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Unexpected foray into politics for E.L.'s Susan Woods leads to life of service

March 1, 2017
East Lansing council member  and founder and director of the East Lansing Film Festival Susan Woods poses for a portrait on Feb. 24, 2017.
East Lansing council member and founder and director of the East Lansing Film Festival Susan Woods poses for a portrait on Feb. 24, 2017. —
Photo by Jon Famurewa | and Jon Famurewa The State News

A well-traveled individual, East Lansing City Council member Susan Woods speaks four languages and has lived in a myriad of cities in the U.S. and Europe throughout her life. But for the past 26 years she has chosen to make East Lansing her home. 

A lifelong film aficionado, Woods said she not only wants to make sure the arts are represented within the city, but that MSU and East Lansing are tied together more cohesively through community events.

Born in Coronado, Calif., Woods has lived in La Jolla, Madrid, San Francisco, Boston and Washington, D.C. at various points in time. While living in San Francisco, Woods said her roommate moved out and subleased half of her apartment to her future husband, now-MSU Department of Media and Information Chair Johannes Bauer

Two years later, they were married. Woods then moved to Vienna for two years where they had a son. When Bauer was hired at MSU, the family relocated to East Lansing. Woods then had a daughter, and deciding the area was the best place to raise her children. She finally planted roots.

“After all that peripatetic life, I’ve been living here for 26 years,” Woods said. “After having lived in so many great places, it was really hard to adjust to a small town environment, even with the university, but now I love it. And I would always want to live here.”

Woods said she founded the East Lansing Film Festival in 1997 with a grant from the city, making use of experience she conferred from previously working at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

"I’ve known Susan for many years, and she, in fact, when I was first elected, Sam Singh and myself had the idea that we should have a film festival here, and we worked on that for awhile but it really didn’t take off until Susan moved to town,” Mayor Mark Meadows said. “She was very experienced with it and she’s really the reason why it has been so successful over these many years.”

Since then, Woods said the festival has expanded exponentially, and is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Woods remains the festival's director.

“It has just been this great economic boon for this area,” Woods said. “I have loved film since I was born, I’ve written screenplays, I’ve worked on production, and I always knew that I was going to be on the producing end. I don’t have interest in directing but I love producing, I love putting things together.”

Dave Bernath, owner of Flat, Black & Circular, said he met Woods around 20 years ago when the festival first started.

“We’re the only two who have been on it since day one," Bernath said. "We’ve become friends, we dog-watch each other’s dogs, socialize, she’s a good person ... she’s very socially conscious and aware, and she’s trying to do the good thing and the right thing all the time.”

Woods said though she'd always been involved in her neighborhood, her foray into city politics was unplanned. At a meeting of the Bailey Community Association board, which she once served on, Woods said a man named Mark Fisk was attempting to rezone a duplex, which residents disapproved of but she saw no issue with. 

After voicing her opinions, Woods said Fisk, who had previously served as now United States Senator Gary Peters' communications director during a run for attorney general in 2002, offered to manage her campaign for City Council. 

“He just thought that I was this most logical, sensible person ... and said, ‘I’ll run your campaign,’ so I thought, ‘I’ll try it,’ and here I am,” Woods said.

Elected in 2013, Woods said she had no expectations going into her tenure on council and did not know the ins and outs. Though it took her a year to settle in and learn the ropes, Woods said she found immediately that the city has a wonderful staff to help her through the processes. Woods called getting to know the staff the most rewarding part of her experience on council.

“This staff is the most hardworking, dedicated, forward-thinking staff who also have a great sense of humor and who support each other,” Woods said. “I think they are the ones that make this city great.”

Wood said she's very much enjoyed serving her community on council.

“I love it, I absolutely love it,” Woods said. “I love sewers and I love the DPW, and I love all the different aspects of what it means to run a city and also to be at the forefront of change and that to me is the most exciting. I’m constantly learning, which is great at this age.”

Woods, along with Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Beier, is up for re-election this November. 

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“My goal is to keep the city moving forward, I think we’ve made an enormous amount of progress,” Woods said. “I wish I could just give us all the kudos, but really it’s because the economy is so much better, and with that economy now more developers and more exciting stores and more things are happening in our town. My goal is to make the downtown East Lansing denser, more populated, that will then support the stores, the restaurants and everything else."

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