Knocking on doors and canvassing all four wards in Lansing on top of a full-time job isn’t easy. It requires a lot of mental and physical toughness, and a hell of a lot of energy. But if there are any adjectives that best describe Rory Neuner, those three might just be the ones that do. How else would you describe a woman who grew up playing hockey in boys’ leagues and played on the college varsity squad all four years?
Not to mention someone who enjoys four-hour bike rides.
Born and raised in Haslett, Rory loves the state and region she is from. However, it didn’t quite have everything she needed to stick around for college, i.e., a school with a women’s hockey team. So she packed her bags and headed for Connecticut, where she played hockey for Yale University and discovered her love for community development.
“I first became engaged in community development and urban policy issues in college,” recalls Rory. “New Haven is actually a city that is in many ways a lot like Lansing. It’s a little bit bigger, but it has some of the same challenges. It has a manufacturing history; they used to make Winchester rifles there. And now it’s kind of trying to rebuild itself into a city that can compete in a 21st Century economy.”
Rory pursued her new-found interest and graduated with a degree political science before moving to Chicago. There, she worked for a nonprofit organization that helps low and moderate income families through programs like the earned income tax credit and asset building. But before long, she decided her ambitions would be best served by going back to school.
After a year in urban planning at the University of Pennsylvania, Rory decided she preferred to work less on design and more on policy. She made an educational change and moved back to Chicago, where she earned a masters in public policy from the University of Chicago.
After graduation, she decided to take all of her knowledge and experience and bring it back to the area she grew up in and loves.
“I really have enjoyed moving back here,” says Rory. “The city has changed a lot and I think there’s really exciting things that are happening here. There is a lot of potential regionally for Lansing to be a really vibrant place.”
Initially, Rory worked for the Michigan Environmental Council, but didn’t feel her position’s responsibilities had the focus she was looking for. She left for a year-and-a-half to join a national organization to work on safe routes to school issues. But when an opportunity came up back at her former place of employment that matched her skills and goals, she jumped at it.
Rory recently began a second stint with the Michigan Environmental Council, where she coordinates a transportation coalition called Transportation for Michigan. It’s comprised of a diverse array of organizations from faith-based and equity organizations like the NAACP, to entities interested in transportation with an economic development angle like the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. The goal of the coalition is to focus on improving transportation in Michigan so that the state is more vibrant as a whole.
“It’s nice to be working on Michigan issues again,” says Rory. “I mean, that’s the whole reason I moved back here. I’m from here. I care a lot about this state. Chicago is a wonderful place to live but my heart wasn’t really in it. It’s nice to be engaged in Michigan issues again.”
Aside from her job working on state-wide transportation issues, Rory has also taken an active role in local Lansing issues as well. Besides joining several community boards, she is beginning her third season as a coach for a 12-year-old city league soccer team and fighting her self-described “problem” of collecting bicycles.
And now, by throwing her hat into the ring for an at-large seat on the City Council, Rory hopes to get involved in the cities future to an even greater degree.
“Because we have several higher education institutions, we have even more cultural activities than other cities and regions that are bigger than us have,” says Rory. “There’s a lot to do – there’s too much to do – which I think is wonderful. Unfortunately, I think some of the current leadership on council is disconnected with the momentum and the energy that is growing in the area.
“I think the tenor and the tone of council right now is too often negative. There is great momentum here and I think council should reflect that. I want to be a person who is coming to the table to find solutions. You can’t just say no. If you want to see something done differently you have to have a vision for how you’d like to do it.
“I talk about it through a lens of walking or biking, but I do a lot of work on place-making. People in this economy are choosing where to live first and then getting a job. So we need to be an attractive region. And it’s not just about economic development; it’s about being socially connected to other people and living a healthy lifestyle. I think we too often ignore the connection between our health and lifestyles and the types of communities we live in. I believe this is a great place to live and could be even better.
“We live in a very competitive global society now and people want to live in the cities again, especially in the U.S., and it’s exciting to see young people want to live in cities. I think we have to be competitive and we don’t have a lot of time to waste. We have to be pushing the envelope to attract people to want to live here and work here. And I think we need a bit more of a sense of urgency.”