Gilda Z. Jacobs: My advice to the next generation of policy advocates

December 16, 2021 8:20 am

Sen. Gilda Jacobs speaking on the Senate floor | Gilda Jacobs photo

It’s pretty hard to sum up a 50-year career in any amount of time, let alone in 600 to 700 words. That’s less than 200 words a decade! But that is my charge and I appreciate this opportunity to reflect on my retirement, so I will do my best.

Looking back, my career in public service was definitely shaped a lot by my environment, where and when I grew up. Coming of age in Detroit and seeing a literal wall built between communities and people of different races and ethnicities. 

Attending the University of Michigan in the ‘60s, still a rarity as a woman. Amidst the civil rights, feminist and anti-war movements, I  awakened to activism and got involved in sit-ins, protests and even bra burning. I saw so many things I wanted to change in the world, but I also felt empowered to try to change them any way that I could. I have always been driven by my heart, even the days when a motorcycle (well, motor scooter) was my primary mode of transportation (true story!).

My career began as a special education teacher, continued as an advocate for people with disabilities, and then led into my foray into elected office. I was proud to be the first woman elected to the Huntington Woods City Commission in 1981, and I also served as an Oakland County commissioner and was the Democratic caucus chair, a first also. I then headed to Lansing to represent Oakland County in the Capitol, serving 12 years in the Michigan House of Representatives and Senate, including making history again as the first woman floor leader in either chamber of the Legislature. 

In 2011, I had the good fortune of landing at the Michigan League for Public Policy, getting to continue to work on the issues I cared deeply about, but transitioning back to trying to fix the system from the outside — and in a “nonpartisan” way, no less! There were some growing pains, but I also found that the sum of my experiences continued to inform and improve my advocacy. And I want to try to share some of those insights with all of you. 


Here are my main mantras for public service, advocacy and policy change:

Show up. The nature of my personal and professional politics means I have been constantly fighting uphill battles. It’s a slog. But you have to keep putting in the work and plugging away.

Don’t take yourself too seriously, take your job seriously. Whether it was participating in holiday sing-alongs on the Senate floor or getting way too into the League’s Halloween festivities, I have always tried to stay humble and have fun. Advocacy and policy work affects real people who are hurting and can and should be heavy, so we must always find ways to keep ourselves light and let off steam any way that we can.

Don’t spit in the water because you may have to drink it someday. In politics and the League, I have embraced compromise and flexibility. As a lawmaker and a multi-issue organization, our adversary on one issue can be our top ally on another, and we want to make sure our advocacy doesn’t backfire. Compromise is rarely easy, and definitely not preferred to absolutes and undisputed, undiluted victories. But it is usually the only path forward, and ultimately still progress.

Don’t sweat the small stuff. This approach is entwined with compromise. You have to pick your battles, and you have to learn when to let go and what to let go of. Ego, pride and micromanagement can get in the way of good things, and I always try to look at the big picture as much as possible.

Relationships matter. Public service, politics and policy advocacy—and nearly any endeavor — all come back to relationships. I’ve kept in touch with my first boss for decades and continued to seek his advice when I went to the Legislature. I also have maintained relationships with many of my staff members and mentees who have gone on to do amazing things. And you never know, your friend and colleague in the Legislature may end up governor one day!

Have patience. Policy changes can take years, but change is worth the wait and effort. This is probably the most important piece of advice for my fellow progressives, and the hardest to heed. But all of your work in the present is laying the foundation for the future. Change can and will come, but not always at the pace we’d like. Issues I have worked on for years in the Legislature and at the League have changed for the better in just the past few years, and the work and time invested make these wins all the more satisfying. 

As I prepare to hang up my hat, I am so proud to have spent an entire career doing what I love and working to make a difference for my state and my fellow Michiganders. And I continue to be inspired by the passion and enthusiasm of the next generation of public policy advocates, and look forward to seeing them make their mark on this place we all call home. 

I’ll continue to fight the good fight in retirement and I can’t begin to thank the hundreds (indeed thousands) of people who have touched my life over the years in such a significant way. I will forever be grateful to you all.


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Gilda Z. Jacobs
Gilda Z. Jacobs

Gilda Z. Jacobs has dedicated her life to helping others, working as an educator, helping provide housing for people with disabilities, serving in state and local government for 30 years, including 12 in the Michigan Legislature. She is the Michigan League for Public Policy's former President and CEO.