MARK: How did you come to know local historian Matt Siegfried, and how did that first mural come about?
LYNNE: Being new to Ypsilanti, I wanted to learn more. The students told me that there was no history here that related to them. I knew that couldn’t be true. So, while on the internet, I found out about a lecture being given by Matt on the subject of local African-American history. I decided to go. I learned a lot during that first lecture, and, when he later offered a walking tout, I went on that as well. During that tour, someone in the group asked Matt what else would he’d like to do with all of this information. And he said, “I’d like to see murals about this history.” Well, I mentioned that I was an art teacher at the high school, and that’s how it all started. We started meeting and planning. I eventually introduced the project to the students, and Matt came in and taught them the history. And, because it was just too much for me to do alone, given my classroom commitments, we brought in another artist, Doug Jones. Because he had worked with some of the students before, and had a background in working with art on the community level, it was a perfect fit. Then, as a group, we decided on the first theme based upon what Matt had taught us. [below: Ypsi’s new HP Jacobs mural.]
MARK: Did I hear correctly that a new mural might be in the works?
LYNNE: Yes, since the completion of the last mural, we’ve had such a positive response from the community that we’ve had several location offers and theme suggestions. The students have begun to organize themselves, and that’s exactly what we wanted them to do. They’ve really taken ownership of it…. It’s our goal to do at least three. Our plans are to work on the next one inside, over this winter months, and then mount it in the spring. And we’d like to do the third one like we did the HP Jacob’s mural, painting it outside.
MARK: And did I hear that you’ve begun fundraising?
LYNNE: Yes, we’ve set up a Gofundme page for donations. Laura Bien, who took videos and photos of our last mural, made a promotional fundraising video for us. You can see it on YouTube. [The video is embedded at the bottom of this page.]
MARK: What would you like to accomplish in the next five years?
LYNNE: I’m not totally sure, but I like the direction in which my life is moving now… working with youth, creating art in the community. Maybe it’s because I am getting older, but I feel like I’m moving into a role that’s more behind the scenes, and I’m liking that.
MARK: When we talked on the radio show, you were incredibly enthusiastic about the students you’ve been working with in Ypsi. What is it about the kids in your classes at Ypsi High that you like?
LYNNE: I really like working with teenagers, and I’m happy to be working with this group. They’re considered underdogs, and that makes me want to work harder for them. I want to help build them up, and remind them that they matter, and that they can be successful. That was my motivation in starting the mural project. And it’s still my motivation… I was so pleased, and just very emotional, over the way you and so many others of the community turned out in support of them at the unveiling. That show of love and support is what has them organizing themselves now. It’s my belief that, “When you feel good about yourself, you do good”.
[Still wondering why people are moving to Ypsi? Check out the Ypsilanti Immigration Interview archive.]