Meet the Candidates: Maureen Eke hopes to bring fresh perspective to city commission

Courtesy Photo from Maureen Eke

Central Michigan University faculty member Maureen Eke is one of five candidates to run for the three open city commission seats up for election on Nov. 2.

Eke has lived in Mount Pleasant for over 20 years and prides herself as an advocate for citizens and students.

“I bring in different background experiences and I represent the voices of people that are not well-represented,” Eke said. “I am a human rights advocate and I hope that’s what the people see.”

Central Michigan Life spoke with Eke on her hopes for the future of Mount Pleasant and goals in city commission.

CM Life: How will your prior work experience support you in this commission seat?

I’m a professor at CMU in the Department of English. Prior to this, I worked at Michigan State University for nine years in the African Studies Program. I also taught in Nigeria at the university level back in the 70’s. 

I know this community well and I work with both citizens and students. Students are residents of this community too, and that includes both domestic and international students. I’ve had to advocate for international students in this community with housing and difficult renters. I’m a big advocate for students and I think someone needs to be a voice for them on the commission. 

Part of my goal is to represent and advocate for voices that are not often represented at this level. The commission also needs a diverse body and I bring that diversity. I want to own that. Not just simply in terms of ethnicity and demographics, but also in how I work and think. I hope that helps to inform the city’s work.

How are you involved in the Mount Pleasant community?

I am a member of the Isabella County Human Rights Committee and I am a founding member of the Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition. I’m also a member of the Isabella County Community Collaborative.

There was a point when I volunteered for R.I.S.E., formerly known as Women’s Aid Service. At one point we actually had an African Sisters Organization in Mount Pleasant. I helped set that up to create a community for African women and students. These people need community and fellowship. 

What are your top three issues of priority?

I am interested in affordable and responsible housing policies. One of the things I’ve heard over and over again is the difficulty of housing in this city. There are apartments here for sure, but not everyone wants to live in student apartments, which is what a majority of them are. What happens to these people who are fixed-income and don’t want student apartments? People in lower and middle income situations don’t have a lot of options for housing in Mount Pleasant. I’ve had to help students with housing and I think there’s something we can do to implement policies that protect our residents and address concerns of both short term and long term renters. I especially think student’s need protection. They don’t know anyone to turn to and they can be treated badly. 

My other concern is environmental preservation. This is a small town with wonderful parks and the Chippewa River and these provide places of healing for people. The parks are the only escape from concrete and buildings. I think it’s important for us to maintain the parks and make sure the drinking water is safe and our environment is safe. I walk through our parks and pick up a lot of trash. I’m concerned about pollution and how this will affect our living conditions. How do we make our environment as sustainable as possible? We need to sustain green spaces and create environmentally healthy policies. We need to think of ourselves as custodians of the Earth. 

The last thing is public safety. We have very good law enforcement in the community. For our rights to be protected, we do need a form of law enforcement. I think there is a healthy way law enforcement can engage with the community and be inclusive. Pay attention to what the community is saying and create a collaborative relationship. That means policies and practices that will not alienate certain communities and create more trust in law enforcement.

How will you involve residents in the decision-making in our city?

Trust needs to be built for more community members to feel comfortable approaching the commission. I’ve been told before that people think their ideas will just be dismissed. I don’t mind walking the city to see what people need, and sense what we should do. I do like the idea of town hall conversations. I come from a culture where that is a central piece of governing. 

In Nigeria, the structure of governance was communal and representatives were sent to a larger community council. Coming together in this way is vital for Mount Pleasant. This is how we will get uninvolved voices invited into discussing issues of concern or interest. Create an open forum for people to come forward and speak, those kinds of conversations will help us ‘take the temperature’ regarding how the commission is doing.

If elected, what steps will you take to put our city on a stronger financial ground?

First, I need to know what the city’s investments are and evaluate the potential funds and projects. Look to see if these investments can be improved. That information is not available to me yet. There are also a number of grants we could look at, both big and small. 

There’s also the opportunity of partnering with businesses. We’d need to ensure that we have a good working relationship with each business and that these relationships help us financially.

In addition, looking to work with empty properties and using these spaces for new revenue, rather than building on new land. It’s money that we don’t have to expend. Fundraising events are always a potential opportunity.

If elected, how will you work to support Mount Pleasant’s homeless population?

I was shocked when I heard that Isabella County is the poorest county in the state. And Mount Pleasant is right in the middle of it. I walk very early in the mornings and you can see many people who are homeless, camping in tents in the middle of winter. 

In terms of housing, we need to look at what’s available for homeless people or fixed-income individuals that can’t afford to find adequate housing. If the churches aren’t taking care of the homeless population, then who else? We need to implement a hostel style of housing where people can stay at affordable rates or for free for a certain period of time. We need to convert these empty houses and apartments to support these struggling communities. We need space to take care of our own people that need somewhere to stay. 

You see that sustainable living and sustainable development are connected. Providing support for the people that are already doing it is also important. We should look to apply to grants in this area and distribute that to organizations already doing this work. That highlights the importance of the community-city partnership.

Many residents are divided on the state of marijuana in Mount Pleasant. Where do you stand and what can the city do to either promote or mitigate the industry?

I do know that it’s bringing revenue to Mount Pleasant, and nationally it's bringing revenue into cities across the country. I’m happy that it’s legalized now because it makes sense to provide an opportunity for anybody that can support the marijuana business to earn an income. 

Right now, we’re only licensed for three and there are issues and lawsuits involved. Because it’s revenue generating, I’m glad the city is involved because it’s a great opportunity. Out in Colorado it’s certainly boosted their revenue. We don’t have any huge industry here. 

Besides CMU and the casino we don’t have a staple industry. Marijuana can bring in new business, generate revenue, and support the community. The issue is how many licenses to have. Until I get into the commission, I won’t make a decision on the amount of licenses. I’m a researcher and I won’t make a decision before I have all the facts. But I have heard the people and their complaints and I will take that into consideration.

In a hypothetical scenario without funding constraints, what would you want to change about the city and how?

I definitely want to address that housing issue. That would be my first pick. If we can address the housing issue we can probably address a whole range of complications involved in that. People who can’t live here because they can’t find space or its unaffordable need support. 

Other issues are important but not as urgent as the housing crisis. Housing has implications for people’s mental health, physical wellbeing, sense of safety and security, and the cohesion of the community. If you’re worried about where you’re going to live and your safety, you simply aren’t going to stay in the city. Using sustainable housing methods to achieve this is key, as well as fixing what’s already established and working to make places hospitable and healthy. As I discussed, these hostels can be a temporary reprieve for people to settle down and look for housing. If we don’t address these issues people will walk away with a terrible representation of this city.

Any other thoughts?

Human trafficking is an issue we don’t talk about enough. It exists all over the world and given where we are, on a corridor connecting up north and to Canada, it’s something we have to pay attention to. These vulnerable populations are right in Mount Pleasant as displaced homeless people and hungry people. It’s a conversation we should be having. Sometimes it’s in communities right under our noses and before our eyes and we don’t realize it. We need to identify vulnerable populations and how to protect them and know the signs of human trafficking. It’s a preemptive awareness of a national issue.

Overall, I am committed to this city. Through my work I’ve been able to get to know the city and I don't see any reason why we can’t make this a model city in mid-Michigan. I think the city commission’s work is important in doing that and in developing a strong community and leadership. We need to have deep and rich conversations that are open and inclusive. I want to work to reach a community, collaborative solution to issues.