TEACHER FEATURE: Jeana-Dee Allen and her creative endeavors 

Liz Nass

EAST LANSING – While Jeana Dee Allen is well-known around the Michigan State and ComArtSci community as the professor of CAS 110: Creative Thinking, a class on integrating divergent thinking into problem solving and project design, her life experiences are just as unique as the ideas produced by her students. 


Allen has had many professions and hobbies including theater owner, performer, journalist, boxer, visual storyteller, academic specialist, political advocate and of course, teacher. However, she does not limit herself to one thing, trying her hand at every art form and exploring the opportunities around her, finding artistic passion from many outlets. She has enacted change not only around the university, but the entire community. 


Right out of college, Allen began a mission to make the community a better place for expressionists and creative minds. Ten years ago, she partnered with Reach Studio Arts Center in Lansing to create “free walls” out of local private and public exterior walls. Free walls are spaces where graffiti and urban artists can create their art form for the public and have legal immunity that other graffiti artists would have to worry about when painting on public walls. 


“I believed that this was necessary in our community, and surprisingly, everyone was receptive to the idea,” said Allen.


Allen found there were less roadblocks and bureaucracy that she had imagined there would be. Many Lansing politicians were on the side of Allen and her team, paving the way for them. Allen stated that once one politician was interested in the project, the others fell in line and were looking for a positive change in their community as well. 


“I approached it with an easy and straight line thinking process, but it was still a rollercoaster.” She said that she believed her real purpose was to plant a seed for potential in the project. 


“I did basic paperwork and started conversations, which was really the beginning of what we dreamed of it to be. Once the artist community got ahold of it is when it blossomed,” Allen shared. 


From this new law, a citywide mural festival began in the Lansing area where even international artists congregated to share and celebrate their art. 


“They took our vision and expanded on it. They dreamed better than we ever could have,” Allen said. 


Allen continues her activism for the arts by staying active in this effort. However, visual art is not the only form of art Jeana-Dee has been active in. For ten years with a group of 18 people, Allen performed with a vaudeville performance group. 


“Vaudeville means ‘voice of the city’ in French, meaning that it’s everyone sharing their talents, even if they may not be the best, but it’s everyone trying out what they’re passionate about.” She said, “If someone is excited about something, it will likely be contagious, so vaudeville was born.” 


The group held the mindset that they didn’t see it anywhere else, so they should make it, inspiring others to join or watch their bizarre world unfold. On the street, Allen’s group put on puppet shows and moving picture shows for the public. Allen personally made costumes for everyone in the cast and created the puppets they would use in their act. The group also ran a very successful holiday show for six years in a row. 


“We ran for three weekends with four shows per weekend every holiday season. Every person in our cast had separate religious beliefs, so it brought a different yet funny dynamic for a holiday show that brought us all together. I feel like it exemplified the American experience,” Allen commented on her time in the show. 


The group started to grow a niche following from this show, and became more popular than they imagined. 


“Vaudeville is an art where we can embrace absurdity, yet also reflect on the appropriation and racism in the history of vaudeville and see where we can grow from that, performing in a conscious way.” 


Allen’s theater business came from this love for vaudeville. 


“The group wanted a home to perform in, so my partner and I founded the theater. Our main goal was to grow from our small space and give the community a place to gather and share the arts.” 


So the group “sold their lives” to buy an abandoned and red-tagged building to gut it and refinish it for the next two years. A year within the first time they opened, Allen and her partner were already hosting performers that were within their five year goal plan. The theater has hosted international acts, famous folk storytellers, published poetry writers, hip-hop artists and Netflix featured comics.


 “We draw from everywhere and want to be a home for all art.” 


Allen is also professionally successful in her visual arts, more specifically photojournalism. She won the National Press Photographers Association Award for telling the story of homeless women that were taken in by a monastery in Flint. When she was feature hunting for a new story, she came across a sign that said “bunnies for sale.” Needing inspiration from any source, she decided to call in and found out that the bunnies were housed with monks in a monastery. 


Allen decided to follow the story and found something inspiring. There were four formerly homeless sisters living with the monks, who provided them not only a home, but continued education. For the next nine months, Allen followed up with the sisters and the friars, documenting their life. She talked to the women about being women in Flint, women’s education, being raised by monks and finding normalcy after being homeless. 


“All of this came about because I called on bunnies for sale. This is what I loved about journalism. I never knew where I would end up.” 


Among all of these other passions, Allen has always loved teaching. 


“Working with students keeps me humbled, inspired, questioning, and feeling challenged. The students are my favorite part of it all,” Allen shared. 


However, teaching has changed since the pandemic. 


“In chaos lies opportunity. I believe that with this crisis, the potential for change lies.” Allen is now studying opportunity pieces due to these changing times such as the future of sustainable education and the efficiency of hybrid learning.


The goal of this is to build spaces to increase student success. 


“In this time, I want to take a walk with every student and ask how they truly are. I perceive my own challenges every day, yet we must take into account everyone else’s problems, especially in this time of global trauma from the pandemic.” 


Alongside being a professor, Allen also has run a co-curricular experiential learning program for the past five years called Street Teams. This program assigns students to local nonprofits to create media projects for them, gaining experience but also giving back to the community. 


“Running co-curriculars during COVID has been one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done, but the most rewarding.” 


Creative thinking is an important tool in Allen’s artistic lifestyle, allowing for her to teach the benefits of honing these skills in the life of students. 


“CAS 110 came out of a need to bring people together and start the undergraduate experience in a unique way. It gets people to make connections and create together across the college.” 


Allen sees the goals of the class beyond the learning objectives, but to see each other as resources and make connections through interactive learning. 


When asked what she would define herself as among all the things she does, Allen picked just that: facilitator. She shares she wants to be a resource to the class and facilitate creative thoughts.


“I feel as though I am a facilitator, mostly for creativity in my class. I have picked up many things from my experiences that I may not identify with, yet use to build my skill set and help other students with reaching their potential.” 


Allen “weaves” all that she has done across many outlets to prove that creative and divergent thinking can create great products and experiences.