Informed by her career as a technologist, state Sen. Rosemary Bayer legislates with a look toward the future on issues from the environment to education.
SOUTHFIELD, Mich.—After years working in software engineering for major companies, Rosemary Bayer decided to strike out on her own. Her startup, Ardent Cause, helped Michigan nonprofits with information systems. But the more Bayer interacted with nonprofits and got a wider view of the troubles Michiganders faced, the more she felt she needed a change in her career.
Now state Sen. Rosemary Bayer is addressing those issues from a very different background than most members of the Michigan Legislature.
“I’ve taken things into my legislative work that I got to do at that company,” Bayer told The ‘Gander. “It might look like a circuitous path, but it turned out to be pretty straight arrow.”
Ardent Cause has since been folded into The Nonprofit Spot, which bought it shortly after Bayer left her position as CEO, ensuring that the work of the company could continue even as her life took a new path. But the things Ardent Cause taught her are still relevant to her work in the Legislature.
She gave the example of a study that followed people seeking mental health support for seven years and looked at a wider array of factors in their lives, like their housing situation, and how those impacted their mental state. She took her experience on that study and applied it to solutions for Michiganders in long-term care struggling with isolation as part of a task force alongside state Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia), another woman who went from STEM to government for whom Bayer has fondness.
But her work in computer science has a much more direct influence on Bayer’s goals.
The Internet is a Utility
The coronavirus pandemic has made the essential nature of the internet crystal clear. Far beyond ordering dinner, groceries, and holiday gifts online or seeking a break from isolation with web-based calling services like Zoom or Discord, the internet has taken central stage in lives world-over for the ways it has allowed people to do the things they need to do from home to avoid exposure.
Bayer sees the internet as absolutely essential, not just during the pandemic but for a successful Michigan in the future. So she’s using her background to do something about it.
“I’ve been bringing my technology expertise and background to the work on getting broadband to everyone in the state,” Bayer told The ‘Gander. “High-speed internet access should be a utility. Without that, your education is not equitable. Without that, your work is not equitable. Without that, even your health care is not equitable. So every family needs access to this.”
Most school districts in Michigan already have broadband access, she explained, and so she’s taken an education-centered view on getting that broadband through the “last mile,” to use a postal term, and into family homes.
The pandemic isn’t the first time there have been calls to classify the internet as a public utility. It became a central point in the debate around net neutrality—the policy idea that would prevent internet service providers from slowing or blocking content at will—because utilities are regulated differently from other services. Back in 2016, the United Nations declared that internet access is a human right
As Quartz explains, the virus brought that conversation back to the forefront. With people working from home, attending school through e-learning portals, and having telehealth appointments on Zoom, the internet has become integral in so many aspects of life in 2021, and this acceleration of the growth of the role of the internet in daily lives isn’t likely to go away when the pandemic ends.
Working for Tomorrow’s Michiganders
Another action Bayer wants to make today to address a problem tomorrow’s Michiganders will grapple with is the environment. Environmentalism has long been a passion for Bayer, and now she’s working both through legislation and through less direct means to advance the cause of fighting for clean water, clean air, and a survivable climate for future generations.
“For a long time if you asked me what my number one issue was, I would say climate change—if we destroy the climate we will not get it back,” Bayer said, adding with a laugh. “It’s still number one, but now I work in the Michigan government so I have some other number one priorities.”
For instance, protecting the Great Lakes. Bayer explained that every state and province that touches one of the Great Lakes works together as a legislative team called the Great Lakes Caucus that works to protect the essential waterways, home to one of the largest freshwater systems in the world.
But some of her other number one priorities are focused outside environmentalism. Another major area of focus for Bayer is education, and using education as a tool to help ensure equity for the future.
“What do we do to ensure everyone has equal access to opportunity? Access to a fair shake?” she asked. “If we can fix our education system in Michigan to make it good enough and fair enough that everyone had equitable access to a quality education … it always comes back to education.”
Together with her career in technology, her areas of focus make Bayer, who admits she never expected to be a politician, a voice for the future in the Michigan Legislature.