Des Moines Oral History Project
Interviewee: Melanie Patton-Imani
Interviewer: Angela Jacksack
November 19, 2017
Imani: I’ve been thinking of stories that I should tell you. And, so, the story of my coming out. We were at Loring Park, which is where all the gay pride marches ended at that time. And the park was all decorated with pride colors and it was rainbow and everything. My friend was a blonde, blue eyed male, and we were dancing wildly. So we were in a number of media, with being photogenic as we were. And that was the way the thing came up. The newscasters liked that we were adding diversity and they ran with that. It was in a number of papers as well.
Angela: What a way to come out!
A: Alright, I think we’ve touched a little bit in the last interview on what it’s like to be an ethnic minority in Des Moines and I was wondering if you’d talk a little bit about that.
I: You know, I have actually – I have been thinking a lot about that interview. You don’t often get the chance to navel gaze a lot. It was very good for me. I got to put things in a context I had not before and I thought better about my circumstances being here in Des Moines and the trials and tribulations and so, I’m weird. [laughs] So not only am I weird because of my sexuality and gender here in Des Moines, but I’m also weird because of my intelligence. That can either benefit you or hinder you. So being perceived as being weird has been, for me, very isolating. Now, other demographics in Minnesota, with that weirdness I could find my tribe. There were other similarly weird people there. My wife, of course, is one of those weird people, okay? But here, weird people like myself, as I’ve said before, there is no air. We are fish out of water. There is no air. So they leave. So it is extremely difficult because I think, as I have pitched my various plans – I have a nonprofit, Shapeshifter Development, which is dedicated to promotion, education of alternative, bio-based building materials and housing, so. I, as I’ve said, have been in housing. After the market crashed I was kind of struggling around, trying to find my footing. I really loved that [inaudible]. As I shared with you, that was actually the family business. My entire family had been in housing. My great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather’s house is still in the American historical registry, he built that in 1712 and his mill created, essentially, structural, insulated paneled housing that they then shipped out to Europe. So always been in housing. I grew up, the first ten years of my life, in the house my great grandfather, the carpenter, built. And we’ve always been in the same business. So that was an aha moment, going to these places and seeing the family in it. So struggling and finally I took a earthen building course. So cob building, I guess, is the American reiteration of the European version, which ultimately went back to Africa from whence we all came. So earthen housing is popular, it has been in various stages throughout all cultures, and in fact, the majority of the population today, if you look at the world’s population, lives in earthen homes. And there is nothing wrong with an earthen home. Earthen homes are self heating and cooling, readily available, cheap material, the community comes together historically – and the community has traditionally built housing. And so – but I was missing, when the real estate bubble crashed- not just the housing but the community. I was trying to find something that would connect me with people, as well as doing what I love most, and that is creating housing. So I found that in cobb building. So there is – it’s called Cob Cottage Company out of Oregon and this man Ianto Evans, and his wife, Linda, have pioneered Cob building in this country. He is from, I believe, Scotland and he has a series – he has a workshop, he was living in the Hinterlands in Oregon where there are a lot of earthen builders and a lot of women earthen builders. There are a lot of women in earthen building. But he holds workshops and people come from all over the country, learn the skill, and disperse to the corners of the world. And that is what they do, they travel, they have a portable skill and they create community and housing and political engagement everywhere they go. So I took a cob workshop in Santa Cruz four or so years ago and had this epiphany and connected in a whole new way the power, the energy that comes from the earth changed my life. And when I saw how this particular type of housing eliminates housing – the so called housing shortage. The reason I call it the so called housing shortage is because the only reason we have homelessness is because housing is big business. If we took money out of the equation everyone would be housed. Everyone would be fed. We don’t have a hunger issue. What we have is big business, okay. There is abundance everywhere. I love to forage. I can go out anywhere. I can forage and truly support myself and my family. My family has allergies unfortunately. So all the mushrooms I bring home [laughs] the ** and the curly dock and the burdock and – so it’s challenging. But we are living *truly* and eating and if we could refocus our lens – but we’re talking about money and capitalism which America runs on. So there is no shortage of things. [pauses] So what was the question? [laughs] So, that was what I felt was my entrance back into what I perceived to be an environment that was going to be receptive. If only I could kind of tweak myself in a way that I could connect, I could be happy and I could forge the agenda that would create a better world for everybody. But in fact that community does not exist here. And I am still African American, I am still of the same age, I am still of the same gender and orientation and people here cannot get over that. And particularly, I am essentially an outlier. I come from – I am a stranger from a strange land. And people do not [inaudible] here. Those people that do inevitably leave [laughs] Because there is no air.
A: So it sounds a little bit like you find a sense of community in activism and activist works.
I: I have historically, although not exclusively. Now, the community here – I don’t know whether to tell you this story or not. We’ve kind of – do you remember the whole Phyllis and Marla Stevens – Phyllis, what was her last name? She was a descendant of the Jefferson family but – anyway. The pride center, going back probably about twelve, thirteen years or so, was housed, was right downtown, kitty cornered from a sculpture class at that time, and it was bankrolled by these banditos. These women banditos. Who essentially stole from corporations to bankroll the movement. [laughs] Okay. So I’m not going to say anything more than that, but that’s a huge story, they ended up doing some crazy time for that and they’re both out now, but if it were not for them we would not have a organization. Okay. That is an amazing story. But part of their journey was bringing everybody under their [inaudible]. In my experience in kind of talking to people in the community, unless you feel a commitment to diversity it’s not going to materialize. You have to commit to the movement. I feel that people here largely don’t have that commitment – largely, in my experience. Now again, I come from a strange place. If you were born here, for instance, you could probably fit in probably a little more comfortably than I have been able to. There are a lot of church-based, there’s a lot of church-based activism, so people may not be in the churches themselves, but they come together with the understanding that they’re Christian and they’re activists. I am extremely spiritual but that is not something I am. That also is important I think, is that it is extremely Christian. So just, in common conversation, when I was doing some volunteering for Obama, for instance, Christianity came up during in the initial intake. Going for job interviews, Christianity comes up during the initial. I mean, all kinds of laws are broken. So, therein lies my challenge. I come from a very different place. Does that answer your question?
A: Yeah. You also mentioned you don’t feel necessarily visible, like as the mother of your children, or as an individual in Des Moines. Is that something that you’ve experienced in other places, is that just here?
I: I would say that it’s gotten better, because Des Moines is a little ruder than I prefer. People are used to see me as a mother of lighter-skinned ginger children. And then communities of color, black communities have always seen me as being a mother and the whole range of color, the whole color spectrum that exists in our communities. [inaudible] We are the embodiment of something that [trails off]. My family has light blonde people, and they were African-American. The first – so that’s technically a common experience of African Americans, I think. So yes, it is easier in places that have large black populations, like DC or Baltimore. I will be in DC, DC is my mecca. That’s where Sandi is this weekend, she’s having that authentic experience that I wish I was having. About two days ago, she says, “I haven’t talked to a white person in two days!” she’s staying with some friends there and uh, Baltimore- have you been to Baltimore?
A: I have not
I: Okay. Well it’s a largely black, inner city. Which of course complicates things because largely black – [at this point a large group of people stood next to us and talked very loudly and the Imani’s words are inaudible for about 15 seconds]
A: Going back a little e bit in your life, I know we’ve covered until your twenties, and then at your forties, and I was wondering what went on in the middle.
I: Sure! So now, the thirties I was an artist, and doing rather – trying to find my sort of – I did a lot of theater, theater was a very large, supportive community – but the thirties, I mean, it was sort of silly, people in their twenties do what I did in my thirties. I think I was a little delayed because I had so many issues that I was dealing with that it took me a little bit longer to find my place.
I wonder if they’re using this chair.
[Imani asks the woman next to us if she’s using her chair, and we move closer to the fireplace]
Let’s see, so the thirties. Okay now in the thirties we found out we were going to have a child. And my grandmother, she was given three months to live. So I did the dutiful thing, I moved home and took care of her. I put her on a strict vegetarian diet and she lived for another seven years.
I: She died right before the babies were born. So it’s been almost fifteen years. It’s funny though, all the answers , the whole transition of life and death in the two year period. SHe was diagnosed – Lots, lots of change. I guess I’ve deconstructed the status quo, I was kind of without the law, essentially .Life was kind of without [inaudible] Life, so for me, love and connectivity and art and reason and activism and – too much is given – too much is given and too much is expected.
[the next five seconds are inaudible due to another group of people]
A: What was it like, if you don’t mind me asking, when your grandmother passed away? I know she helped raise you.
I: Yeah. She was – it was a two parent household. I’ll tell you, that’s a story about Sandi. Because when Sandi came into my life I knew a big change was coming. I shared with you that I was very afro-centric, so I did a lot of auditing of classes that people taught in Minnesota – took it again, didn’t believe in institutionalized education but craved education. Read everything. You know, it’s like, I collected black revolutionaries and black intellectuals and all of those other folks that were easily accessible to me in Minnesota, which had at that time like a ten percent black population, which I believe which was at that time the smallest black population in the country which made it interesting – but, so, I’m telling you that I had access to all these people so there was this whole black climate that I grew up in, okay? People came to minnesota. So I was very afro-centric but I had a multi-ethnic upbringing, the neighborhood in which I was raised was primarily black people, and we always had white friends, race was never talked about, people were never pointed out as being different, differences were never pointed out. So when Sandi showed up I was like [raises eyebrows] but I was on a different path because I knew that black on black love was revolutionary. So I was terrified and I knew that my life was going to change and in fact my grandmother was diagnosed during that transition. So I knew it was going to happen. Let’s see, three, four years. I met Sandi and we were together for four years before my grandmother died and the fifth year we had children. We bought a house, with my grandmother. But then Sandi got her job in Des Moines and – we bought this house in 2000 [trails off] I don’t know about your experience, but do you have friends who have a number of different celebrations? We have the first date celebration, and then we have the celebration where, in our case, we jumped the broom in Vermont, and then we have the celebration where we were legally wed here because they didn’t a civil union in Des Moines, so we had to be married a few years ago, and that one was [inaudible]. We weren’t going to spend eight thousand dollars to get our children set up for that, we weren’t going to spend that money to be part of the system, but fortunately for us it kind of worked out [laughs] so all that activism, it took a while but it did pay off. But, so the question was about how that affected me so – we were always that couple that was just a little bit more left than our friend circle and – it was a huge change. Before then I had come from a primarily black, afro-centric experience, my friends were asian, Indian- you know, really, truly, it’s hard to talk about ethnicity because I don’t see it. So the thing about my friends, I’m seeing them, but you – you don’t know they’re asian and native american and black, so having that experience, being afro-centric and knowing that they understood my political activism and my brand of ethnicity – so it was different, and I don’t know that it’s, I mean truly, I talk about it being a Greek tragedy, going from this environment to this – going from afro-centrism to an all white – it’s deep, and I will be doing something once I get my head out of the gate. You know right now I’m just very working towards stability – so Sandi has not published in a number of years, we’ve been dealing with a lot of medical issues. My medical issues, I had a crationomy, my son had a crationomy, we had children that needed to be dealt with, Sandi had cancer, and so there has been a lot of [inaudible]. Sandi is doing a lot of visual storytelling right now. Well, Sandi has always been at the back of the camera, behind the microphone, sort of more comfortable there. I’ve been telling her throughout the years our story is important as well. Our story could empower and reach so many, we truly are are at that junction, we had our hands in, we were active in the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the gay movement, nobody that I know here – and now, the Native American movement! So finally, she heard me, okay? Okay, maybe, maybe, you’re right. Maybe our story is worth telling. So now we are engaged in this visual storytelling, she is finishing up her book, [inaudible] it is a lengthy process, but she’s assured me she’s going to be finished by the end of the school term, so I’ve been really trying to hold the family down, let her have her headspace to do her thing. And that is kind of the reality of life. So knowing that I have kind of tabled – always, always kind of I guess having the responsibilities right now- so that is pretty much my experience right now, taking care of the family, of the children. I was just having this conversation with Johnny right now, Johnny had a craniotomy, and he also, like Sandi, is subject to the whims of his diet, so he’s challenged with sugar, and he’s a kid, so he wants to be a kid without without a disability, as results of – hes having a hard time with his grades, with his focusing issues. He’s an athlete as well as a scholar, and he’s very talented, gifted and talented, but not academically. So people reference him as being very smart, but he does not necessarily perform. Pascal for instance, is academically gifted. But Johnny, he just has a very, very hard time focusing, but he isn’t on any drugs. I have ADHD, he has ADHD. Actually so does Pascal. We’ve been tweaking his diet, and he can function, but at this point we don’t want to put him on medication. So it’s been challenging. So, we started them very early on a computer. So, coding, we got Blender, so we did a lot of that as well, and it’s been pretty challenging trying to get them to realize what an opportunity, what a gift it is, that they essentially have that free education. And it is because of that that I was able to, I actually, I developed, I partnered with Iowa State professors, one who was in environmental sciences and one who is an architect, this bio-based stuff, and I developed research on it and we partnered, and ultimately the team fell apart because to people who have real expertise I am a fish out of water. I have to work very closely with academia, but I don’t have the credentials, because I am a non-academic. I can do the work, and people, when I present the work, they see it. But I don’t have the credibility. So I have to step outside of academia to realize the result, and they weren’t willing to. And that’s how that went. I also tried to patent another bio-based insulation material. It’s so fabulous because if you truly enjoy learning it’s a fabulous time to be alive because all the information is out. It’s a fabulous. And the kids are very fortunate, but they don’t care. They don’t appreciate it. [laughs] It’s like, “do you realize that there are people like you who grew up with nothing but a computer and who are doing coding and supporting their families?” because we started them coding when they were like, three or four years old, and Blender was something else. Because I knew that they would have to get into the virtual world. I saw it. I try very hard to get them to be engaged in the creation of that because they need to be engaged. That is your responsibility, as a child of privilege, to make the world a better place than you saw it. There’s this coding camp, used to travel from place to place. And they went, they were there for the weekend, they went Friday morning, and we picked them up on Saturday night, and that’s something I can say about Des Moines. Des Moines is a good place to raise kids. Now, children of color outnumber the white children in the school system, and that is something I’m very pleased with. That’s how we – we started out following [inaudible].
I was trying to remember some stories for you. So Sandi and I got a grant from the national endowment of the arts.
A: The national endowment of the arts?
I: Yes, the national endowment of the arts, the NEA, to do a documentary on lesbian families, okay? And then the world fell apart. So we traveled around the country – we put out the general cattle call for interested individuals or families, and the primary people who responded were women, and that’s how we ultimately ended up looking at lesbian families, and that was fabulous. So we ended up going around the country and talking to a lot of families like ours. And accumulated all of this fabulous data and then were failed by all this medical stuff. So this stuff has been collecting dust for a number of years. And that moment has passed. But, ironically, the struggle continues. We have these voices, we have these people who have been together, assimilated, broken up, so the story continues. So that was part of our activism as well, going around and talking to folks, a lot of of whom were off the beaten path, and making those connections, so that was very, very good. Unfortunately, because of all the medical stuff, people have kind of dropped off the earth, and, like I said, you don’t really have that older generation, that support system, as such. You don’t really have those connections, a lot of us really grew up with that whole community. So, stay tuned, that story, that documentary is coming. It’s a challenge trying to get the kids engaged, because **, Sandi is all about the storytelling. Stay tuned for the documentary! Once she finishes up the book she’s going to go on the job market in the east coast, we’ll get back to the DC area, where she graduated from the University of Maryland. I have relatives there, Sandi’s been hanging out with them for the past two days.
A: Do you think that the digital world, the access to the digital world has affected your ability to find your people or connect to your people?
I: Now, that’s interesting. Because if I did not have that connection, truthfully, I may have left, okay? But because I can get, albeit not quite enough, support online I am able to kind of eke out my existence here. But yeah, if I did not have that visual kind of world I may have left and we may be living in DC right now, so.
A: I have another question, I just –
I: I can just keep talking about this. That’s a fabulous business, it has brought Rock ‘N Roll at our fingertips and brought us closer – and I want to say that, but it is not necessarily true. My experience, and I think the political climate is detailing another reality and that is a reality that has been in existence for a while. I do not understand it but the fact that it exists at the level that it exists at today is – [trails off]
A: How has your view of the LGBT community, how do you see that developing? How has that changed?
I: Well, in the greater GLBT community here, we used to go to a lot of pride celebrations, because that’s sort of how it’s always been. But I stopped going because I could not connect, okay? And that, and with the exception of those bandit moments I have not found connection. So when I look out atht community we have generations that have gone by. And I see that assimilation – that people, are on some level more conversant in the politics and language of diversity in the community. But I also see that there is not as much fervor because the large share of the work has already be done. People are acting complacently, I think. And it’s because of that complacency that we have allowed Trump, okay? [laughs] Okay? I mean truly, that is the backlash of all the advances that we successfully made. All the successful change, and we’ve gotten complacent and then, woke up. I remember going to the first gay march on Washington. And that was, the news wildly underreported the numbers of course, there were probably like six hundred thousand people there. But the energy at that time and in that moment. The people there for the first time in mass and realized that through the sheer numbers “man, we gon’ do this.”. And that kind energy and that kind of activity kind of propelled the movement. Just the visual of the march forward. And then coming to the place – the area on the wall, which was dedicated to the quilt. Now I had jumped into the [inaudible] and I’d done some work on the quilt, which I believe is in the Smithsonian. But anyway, this particular place on the wall and you sort of ran into this wall of emotion. You went through this – it was almost like you step into another country of war, of death, of sadness, loss. And it was more poignant because we realized that these people had not died in vain. It was on their shoulders we were standing. The feeling of this sacrifice and loss, something like your generation has not had.
A: I know you’ve talked a little bit about how you see the community sort of splitting up into different groups and not being able to come together under a common term, how do you think that affects it?
I: L G B T Q I O [laughs]
A: Yeah the longest one I know is LGBTQIA
I: Yeah It’s all part of the process, with assimilation we lose our connectivity. I don’t know, it’’s hard to say, because I am [inaudible] on one hand I think it’s fabulous that we have that luxury and I know it’s because of that comfort level of, we are where we are today, that we are not marginalized like we used to be, though we are still, and that is obviously – it cuts both ways. We lose the **, it’s a luxury, that’s what it is. We don’t have that, we don’t need to have that. Could you still benefit from having that? Maybe, maybe not. Could it be helpful? Yeah, maybe. Is it necessary? No. Are we in a better place? Yes. Ultimately assimilation is a better place to be. The magic – it’s not quite what it used to be. That’s the cost.
A: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about today?
I: Let me think. I had to give you a story, right. We came down here to jump off a gay pride ** a number of years ago. We moved down from Minnesota. It was ironic because this has been probably the least welcoming group. Here’s a story for you. So, Sandi and I had a family membership at the YMCA at the twin cities. So we transferred down here, and Drake pays for percentage of the membership. So we transferred down here and got a family membership. We went down to the Y downtown and I had lost my card. So the membership director was at the desk that day and we told them that we had a family membership. And they went “how do you have a family membership?” So ultimately we were told we could not return to the Y because our family was recognized, despite the fact that we had the family membership. And what we did was go to the Human Rights Commission and we filed a complaint. It took a number of years, but ultimately we were successful in forcing the Y in changing their definition of family to include families like ours, as well as non-traditional households, so households that include parents or grandparents. So when that happened, when we were ultimately successful, did we get any congratulations from the press, the gay press? Did anybody in the gay community say thank you? [shakes head no] We got one phone call. Now, when we traveled, and we’ve paneled at various rainbow, family pride celebrations, we’ve gone to various events. And people loved us, okay? We got the love that we did not get in Des Moines. I do not know why exactly, but I will suggest that it might be because the climate here is not as politically active. That’s my sense. So we do have a couple of high profile community members who have been politically active and visible in the gay community for a number of years. But going back that is my sense. But by and large the majority of folks are [inaudible]. Most of the people who wanted to be active, left. So there’s a good story for you.
A: And, how long ago was that?
I: [laughs] Alrighty then, so, the kids were – so it took, I think, five or six years, and the children were [inaudible] and we had Sharon Molero who was, at that time, heading up the pride centers, she was our attorney. And we had the support of – I’ll tell you. We went to the Human Rights Commission and we were the first – the first LGBTQ family with a viable complaint. And at first the intake people were a little restrained. So there was one guy who had originally – we went through not two, but three intake officers before we finally got one who eventually championed us. So here you have the human rights commission that is entrenched in homophobia. So times I think have changed.
A: Yeah, I hope so.
I: I can’t remember when exactly it was, I’ll have to look up the dates when I get home. I think at least you’ve gotten some good stories.
A: Yeah, some very good stories. So thank, you for your time!