A first: East Lansing selects two Black City Council members

Watson and Bacon are only the 2nd and 3rd African American council members

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SATURDAY, Aug. 1 — In a historic act, the East Lansing City Council appointed today two Black members, who will serve out the terms of the two members who quit in July.

With the selection of Ron Bacon and Dana Watson, the Council will have two African American members for the first time, according to East Lansing Mayor Aaron Stephens. He said the only previous Black member was Thelma Evans, who was appointed in 1973.

Stephens, who is part Indian,  also said it will mark the first time that a majority of the five-member body will be of color.

Watson and Bacon replace Ruth Beier and Mark Meadows, who resigned in protest after Lisa Babcock and Jessy Gregg joined Stephens in voting to replace the longtime city attorney, Tom Yeadon. Their terms expire at the end of next year.

Gregg began crying after the unanimous choices were made. “It’s going to be a really hard term. I don’t know if I should say congratulations or condolences to Dana and Ron.”

Bacon, 45, is a manager for Genentech Inc., a biotechnology company. He graduated from Saginaw Valley State University with a bachelor’s in criminal justice and sociology and a master’s in leadership organization.

He has been involved in public affairs for more than 10 years.  He chaired the East Lansing Human Relations Commission and has served on the MLK Commission in Lansing. Bacon also was on the East Lansing school board and coached varsity football at East Lansing Schools.

Stephens praised his commitment to equity and community work. “He has a background that East Lansing really, really needs,” said Stephens.

Added Gregg: “Mr. Bacon is someone with a level head and a realistic view of the world.  Part of why we can’t look at the budget is that there is no budget. All the money disappeared. We need someone with Mr. Bacon’s skills in finance and budgeting to look at it.”

Watson, 43, is a health educator at the Ingham County Health Department with a bachelor’s degree in communication from MSU and a master’s degree in human and social services from Walden University. She serves on board for the Capital Area Housing Partnership, the East Lansing Planning Commission and volunteers for the Lansing People’s Assembly, among other roles.

“I am a mother of three and I bring experience as a co-parent, public health worker and person of color,” she wrote in her application materials. “I advocate passionately for those who are underserved and underrepresented. I have chosen opportunities that utilize my negotiation skills and I can use the skills as a city councilperson. I come to the table with my own ideas.”

Stephens called her a “fierce advocate for what she believes in.” He pointed out that Watson came to him months ago to push for more equity in East Lansing’s marijuana laws. Stephens was impressed by her extensive knowledge of the law and her understanding of such a complicated subject.

“Watson resonated with me,” said Gregg. “Her public health background could help the city handle the COVID crisis. That experience isn’t a prerequisite for public service, but it will definitely help you understand what’s happening right now.

Council members also commended Watson’s commitment to seeking out different viewpoints. In debate, you have to be able to equally debate both sides,” said Gregg. “That’s a critical thinking skill that we don’t put enough value in.”

After hours of discussion and deliberation over three days, the Council members seemed exhausted but satisfied with their decisions.

They acknowledged that the job won’t be easy. “We have a lot of division nationally and locally,” said Babcock. “Part of this job is being someone who can bring the temperature down by about 150 degrees. And that’s not an easy thing to do.”

Stephens was proud that the Council is now more diverse than ever before. He said, “We now have a City Council that is majority people of color. I don’t think that’s ever happened before. With all the conversations about equity happening in our country, I think this is a beautiful thing.”

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