Portrait: Afrika Graves
Part of Eli’s focus on our community is paying attention to the people in it: Not just those in positions of power who make decisions that affect us all. Not just those whose actions draw attention to themselves or their causes, but to the people whose presence become part of the fabric of a community. In this series, Eli highlights people in East Lansing who contribute to the “good life” to our community in every day ways.
“I have something to say about Afrika,” said Ian Tinnin, who works in the City of East Lansing Parking Department. “She likes to be called TeeAnn. And she’s a sweetheart.”
Afrika Graves laughed when asked about her name. “People at work and from school call me Afrika. My family and friends call me TeeAnn.” For Graves, however, the line between family and work is blurry. For a woman with two jobs, that means a lot of potential family.
She works full-time at Quality Dairy, on E. Grand River in East Lansing. “Working at QD is like family. My coworkers are like family. We pitch in and bring in food for each other during game days. We call and check in on each other when someone goes to a different store.” For her coworkers, Graves can be both friend and family. Tony Molhock, network specialist for the City of East Lansing Parking Department, sees her each morning as he gets his coffee at QD, and then again later at her second job: as a part-time parking lot attendant for the City of East Lansing. “I know her mom and her sister too!” Molhock said, laughing.
“I haven’t had a day off in almost three months,” Graves said. She does it, in part, out of loyalty to her boss, George, at QD, of whom she said, “I couldn’t ask for a better boss. He’d be in a bind if I couldn’t work, since we’re short staffed.” And she picks up as many shifts as she can for the City of East Lansing Parking Department, as well. Tom Fleury, Assistant Parking Administrator for the City of East Lansing, spoke highly of Graves. “She’s an exceptional employee. She’s fun. She’s fantastic with customers, and a very hard worker. A great person, all around.”
Working that many hours means a lot of customers to take care of. “Some people come in just to talk. I look out for Willie. He calls me family, since I’m cousins with his daughter,” she says of Wilson Brown, known to many in East Lansing as Willie the Can Man. She added, “Customers tell me what’s going on in their lives. They tell me when they’re going on vacation so that I don’t save a donut for them.”
Dale Springer, an East Lansing resident for “about 30 years,” is one customer who is like family to Graves. “He comes in every morning for a 16 oz coffee and a peanut donut. And then comes again in the afternoon for a Big Dip Feature Flavor.” Springer said “I enjoy talking to her,” and he said that when his daughter comes home for a visit, he wants to introduce her to Afrika. “I consider her a friend,” he said.
Though both of her employers benefit from Graves’s hard work and long hours, she too, prefers working. “I like to be around people,” Graves said. “I don’t have to think about things. This is my way of not sitting at home, weeping and crying.”
Few would blame her if she did. Just before Christmas in 2010, her then fifteen-year-old son Wesley was killed by a nineteen-year-old acquaintance, who is currently in prison for the crime. “It was an accident,” she said. “But that boy was out on probation and wasn’t supposed to be around guns.” She shook her head.
Her younger son struggled after Wesley’s death. “They were so close, and Wesley watched him a lot while I was at work. When Wesley passed away, he lost a brother, but also a friend and a father-figure.” The twelve-year-old started being late for school, and eventually got in trouble for truancy and petty crimes. Graves worked with a probation officer she knew to get help for her young son before the legal process got ahold him, eventually finding him a “boot camp-like” school in PA, where he goes to “a regular school but with a lot of rules” and plays sports. “I already lost one son. I wasn’t going to lose another,” she added.
Her son is thriving: He has a 4.0 GPA at school and already has two college scholarship offers for athletics. “I want him do what his brother set out to do: to graduate, succeed in life. Be a leader, be responsible, finish college. He’s come a long way already, but that would make his brother happy. It makes me feel proud,” said Graves. Graves is set to be married next year, adding two teenaged stepchildren to her family.
Graves appreciates and defends all of her customers. “It can be good and it can be bad” to be around so many students, especially at night and on the weekends. “Sometimes they cuss us out because we have to see everybody’s IDs, but then they always say, ‘Go green!’ and we say ‘go white!’ I guess we can’t please everybody!” That doesn’t mean that Graves won’t try. “We say customer service plus one. I like to go that extra step to help someone if they need it, maybe they’ll pass it along for someone else.”
Springer said this quality stands out to him. “She recognizes people who need a break. Consistent with her job responsibilities, of course, but she always tries to help people out.” Working at a high-volume store with a busy mix of MSU students and others in the community, that means Graves sees people at their best and their worst. Springer said that even when she has to decline to sell to someone who is inebriated, “She’s always friendly. She always greets people even if she doesn’t know them, and sets a really good tone for the store.”
I asked her what made her successful at work. “I’m nice, outgoing, and I am easy to get along with. I just like to take care of my family—my home family and my work family.” For her loyal customers at QD and in the City of East Lansing, it’s easy to feel like family around Graves. To that, she’d say, “Thank you, baby.”