East Lansing City Council made history Saturday with the appointment of two new council members, creating the first council with people of color in the majority.
Mayor Aaron Stephens, Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg and Council Member Lisa Babcock unanimously appointed Dana Watson and Ron Bacon to the two vacant seats.
In her interview Friday, Watson's expertise in public health as a health educator stood out. She said she works in the community doing presentation and health education workshops around the social determinants of health and anything that impacts a family’s ability to be healthy — including racism, which she said is a public health crisis.
Watson currently serves on the East Lansing Planning Commission. Prior to that, she served on the Human Rights Commission (HRC). She said she supports further efforts with police oversight and a closer look into housing decisions being made in the city to keep its economy afloat in a fair and just way.
With her background in public health, Watson is a part of a special populations team for COVID-19, going out into the community and advocating for resources for Black and Latinx communities, including federal funding for a plan to reduce the infant mortality rates among them. It was this experience in public health that each member of council said played a role in their selection of her as a top-choice candidate.
In terms of equity and inclusion, Watson said it is important to work toward this not only for East Lansing residents but also for people who want to come through the city as visitors without feeling they were treated different for the color of their skin.
“I live here, and I’m raising my children here, and it matters to me to see equity and inclusion in the city of East Lansing,” Watson said.
Stephens said Watson was someone who is a fierce advocate for what she believes in, and while she may not have the years of experience in the city, which other applicants presented, she has a perspective which is really unique and an ability to push for change.
In his interview Thursday, Bacon noted pressing concerns in how quickly a public health crisis shows disparities amongst people economically. He also called on the need for reconciliation around public trust with the local government moving forward.
Stephens called on his decade-long experience in East Lansing and previous role as the former chair of the HRC as key points as to why he was one of his top two choices for candidacy. With an impressive background of community work and experience moving the community toward work in things that truly impact all of the city’s commissions, Stephens said he holds a background that the council needs.
Bacon said he commends the city on its history of “firsts” in a lot of areas of civil rights, disabilities, gender and sexuality issues. Public conversations and support for initiatives in the HRC, a commitment to diversity and inclusion and actions put into place around policing, he said shows that the trappings are all already there.
“I think the spirit is there. I think the heart is there. I think sometimes the will has been a little weak,” Bacon said.
Moving forward, Bacon said there is a need for a diverse populous to get a new set of ideas. In terms of future economic development, he said it is important that people come to the city and are eager to be disruptors and to ensure small businesses that East Lansing is the place to be, to attract creators and creatives to stay within the city.
Following the appointment of the two new council members, Gregg gave a tearful statement highlighting how the candidates who applied inspired her.
“It’s going to be a really hard term, so I don’t know if I should say congratulations or condolences to Dana and Ron for joining us, Gregg said. “This is going to be a really difficult year, but I’m looking forward to serving with you.”
Babcock underscored this, acknowledging that it is going to be hard, but recognizing that they will get through it.
“We’re going to get through it," Babcock said. "We’re going to get through it because this is a strong community and a resilient community, and we know that we have depth and breadth of talent, and most importantly, we have people who care."
Among deliberation at the meeting, council proposed a change to the city charter in the November election, pushing for a council seating seven people instead of the current five.
Gregg said having only five voices is too small, a comment that Stephens and Babcock subsequently supported. Stephens likewise proposed the notion of having two discussion-only meetings a month, giving an extra opportunity to field discussions and ask questions.
Stephens closed out the meeting, taking a point of personal privilege to acknowledge and recognize the history that had been made with council now being a majority of people of color.
Stephens said he originally ran for his position to make East Lansing a better place and he felt like he lost that in the last week or so, working more so to put out fires than anything else.
“I want this council to be a little bit messy," Stephens said. "I want us to ask a lot of questions, and I want us to discuss things multiple times. ... I can’t promise that we’re always going to agree on things, that every vote that I take is right or that I’m going to do the right thing every single time, but I can promise that we’re going to push forward, and I’m going to do the best job I can to empower every member of council to push their agenda because that’s my job."
"Under seemingly insurmountable circumstances, we can leave the community better than we found it," he said. "We can endure, persists and move this city forward even if this year we were knocked a few steps back.”