From educator to politician Gilda Jacobs’ career has seen landmark wins for Michigan youth, families and more.
By Ashley Zlatopolsky, Special to the Jewish News
It was an accident that she entered the field of politics.
Gilda Jacobs, who has now had an honorable, 30-year career in public service, had her eyes set on helping children who have special needs.
A graduate of the University of Michigan with a master’s degree in behavioral sciences in education, she worked as a special education teacher in the Madison School District until 1976, teaching one of the first classes for children who have emotional disabilities.
Fast-forward four decades and Jacobs’ career has included time served on the Michigan House of Representatives, Senate and on leadership for policy change organizations.
Born in Northwest Detroit, Jacobs, 70, will be inducted into the HERStory Women’s Hall of Fame (formerly the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame) on Nov. 7 for the work she has done to benefit children, economically vulnerable families and more, all because of an unexpected chance to become involved in campaigns.
Her job as a special education teacher was tough. It was a time when special education services were changing for both students and teachers. Jacobs was involved in activism through a teachers’ union and found an interest in issues and identifying solutions.
“After four years, I was feeling kind of burned out,” Jacobs recalls.
While on maternity leave, she began to volunteer for a citizens group launched by education advocate Doug Ross. When Ross ran for state Senate in the late 1970s and asked Jacobs to help run his campaign, she immediately said yes and left behind a teaching job with benefits to earn $100 a week managing its day-to-day operations.
Ross won his seat, and Jacobs stayed on to co-manage his district office.
“It was through that job I started seeing how government could help people,” Jacobs says. “It was a great opportunity for me to see what was going on in other communities. I looked at folks who were elected officials and [realized] they were like me; they were people who wanted to improve the lives of their kids and the community.
“I said, ‘Boy, I could probably run for office, too.’”
A resident of Huntington Woods for more than 45 years, Jacobs was the first woman elected to Huntington Woods City Commission in 1981. But it wasn’t easy.
At a time where very few women were running for office, some public offices didn’t even have bathrooms for women. The year prior, in 1980, she ran as a Democrat in a Republican district. It was a Reagan landslide year, and Jacobs lost by a couple hundred votes. She was elected a year later.
Jacobs’ career continued to grow. She was elected to Oakland County Commission in 1995, then served two terms in the House of Representatives from 1999-2002, followed by two terms in the Michigan Senate from 2003-2010, where she was elected as chair of the Democratic Senate Caucus.
She made history as the first woman floor leader in either chamber of the legislature. “I would say to other women, ‘You know, we’re a great force,’” Jacobs recalls. “We can do great things.”
Following her terms, Jacobs joined the Michigan League for Public Policy in 2011 as president and CEO. She calls it her dream job. “It is an amazing organization with an amazing reputation,” she says.
The league promotes racial equity, economic security, health and well-being for Michigan residents and has operated since 1912. “I was able to build on that [history] and create an even more expansive organization,” she says.
Jacobs had two recent major policy wins: a policy that raises the age when juveniles are tried as adults in the criminal justice system, and a policy that changes the asset test on food and cash assistance in the state, allowing more residents to be eligible for help.
“These are huge wins for us,” Jacobs says.
In addition to politics and public policy, Jacobs never forgot her passion for helping individuals with special needs. She also served as development director for JARC, an organization providing residential care for people with developmental disabilities.
She belongs to Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park and was a board member of the Women’s Division of Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. Her husband, John Jacobs, was formerly president of Jewish Family Service. She enjoys attending synagogue with her grandchildren and her involvement in the Jewish community.
Jacobs has won numerous awards for her work, including the Michigan Food Bank Council’s Hunger-Free Award in 2015 and being named one of the 100 Most Influential Women in Michigan by Crain’s Detroit Business in 2016.
“It was news to me,” she says of her hall of fame nomination. “I am very humbled by this honor.”