Aaron Stephens graduated from MSU in 2018. Now he's leading East Lansing through the pandemic
The 24-year-old wore a short-sleeved button-down shirt and jeans, an outfit that hit somewhere between a college kid and a politician.
Stephens was reminding students of the city's COVID-19 mandate requiring face coverings and pulling out a box of disposable masks if they needed one.
Students doubted whether he was really the city’s leader, asking to take selfies with him when they realized he wasn’t lying.
“I’m not saying they don’t just take their mask off when I walk away,” Stephens said Thursday. “But when the mayor of the city tells you to put on a mask … there’s no excuse to exhibit risky behavior.”
Stephens, who graduated from MSU in 2018, took the selfies and questions in stride. As mayor, he spends a majority of his waking hours walking East Lansing streets, coordinating with MSU, government and business leaders through Zoom meetings and educating students and the MSU community during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.
He announced his campaign for a seat on the city council as an MSU junior and voters elected him in 2017 as a 21-year-old senior. Stephens ran to give MSU's 50,000 students a spot at the table.
Jumping from city councilman to mayor wasn’t a move he wanted to take.
Mayor Ruth Beier and former Mayor Mark Meadows both resigned during a July 14 meeting following a heated argument over a city attorney contract. As a councilmember and mayor pro tem, Stephens was thrown into the council’s top position, and at 24, became the youngest mayor in city history.
He quit his job as a Michigan Education Association organizer to focus on his work and help the city during the pandemic.
His work has involved Zoom meetings and coordinating with MSU, Ingham County, East Lansing and officials from state government and local municipalities. If not on a Zoom meeting, Stephens said, he knocks on doors in East Lansing neighborhoods to talk through COVID-19 issues with residents and business owners.
Stephens considers himself a bridge, helping connect people with each other and resources they can use to get through the pandemic.
The amount of hard work Stephens has put into the job can be measured by the empty Mountain Dew bottles and energy drink cans that litter a shared workspace he often uses. Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg joked that the stacked cans and bottles resemble a fort.
She’s seen Stephens spend much of his time at city hall since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are in an emergency and in a crisis,” Gregg said. “We do need a greater level of leadership right now.”
But she does worry about Stephens and tries to show him that he doesn’t have to shoulder the entire load. There are other city council members, city officials and resources at his disposal, she said.
To Stephens, his most important mayoral duty is simply listening, whether to a city council member or a city resident who doesn’t agree with him on a certain issue.
It’s a virtue he honed during his years at MSU.
MSU Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Terry Frazier works with Stephens now on various committees as they find ways the city and the university can work together to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Frazier also worked with Stephens during his time as a student on issues involving politics and concerns with diversity, equity and inclusion. Stephens learned the importance of collaborating with other people and listening to everyone, Frazier said, no matter what they look like, where they come from or what their beliefs might be.
“I think he learned how to work with people and work with a diverse population of people,” Frazier said. “Michigan State is a small globe. It’s a global university and the globe is at your fingertips. He wasn’t afraid to get out of his comfort zone and talk to people from different viewpoints.
“He takes the time to listen and learn.”
As a student, Stephens studied political science and stayed active outside of the classroom, working with student government leaders and in political advocacy, including the presidential campaign for Bernie Sanders.
Working on campaigns to elect democrats is where state Rep. Sarah Anthony, D-Lansing, first met Stephens. They later became friends and thought partners.
It’s been great to have someone else to bounce ideas off and lean on, she said, and simply to have another person of color to lean on.
Anthony called Stephens a quiet, natural leader.
“He embodies the type of leadership that is perfect for a college town, but it’s also the future of leadership,” she said. “He leads with so much humility. He comes into spaces and has confidence, but doesn’t pretend that he has all the answers. It’s such an old school mindset to come into spaces and basically be the alpha dog and be the person who has all the answers. Instead he has a quiet confidence and a collaborative spirit.”
Listening proved one way that Stephens got over the way he was treated by some constituents and government officials when he was first elected to city council. Being a young person of color — he identifies as half Indian and half Armenian — weighed on him. He focused on his work to drown it out.
“If you have strong convictions and know you’re there for a purpose, you can block out some of those biases,” he said.
The chief purpose now is responding to COVID-19 and relying on those around him, Stephens said.
“I can’t imagine listening not being a part of it.”