MSU Student and City Council Candidate Dedicated to Community, Combating Sexual Assault

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Her Campus Michigan State.                           

For many students at Michigan State University, Aaron Stephens has become a familiar name. Last year, he appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight to discuss the university’s ban on whiteboards. Prior to that, he was a regional organizer for Hillary for America, a campaign that students may remember better as “those people that stood on every corner asking people if they were registered to vote.. Now, Stephens, a senior studying political science pre-law, is running for East Lansing City Council.

Apart from his previously mentioned leadership, Stephens has also served as the president of Students for Sanders in East Lansing, the founder of the Coalition for Higher Mental Health Standards and has been active in the Michigan legislature though internships. He is a current member of the East Lansing Community Development Board and the Human Relations Commission. In each of his positions, he has demonstrated a capacity for leadership, progressive thinking and a dedication to preserving the values that he believes in.

He’s also been endorsed by Rep. Sam Singh, the former mayor of East Lansing.

“Aaron was the type of leader that energized everyone he came in contact with. He made everyone that worked with him feel like they could put their complete trust in him,” said senior Maddy Melton, a political science student who has previously worked with Stephens for Students for Sanders and Hillary for America.

Despite his experience, as a student running for local office, it was inevitable that some questions would be raised regarding Stephen's’ dedication to the city. According to the State News, a city official said that Stephens has “no shot in hell” of taking one of the two open council seats. At the recent city council debate hosted by ASMSU, Stephens quelled concerns that he was using East Lansing for a jumpstart in his political career, assuring listeners that he loves East Lansing and looks forward to building a career and family in the city.  

What has come as a greater surprise is an unanticipated accusation by two members of an MSU organization. Two former vice presidents of the International Relations Organization, or IRO, Michael Metiva and Emily Weiner, reached out to East Lansing info, or ELI, with claims that Stephens had “mismanaged” his position and left the group unprepared when he resigned IRO to take his position with Hillary for America. Stephens formerly served as vice president of finance of IRO.

According to ELI, Stephens has been accused of leaving the group nearly unable to secure status as a registered student organization, failing to return materials and to respond to calls from the organization following his resignation.

Stephens admits being late to return a checkbook belonging to the organization and apologizes for doing so, but maintains that he performed his role to the best of his knowledge, calling the accusations “ludicrous, petty and hardly worth re-hashing” on social media.

As an MSU student who has worked closely with Stephens while he was campaigning for Hillary Clinton, and as someone who has seen Stephens demonstrate his dedication to the issues at a number of campus events -- I am inclined to agree that these claims are not based on his qualifications, as they paint an inaccurate portrait of Stephens. Worse, they distract from the ideas he wants to bring to East Lansing and his ability to bridge the divide between students and the city.

“While the handoff of paperwork and responsibilities could have been carried out in a smoother manner, as Aaron Stephens has been open about, the bigger impact on the functionality of the club has not been portrayed accurately,” said junior May McCalmon, an art education student who served as the assistant vice president, or AVP, of finance under Metiva currently services as the AVP of membership.

When Stephens resigned from IRO, he did not do so simply because he found something that would help his career. He accepted a paid position where he worked at least 60 hours a week, registering thousands of voters and campaigning to elect the first female president, as well as democrats up and down the ballot.

“The timing may not have been ideal, but he stepped down when he knew it would not be possible to complete his duties, rather than truly neglecting the position,” said McCalmon.

Regardless of any miscommunication or mistakes that may have been made with IRO, Stephens’ leadership and professional experience should be given equal, if not significantly more, attention than a dispute over an MSU organization. As a student, Stephens may be in an excellent position to provide the city council with a crucial voice, representing the college town’s large young adult population.

He is focusing his platform on three issues, which include addressing East Lansing’s economic development, pushing the city’s energy policy towards complete use of renewable energy, and bridging the divide between the university, police, and business -- particularly in the area of sexual assault -- the biggest crime on college campuses.

When asked at the ASMSU debate how he would like to see the prevalence of sexual violence on campus addressed, Stephens displayed his attention to the issue, and his understanding of what tactics are the most appropriate and least damaging to a victim. He emphasizes bystander intervention and how he would like to see MSU resources, such as the Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence Prevention Program, partner with local businesses to train them on what to do when they observe a potential assault or problematic situation occurring.

“We’ve all been in situations where we are nervous or scared to speak up. This would give EL businesses not only the confidence, but the resources to do so and possibly prevent something from happening,” said Stephens. “We can’t have people at every single corner, party or bar, but we can create an environment where the community is ready to stand up.”

One of Stephens’ opponents, Susan Woods, took a different approach, stating that she would want to teach people how to “drink responsibly.”

“I wonder how many of those sexual assaults happen when there’s intoxication, that’s the worry,” said Woods, who advocates better education towards youths regarding drinking responsibly.

While alcohol is the substance most frequently used to facilitate sexual assault, it is ultimately unfair to victims to act as if alcohol is the primary perpetrator. The blame should not fall on the victim for their choice of going out or drinking, but should be directed at the individual that committed an act of violence against another.

Stephens’ approach, in contrast, minimizes blame on the victim by emphasizing prevention through intervention, not by policing or shaming a victim’s choices. He has also stated that he would like to see specific instructions for LGBTQIA individuals to ensure inclusitivity and to see green light boxes implemented in certain residential areas.

Stephens has demonstrated a commitment to safety on campus in the past, particularly for women. He proudly participated in Her Campus’ past event, “It’s On Us”, for which we raised awareness regarding the prevalence of relationship violence in college relationships.  Furthermore, he attended and spoke at a sit-in last fall following MSU’s decision to dismantle the Women’s Study Lounge, a rest area where women could go to feel safe and secure.

Alyse Maksimowski, a graduate who studied zoology through MSU’s Lyman Briggs program with minors in women’s and gender studies and LGBTQ and sexuality studies, met Stephens while organizing the protest. She applauds Stephens for his sincere interest in helping her cause, and states that he arrived to the event early and offered resources and any assistance she might need.

“At the speaking part of the protest, Aaron asked if it was appropriate for him, as a male-identified and male-presenting person, to speak. I told him it was, and when he talked, he was respectful, professional and empathetic,” said Maksimowski. “He is a self-proclaimed feminist and he not only talks the talk, he actually has the actions to back it up.”

In addition to the protest over the study lounge, Stephens has been involved with numerous other events at or around MSU. He has shown a compassion and empathy for aiding marginalized groups, and was one of the first individuals to arrive at a rally protesting President Trump’s travel ban. He attended the Women’s March on Lansing with his mother and even spoke at a rally in D.C. regarding national health care.

“Aaron will bring empathy, compassion, [and] progressive ideals to East Lansing’s City Council,” said Maksimowski. “Aaron is one of the few people who would move mountains for his community, no questions asked.”

Ultimately, Stephens is a serious candidate with an important perspective and a dedication to the ideals he believes in. It is vital that students of MSU are aware that, even if they do not agree with or support him, there is significantly more to Stephens than an IRO resignation and a desire to jumpstart his political career.

Students should make an effort to become well-versed on every candidate and to get to the polls on Nov. 7 to support the candidate that they feel has the best vision for the city. These candidates and these choices will directly impact MSU’s students. In such a tight race, a single student’s vote truly has the power to make a difference.