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Dana Watson reflects on "sense of belonging" on East Lansing City Council

Dana Watson sits in front of a microphone in WKAR's studio.
Arjun Thakkar
Dana Watson was appointed to the East Lansing City Council in 2020 and elected to a full term on the council in 2021.

Dana Watson is the only Black woman and person of color on the East Lansing City Council. She was appointed to the council in 2020 and won re-election to a full term the following year.

At the start of this current term on the council, the group passed over Watson for the role of mayor pro tem, a decision some community members say showed racial bias. Watson was also the lone councilmember to support a resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza and an end to Israel's military campaign in the Palestinian territory.

In an interview with WKAR, Watson lists housing affordability, police oversight and sustainability among her priorities. She said those issues often hit close to home, both in the community and personally.

"If I was searching for a home this time, as opposed to when I bought my home, I wouldn't be able to afford to live in the city of East Lansing," she said.

Watson has been on the council as many internal concerns have arisen in the city, from a wave of departures in the city's workforce to allegations of unprofessional behavior.

The council hired an independent attorney last year to investigate an anonymous complaint that claimed city leaders bypassed the city manager to direct employees. That would be a violation of East Lansing's charter.

The report was completed last fall, but officials declined to release it over confidentiality concerns.

Officials moved last month to waive restrictions that could allowthe document to be made public.

Watson voted against that move, arguing it violates the trust of staff who cooperated with the investigation.

“It was my understanding that it was relayed to current and former staff that their identities would not be revealed in the report. And I think we should keep our word.”

Watson is named in the report, along with other city councilmembers and East Lansing’s director of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Watson has been the losing end of multiple votes to come before the current council, including the Gaza ceasefire resolution.

"I have a different perspective on some things than other people do," she said. "It's important to have diversity ... so I am happy to be serving and to be that voice, even if it's when it turns out that I'm the lone voice."

Watson sat down with WKAR’s Arjun Thakkar last month to reflect on those contentious votes and her sense of belonging on the council.

Interview Transcript

Arjun Thakkar: You were on the losing end of a vote last month on a resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. In the time since then, neighboring Lansing has, as you know, approved a ceasefire resolution. Do you think there's a path forward for the council to take a formal stance for a ceasefire,

Dana Watson: Our Human Rights Commission, which is the commission that created and worked on the ceasefire resolution, the other night, they did come forward with ideas on how to move forward with a ceasefire resolution. So if people are being honest about wanting to adopt a ceasefire resolution, it's absolutely a possibility. But if people weren't being sincere in that, then we wouldn't see it. But yes, I was very proud that the City of Lansing passed the ceasefire resolution city of Ann Arbor at that time, San Francisco as well. It's nice to see that people are still talking about it, and understanding how it hits home.

Thakkar: At the beginning of this current term of the council, your colleagues opted to pick Kerry Ebersole Singh over you for the mayor pro tem position. You've said in the past that that move has caused you to wonder about your sense of belonging in East Lansing, as the only Black woman and person of color on the council. How have you felt since that vote?

Watson: What I got quickly with the new council was my sense of camaraderie and connection was no longer on the local level, our previous council, there was a connection, and a like mindedness that's not present this time. And so it encourages me then to reflect on other ways I can maintain my moral compass, as well as not lose sight of things that are of value for me for this community and the Greater Lansing area. And so still finding that connection that I need. And just because like in one room, I look around, and I am the minority. I know that I can go to other spaces and still feel that sense of belonging that is very important. As we go forward in life,

Thakkar: On the council itself, what do you see in terms of a path forward to continuing to have that, as you were speaking, about collaborative relationship with your colleagues on the council?

Watson: Our positions change, our seating changes. But that doesn't mean just again, that I should lose track of my moral compass and in the things that are of value to me. I know that diversity in thought is very important. And I've said before, if you if people are too similar, they're going to make too similar of decisions that only benefit the people that are similar to them. And that is not representative of our community. And so despite the hardship, I know that my experience personally what I understand through my education and through my experience on council and with other Commission's is valuable for good progressive decision making for the city of East Lansing.

I am the only single mother on the council. I co-parent with my children's father. And I know what personal experiences I've had with looking for housing or looking for a place to rent. And again, being a Black person and being the only person of color. I have a different perspective on some things than other people do. It's important to have diversity in our commissions and amongst our council and so I am happy to be serving and to be that voice even if it's when it turns out that I'm the lone voice.

Thakkar: Dana Watson is a member of the East Lansing City Council. Councilmember Watson, thank you for your time.

Watson: Thank you.

This conversation has been edited for clarity.

Arjun Thakkar is WKAR's politics and civics reporter.
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