This is the first in a series of articles catching up with members of the East Lansing City Council. ELi wanted to remind readers of the goals councilmembers initially campaigned on, the challenges they see for East Lansing and their goals for the future of the city.
After Election Day 2021 votes were cast and counted, candidate Dana Watson emerged as the frontrunner, earning a four-year term on the East Lansing City Council. An incumbent, she had been appointed a year earlier to complete a term left vacant by the unexpected resignations of Mayor Ruth Beier and councilmember Mark Meadows on July 14.
“It was a really exciting night and an exciting time,” she said. “I had some people that believed in this type of future for me, who made sure I knew about the openings on the council.”
It was those supporters and her prior experience with city government that propelled her to seek a term of her own.
A mother of three and native of Chicago, Watson has called the Greater Lansing Area home for several decades. She earned a degree from Michigan State University in communication and has worked as a public health educator for Ingham County. Earlier this summer, she was named Ingham County’s Health Equity and Social Justice Coordinator.
During her candidacy, three areas emerged as priorities: the pandemic, police reform and affordable housing.
While President Joe Biden may have declared the pandemic to be over, East Lansing’s city government is still experiencing effects of it and Watson identified lessons that have been learned, as well.
“We’re still [meeting] at Hannah [Community Center] and I’ve never sat at City Hall,” she said. “It took us a while to go from virtual meetings to in-person, but it taught us some good things about public participation. We learned that some work can be done from home and there are benefits to both [in-person work and remote work].”
Watson smiled widely when asked about the public health perspective of her day job.
“We’re finally able to vaccinate the littles,” she said.
When asked if she felt pressure as a city councilmember who has experience in public health, she said, “I have a passion for people’s health and peoples’ ability to make choices for their health and their families’ health.”
When it comes to police reform, Watson “absolutely” believes the Police Independent Oversight Commission the council established in summer 2021 has made progress.
“We’ve realized that we’re all on the same page,” she said. “Police were hired to keep everyone safe. The council is here to represent the community and be a decision-maker. The police oversight commission is also there to represent the community. We’ve come together and realized that, more often than not, [we] have the same values.”
Watson acknowledges there have been some shifts in officer training and, while she may have a different idea on “where and how and who those trainings should come from,” she is happy a dialogue between the council and police leadership exists in a way it hadn’t previously.
The policy area she admits to being her biggest passion is that of affordable housing.
“People who work here or people who receive checks here, keep their income here, but don’t make [enough] money to thrive here,” she said. “No city should create an area where it takes the longest to get to your job because you can’t afford to live there or because our prices are high. We need to do re-checks if we’ve created a town or city for just dual income [home] owners.”
Watson believes affordable housing is just the first step in creating a truly inclusive community. Years before she was seated on Council, she herself received support from the Capital Area Housing Partnership’s down-payment program administered through the City.
“We can’t just offer affordable housing and then plant you in a food desert or a place where you can’t get to work [on public transit],” she said. “These systems were created for certain groups to be successful and other groups to just flail around in the water.”
Watson acknowledges some people worry when she asks questions about some areas of city budgeting.
“At budgeting sessions, the finance department gets really uncomfortable when I start implying I have an idea,” she said. These ideas question whether city revenue and property tax could be more flexible to encourage affordable housing and living in the community.
“I’m going to rep a facet of the community and it’s not always going to be aligned with where other people are coming from,” she said.
Despite all the work ahead, Watson feels hopeful about East Lansing’s future. This optimism is especially evident when she speaks about her children and their generation. When her children attended Marble Elementary School, Watson was a member of the parent-led equity team. Among other accomplishments, the group has helped the school look at hiring practices to support a more diverse staff.
When asked about her optimism for a more inclusive future, she remembered an interaction between her children who are now out of elementary school.
“My girls will just be having a regular conversation,” she said, “and one of them will say about a friend, ‘and she…’ and the other will correct them, saying ‘the person’s pronouns are they,’ and they’ll correct themselves. And that stuff is just awesome because it’s just so easy for them. With older people, that respect can be [harder].”
Watson was coy about her own future, however. When asked about her goals and initiatives for the remaining three years of her term, she would only offer, “You’ll see some things this year,” while offering a smile.
The second councilmember profiled was George Brookover, followed by Mayor Ron Bacon. The next, and final, profile will be of Councilmember Lisa Babcock. Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg declined to participate in this series.