Meet ELi’s “Gov Gang”

Tuesday, September 18, 2018, 7:50 am
By: 
Alice Dreger

From left: Casandra Eriksen, Dan Totzkay, Jessy Gregg, Alice Dreger, and Chris Root. Photos by Kepler Domurat-Sousa.

Who lets you know what’s going on in East Lansing Government? To some extent, the City of East Lansing does, through its communications to citizens. But if you want in-depth, independent local government reporting in East Lansing, ELi’s “Gov Gang” is really your only option.

Each week, the Gov Gang looks at upcoming City agendas to figure out who might take what story. But this past week, we also met in person to catch up and do some fall planning. After the meeting, it occurred to me that ELi’s readers might like to know a little more about the current team. So here’s a little bit about the five us:

Dan Totzkay is the newest member of our Gov Gang, and like a lot of our reporters, he sought us out because he sees the production of factual news as a critically-important form of public service in America today.

Dan is now earning his PhD in Communication at MSU, working on a project to understand how best to convey ambiguous mammogram findings to patients. He also has an M.A. from MSU in Health & Risk Communication and a B.S. from MSU in Interdisciplinary Studies in Social Science, with a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies.

As a grad student, Dan works as both a researcher and teacher at MSU. He has published several academic articles and served as a manuscript reviewer for communication journals. He’s been an advisor to the MSU Ballroom Dance Team after spending many years as a competitive and social ballroom dancer. Dan lives in the Red Cedar neighborhood, and, like a lot of us ELi reporters, regularly uses his bicycle to get to meetings.

ELi’s Managing Editor Ann Nichols and I knew Dan was a catch when he was willing to go to a Transportation Commission meeting as a reporter just six hours after we formally signed him up. That report was on the big DRW/Convexity project for the vacant parcels downtown, and since then, Dan has been our lead reporter on that project.

He’s now reported on that project from the Downtown Development Authority and Brownfield Redevelopment Authority, and from City Council. He’s also covered Council’s discussions of marijuana provisioning centers and the income tax’s passage.

Casandra Eriksen lives in the Glencairn neighborhood, which is why Ann recently assigned her the job of reporting on stalled construction there. But Casandra has wandered all over town for us, for example, to report PACE’s pace of ticket-writing, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor coming to town, and the lack of gay bars in East Lansing.

In terms of City Council reporting, Casandra has covered tax incentives for the MSU solar array and decisions about the use of HUD funding, and this week she’ll be letting you know what’s going on with plans for Parks & Rec projects.

Casandra is an alum of ELHS, and this year she graduated from Western Michigan University with a major in Comparative Religion and minor in Psychology. She’s a swimmer and traveler who spends her free time reading, writing, listening to music, and thinking about ways to help improve our environment and economy.

Jessy Gregg has now reported over 100 stories for us, covering not just Government but also Parks & Rec, arts, schools, crime and public safety, and local exercise opportunities. ELi’s readers have benefitted from Jessy’s completion of East Lansing’s Emerging Leaders Program, as she has been able to masterfully report on many different complex government issues.

Jessy never shies away from tough stories, like Council’s recent debates about leaves of absence and a local business partnership’s frustration over trying to move to East Lansing. Her investigative report on East Lansing’s noisy air conditioner law stands as a great example of the kind of deep-dive reporting ELi strives to bring you.

Jessy says she owes her journalistic skills to Mrs. Cassat’s 10th grade journalism class, where she wrote for her school newspaper (“The Spud”), but she also brings to us, as a photojournalist, her training at Hamline University, where she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and graduated one class shy of a minor in anthropology.

Currently, Jessy serves as Vice Chair of the Ingham County Parks Commission and as an East Lansing Arts Commissioner and is active in the Glencairn Elementary Parent Teacher Organization. She also teaches fabric arts and commands an army of Warrior Women through her online peer support group for women who run. She lives in Shaw Estates with her three youngest children and her husband who, believe it or not, is named Eli. (We joke that she's married to two Elis.)

Chris Root has been reporting for us since not long after ELi’s founding in 2014. Most local news organizations would never attempt to take on truly in-depth reporting of a City’s financial problems, pension plans, complex tax increment financing deals, and campaign finance, but we are able to do so in large part because Chris reports for ELi.

Chris comes to us with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Economics from American University, which help explain how she manages to do what she does for our readers – reading challenging reports, attending and understanding Michigan Treasury meetings, and crunching data.

Chris’s life work has centered around addressing racial and economic justice. She has worked as a Research Fellow in South Africa, an Associate Director of the Washington Office on Africa, and a grant writer for multiple projects, and has published academic articles on community-based environmental justice organizing.

When she worked for the Michigan House Democratic Research Staff, Chris helped develop a law that required divestment of state public employee pension funds from companies operating in South Africa during apartheid. She is now the MSU Project Manager for the African Activist Archive Project, an archive of over ten thousand items including documents, photographs, posters, and interviews with activists in the southern African solidarity movement from the 1950s to 1990s.

During the Clinton administration, Chris developed a curriculum on health care reform that was widely used. A long-time and active member of East Lansing’s Edgewood United Church, Chris co-chaired the committee there that led to a congregational vote 20 years ago to become an Open and Affirming congregation welcoming to gay and lesbian people. She writes, “That has made a big difference to this congregation.”

Those are just some of the many professional and activist experiences Chris brings to bear for her ELi reporting. She lives in the Oakwood neighborhood, about two blocks north of my house, in a home that was recently awarded recognition by the Historic District Commission. An avid gardener, Chris sometimes takes time to report for us on that aspect of local life, too.

Alice Dreger: I have been a resident of East Lansing for 22 years, longer than anywhere else I’ve lived, and raised a son in ELPS. (I raised him to be an ELi reporter, which he’s been, but this week he’s headed off to University of Chicago to study physics.) I had tenure at MSU’s Lyman Briggs School but gave it up a few years after our son was born. I took a part-time professorship at Northwestern University’s med school, to which I commuted on Amtrak for ten years.

My Ph.D. is in History and Philosophy of Science from Indiana University, and I’ve authored four books and edited five in history of science and medicine and ethics, including an anthology for Cambridge University Press, which just came out. In addition to working as an academic, I spent about 20 years working to reform the medical treatment of children born with intersex conditions.

Around 2006, I shifted from conventional academic work into doing history that was effectively national investigative journalism in biomedicine. My last major authored book, Galileo’s Middle Finger, covers three major national investigative projects I took on, including an unethical drug experiment conducted on pregnant women at risk of giving birth to a child with intersex. That book was funded by a Guggenheim Fellowship and published by Penguin Press.

My work has been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Slate, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and WIRED Magazine, as well as in various academic journals. I’ve been a guest expert on about a hundred broadcast programs, including Oprah, NPR, CNN, and Good Morning America, and I was recently awarded the inaugural Courage Award by the Heterodox Academy in New York for my life’s work. (I talked about ELi and the importance of journalism at the awards event.)

Besides covering "normal" City business, the bigger projects I’ve taken on for ELi’s readers have been challenging and fascinating. I’ve traced out what happened with a mercury spill at our wastewater treatment plant, the misuse of federal funds to build a retaining wall adjacent to the City Attorney’s property, and how the Center City District project has differed from any other public-private project East Lansing has seen. I've also sometimes covered the school board race, trails, crime, gardening, and local shopping opportunities. I’ve now authored over five hundred reports for ELi’s readers.

Why do I do investigative reporting for East Lansing, when I could be doing it only nationally? The simple answer is that, while things are really bad for journalism in America today, the nation still has a lot of dedicated reporters, including investigative reporters, and East Lansing had none when I founded ELi.

Every single person who works for ELi could be doing something else, and in many cases, doing work that is higher profile and that pays better. But the ELi team believes that every city needs factual, attentive, independent reporting to have a functional democracy. It is the Gov Gang’s joy to do the core reporting work for the East Lansing community.

To keep this team going, I need you to donate funds to ELi, the nonprofit organization that brings important local news to you. Please do so today. I don’t get paid by ELi (I earn my living off of my national work), but I need you to join me in donating to pay the team members that do need to get paid. Thank you!

 

Related Categories: