MSU Alumni Magazine - Spring 2017 Digital

Spartan Profiles

2017-04-20 10:45:52

JONATHAN KIRKLAND: SINGING, TEACHING, INSPIRING IN HAMILTON Even in his heyday, it’s unlikely George Washington ever entertained crowds like his contemporary counterpart is doing now on a Chicago stage. This younger version of the United States’ first president is not like the guy pictured on our dollar bill. He’s 6 feet 4 inches, rocks a buzz cut and sports a dark goatee. His name is Jonathan Kirkland. A former basketball player with the voice of an opera singer, Kirkland is starring in Lin- Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical. The production is a much decorated hiphop infused Broadway hit. And with a cast of black and Latino actors playing America’s founding fathers, in a story that often omits the struggles faced by people of color, it feels groundbreaking. “This is arguably the biggest musical in American history and they chose me to bring this role to life,” said Kirkland with a youthful dose of disbelief. Yet he started his climb for just such a role as a music performance major—despite a tantalizing opportunity to try out for the Spartan men’s basketball team. Plan B, he said, was teaching. Like most of those who make it, he worked his way to the top playing smaller roles. “I was onstage with major Broadway veterans, Tony winners, Emmy winners, and Grammy winners. If ever there was a moment that gave me confidence I was on the right path…that was it,” he said in a recent phone interview. And he hopes he can inspire minority performers of all ages. Last winter, he and his fellow actors had just such a chance. They invited high schoolers from Chicago Public Schools to a special matinee performance. The teenagers had been preparing for the occasion, writing historical raps, songs, and spoken word pieces of their own. What’s more, they bravely took their creations to the stage. The professionals had front row seats, and it was their turn to be awestruck. “Their talent was mind-blowing,” said Kirkland, “…they’re standing up there onstage in front of everyone and they’re just going for it.” It was one of those rare experiences in which originality, creativity, and inspiration flowed both ways, he said. “I had to see men who looked like me, singing the way I sing, and doing the things that I thought were cool in order for me to believe it was possible,” he said. “Our cast is so diverse (that) for young kids of color to watch a performance onstage where everybody looks like them? That’s a rare opportunity,” Kirkland said. He hopes it’s one of many more to come. ~Devon Barrett, ’11 DEBRA LEVANTROSSER: LIVING ‘TINY’ IN SPARTY’S CABIN For MSU students, building the tiny house known as Sparty’s Cabin was a lesson in collaboration and green ingenuity. For Debra Levantrosser, buying that house was a full-circle moment that brought together her work, values, and personal life. Levantrosser has spent more than 23 years focused on minimalism and positive change, through a career implementing “lean manufacturing” principles for major corporations, teaching the subject at the University of Michigan, and running a vegan food truck called Shimmy Shack. She is also the co-founder of the Michigan Lean Consortium and founder of Arbed Solutions, a business consulting company focused on change. “The very essence of lean is to reduce waste while improving quality, reducing cost, and shortening lead time,” she said. “It is time I take these principles even more seriously by living small and, maybe, tiny. I don’t really need all the things I have.” While she’d already downsized from a 6,000-square-foot home to a 3,000-square-foot place in South Lyon, she had been thinking about going smaller. She realized that she could go tiny after staying in a nook-sized room at a bed-and-breakfast in Kingston, New York. “I have stayed at hundreds of hotels around the world and never had I slept so well as at Church des Artistes.” Levantrosser visited Austin, Texas, and Portland, Oregon, to check out some tiny houses for sale and returned to Michigan ready to buy one. Then she heard about Sparty’s Cabin. The 177-square-foot, two-story house on wheels was the brainchild of a group of energetic students with a passion for sustainability and an interest in the tiny house movement, the architectural and cultural trend of building homes smaller than 500 square feet to conserve resources. The cabin was constructed over six weeks last spring with the help of more than 100 people from across campus and the surrounding community. The project incorporated a variety of recycled, reclaimed, and repurposed materials, including lumber salvaged from trees that had lived on campus. Other materials were selected for their sustainable qualities, including double-pane windows, recycled newspaper insulation, and a composting toilet. The structure also has traditional hook-ups for sewer, water, and electricity. Levantrosser instantly knew she wanted to bid on the cabin. To her, it was the perfect combination of sustainable living, student involvement, determination, and Spartan ambition. “It was the story behind it that made me want to bid on it,” she said at a key-passing ceremony January 6. “I’m a university instructor, so I know that it’s the students who have the best ideas.” Levantrosser, who has lived on three continents and worked in more than 50 countries, said she plans to buy property and move into the home with her three big dogs. She’ll probably add a garage for her car and extra storage. “I’m excited. It’s an adventure! Th at’s how I’m looking at it,” she said. “Life is not just about stuff , it’s about experiences.” ~ Nancy Nilles and Kirk Mason Sparty’s Cabin blog: spartyscabin.weebly.com/blog BEN HARTNELL: INSPIRING THE NEXT GENERATION OF POLITICALLY ACTIVE CITIZENS Talking about American democracy has never been a passive act for Ohio high school teacher Ben Hartnell. He takes history seriously. In 2016, he tried to make history himself by running for U.S. president as an official write-in candidate in 25 states. Hartnell surprised himself, and his students, when what started as a teachable moment became a grassroots movement. Once results were tallied, he’d earned more than 720 popular votes with just a $300 budget. He had a running mate, a slogan (“Elect the Beard”), and a website. He used electthebeard.com to post public polls on a variety of issues, then used the results to create his platform—and to foster class discussions. Support for the bearded teacher swelled as word spread through local news stories and social media sharing. Fellow educators used his campaign to start dialogue in their own classrooms. While many Americans felt disengaged by negativity during the election, the students of Westerville North High School outside Columbus—and many people in the community—became enthralled by learning about the process and seeing the power of their fellow citizens firsthand. Hartnell said he hopes the experience will inspire some students to go into public office, or at least show them that everyone— not just those at the top of the two major parties—can make an impact. “At what point did we stop believing that a local person could run for president?” he said. And why do some states continue to prohibit write-in candidates, he has asked. The question spurred a Hartnell supporter in South Carolina to rally her local lawmakers. And now the judiciary committee there is going to begin the process of repealing the 50-year-old law. A classroom campaign and a single supporter could overturn a state law. Think about that, he tells his students. “Your voice does matter. You are the next wave to become politically active,” he said. “If we want things to change, it has to start with you.” At Westerville North, where he’s worked for 16 years, Hartnell wears a costume almost every day. He starts each class by projecting custom “This Day in History” slides on his wall, and he runs elaborate re-enactment activities, from the Civil War Water Balloon Battle to the “horrific medieval torture lecture.” The colorful theatrics are just the bait, he said, to capture the imagination of teenagers. “The goal is not just to get them pumped up about history but to show them, whatever you end up doing in life, be passionate about it and come to work ready to do it,” said Hartnell, a graduate of the MSU Teacher Preparation Program. He borrowed his class motto, Chase It, from the Spartan football team and many of his classroom antics from his former MSU mentor teacher, Jerry Gillett. “I try to show my students that everything is a very powerful story, and that their story in high school creates one big fabric that is the American story.” ~Nicole Geary, ’03

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