City Pulse People Issue 2021: Melina Brann, executive director of the Women’s Center of Greater Lansing

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Melina Brann, 27, has been executive director of the Women’s Center of Greater Lansing since last March and has lived in Lansing for the last three years. She has a master’s degree in social work from Grand Valley State University. She served on the public policy committee for the Greater Michigan chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. She’s the partner of controversial Lansing City Councilman Brandon Betz. Both have been advocates for local police divestment.

You’re a relative newcomer to the capital city. How did you land here?

After college, I moved here with my ex-husband. When we got a divorce, I was really struggling. That’s how I found the Women’s Center of Greater Lansing. They helped me with counseling and other financial education stuff, because I really didn’t know what I was doing. It’s ironic that I ended up as executive director. I was trying to volunteer there when I saw the job opening.

Walk me through the mission of the Women’s Center. What’s it all about?

We were started by a group of women with the Lansing chapter of the National Organization for Women. They figured out there was this need for a space specifically for women to work on job applications. Then there was also this need for women leaving domestic violence situations.

It really started as this place to empower women who were leaving bad situations or who were entering the workforce, or who hadn’t been in the workforce before. We realized that there were a lot of other issues that came along with this, and so that’s when the counseling came into it.

We figured we could help these women get jobs, but they also needed coping mechanisms to help them stay in those jobs and to help live better lives. We just grew from there, and now we’re more focused on providing counseling to those who are uninsured or underinsured.

What sort of impact are these services having on Greater Lansing?

This year we provided over 1,500 virtual and in-person counseling sessions for over 90 women. We also served over 600 women with personal needs — things like tampons, pads, soap, shampoo, conditioner. We also had over 300 hours of support groups for things like domestic violence, sexual assault, grief and loss. We also have a social group to combat that isolation.

There’s a lot of women that are uninsured or underinsured, or even if they have insurance, it still costs $50-75 to see a therapist. We’re really meeting that need for people who cannot necessarily afford it in any other way, but still have really stressful stuff happening in their lives.

Is it everything you expected?

It’s super rewarding, but super stressful. I underestimated how much would fall onto my shoulders. Luckily, we have a pretty good group of nonprofits in the Lansing area. Once you connect with some of the other executive directors, it’s really nice to have them on your side.

In 10 years, hopefully we can grow in our counseling side. Right now, we only have one paid therapist, and the other people are either volunteers or graduate-level interns. I would love to be able to have a few more therapists on staff who can also serve in emergency, crisis situations.

How can people support the work of the Women’s Center?

Most of our funding comes from individual donors. We do get a few grants, but it’s probably only 10-20% of our budget. More donations always help. Any donations that we get will probably head towards hiring a new therapist, just to meet the needs of people who are on our waitlist.

How does your role as a community activist meld with your professional life?

A lot of issues that our clients face are not only personal for therapy, but also systemic. If we want to impact our client’s lives, then we need to really address some of the issues that are happening systemically, such as police violence and income inequality.

What’s it like being a partner to one of the more controversial figures at City Hall?

Brandon does get a lot of people coming up to him. It’s not a new thing for me. Both of my parents were heavily involved in community organizing and community stuff, so I’m used to being in the background. On a personal note, it’s kind of stressful just having to be the supportive person all the time for this person who is always trying to do the right thing.

(This interview was conducted, edited and condensed by Kyle Kaminski.)

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