Powerful Women Let's Talk - 035: Michelle LaJoye-Young

Mar 1, 2021

Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young

Michelle LaJoye-Young has served Kent County for over 30 years. Today, she is the Sheriff. She serves on many boards at the local, state, and federal level and has been appointed to boards by 3 different Governors. What is her role as Sheriff and what does she do in her free time? We find out on this episode of Powerful Women: Let’s Talk.

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Full Transcript

Produced by Women, about Women. Powerful Women, Let's Talk is a series of interviews with women who are trailblazers and have helped shape our world, transforming who we are and how we live. Powerful Women, Let's Talk is made possible in part by Family Fare. Keeping it real.

Michelle LaJoye-Young has served Kent County for over 30 years. Today, she's the Sheriff. Her involvement and outreach extends beyond the Sheriff's office, she serves on many boards at the local, state and federal level plus has been appointed to boards by 3 different governors and served to advise on 5 separate FBI committees and task forces, but what is her role as Sheriff? And how does she ever escape from her duties? We’ll ask.  Welcome to Powerful Women, Let's Talk Sheriff LaJoye-Young. Hello to you!

Michelle LaJoye-Young: So good to be here.

Shelley Irwin: Good that you are here. Let's get this out of the way. Did you bring your badge?

Michelle LaJoye-Young: I did. I always bring my badge.

Shelley Irwin: Are you required to bring your badge?

Michelle LaJoye-Young: Well, technically as sheriff I’m the one who makes up the rules now for our department but, you know, you’re never really quite a 100% away from it. Obviously something can always happen where you might be inclined to intercede at some point or seek help for somebody and it's nice to be able to identify yourself appropriately. So, I generally do carry a badge with me.

Shelley Irwin: Did you have a badge as a little girl?

Michelle LaJoye-Young: I did not. I did not. That's something I got when I started with the sheriff's office.

Shelley Irwin: You have spent 30 years in one County. Did you set a goal to become sheriff?

Michelle LaJoye-Young: I never did set a goal to become sheriff. You know, as every position unfolded, I always sought to be the very best I could and have the best impact in the position that I was in and sometimes that led me to the next position and then to the next position but, I didn't seek to be the sheriff. Coincidentally, my dad was sheriff when I was growing up in another part of the state and so I understood it, I knew it was and I admired him for it but, I didn't really see myself filling that role and I think that something common for women, too.

Shelley Irwin: What are your responsibilities as Sheriff of Kent County?

Michelle LaJoye-Young: Well, you know, first and foremost, it's for the staff that carries out the mission every day of public safety and community engagement and it's up to me to really make sure that they've got everything that they need to do direct service to the community. If they aren’t safe, they can't make others safe. So, I strive to make sure that they're properly equipped, especially trained, morally supported, emotionally supported to go out and serve.

Shelley Irwin: Are you boots on ground. Do you have to do the arresting?

Michelle LaJoye-Young: Not anymore. You know, be quite frankly. I've had just about every role at the sheriff's Department over those 31 years, this is my 32nd year of service and I have absolutely done all those tasks but, at this point, that's not really what the sheriff does. You have to really think of the sheriff as more of the CEO of the sheriff's office. I do a lot of planning. I do a lot of management of resources to ensure the right things are in the right places and being used the right ways but, the staff is what really has direct service with the community every day.

Shelly Irwin: So breaking that myth, I shouldn't have studied the Andy Griffith show before this conversation?

Michelle LaJoye-Young: Right. Right. Although interesting, but no, not this.

Shelley Irwin: Thank you for that. Let's talk about your role. Persistence and perseverance that may have played in your journey and how you recommend that to us in finding our way?

Michelle LaJoye-Young: Yeah, you know, and I think that's a great lesson for both professionals and women professionals specifically but, really just being in the place you are and doing the very, very best you can in that place and that means proper preparation, it means determination and there are always set backs in any role any of us have you know, being able to just kind of pick yourself up work through it, get more information, get more support. That's been the key to my both my happiness in the roles had at the sheriff's office and also success because it's not the kind of field where there's successes every day. So I’ve really appreciated my ability to dig deep and my ability to ask other people to help me dig deep and motivate me.

Shelley Irwin: I ask if your father was supportive?

Michelle LaJoye-Young: You know, interesting it’s kind of an odd story because he was not in favor of me joining the field initially. You know, it was a difficult time in 1984 there weren’t a lot of women in expansive roles in the sheriff's Department. I was educated, I had spent a lot of time and effort to prepare myself professionally and I think my dad wished for me to do something easier but, once I was in the role and once I became invested in the field, he grew very supportive and has absolutely been one of my strongest mentors over the years.

Shelley Irwin: You served in the Army reserves. How did that role in particular prepare you for your role today?

Michelle LaJoye-Young: Well, a couple ways. One, the resources that a young person who doesn't have resources to go to school can get by serving in the military are really second to none and I think that’s something really important for people to understand that's out there but, the military gave me an opportunity to practice leadership to really just kind of develop your decision-making skills, your mentoring skills, your guidance skills and if you fail one day you pick yourself up. You have to do it again tomorrow, you have to do it again tomorrow there's no avoiding it. So, I really learned a lot from that and perseverance.

Shelley Irwin: You mentioned 1984 here we are in 2021 are you a minority as a woman in this profession of sheriff? Have there been naysayers along the way?

Michelle LaJoye-Young: Well, I'm absolutely sure there are naysayers. They don't always say it to you but, in small ways. Right, but there are only about 1.5% of sheriffs in the nation who're women and so yeah, I definitely am a minority in a sheriff's role even in chief of police role the numbers get a little bit bigger but not dramatically bigger but, I'm really pleased to say that over the years I looked back and there are so many more women in such a larger variety of roles in criminal justice that I'm pleased I'm hearing more women's voices at the tables of decision makers and people who're really influential in the criminal justice field and you know, I’m incredibly inspired by some of the work I've seen a lot of these wonderful women do and I am encourage that that's going to continue to move in that direction. It's not an easy field. It's something that's very difficult. You have to do it for the love of the field and you do it for the love and service of the people but, I'm encouraged.

Shelley Irwin: What is difficult and then what gets you up in the morning?

Michelle LaJoye-Young: What's difficult is sometimes the problems that you are addressing are not problems you can fix today. You have to make very determined incremental steps forward every single day that you work and there are instances that make it feel like a backslide and you’re like I got to try again, I got to try again but, that's both the difficult part and also the inspirational part. That's what propels me forward that I see if I look back over time, really meaningful progress in really meaningful ways that we've helped people and then I also see ways that we can continue to do better.

Shelley Irwin: Why has community involvement been so important to you?

Michelle LaJoye-Young: For one, it feeds me. I just love dealing with our community. We are so blessed here in this community and we have so much to offer every single human being who's here and so I love doing it for that but, also I need every person here to understand we're here to serve and if we're not serving you correctly today then we need to learn more about how to better meet your needs and how to better develop together into the future. So, I get very inspired by those conversations and by the initiatives that we're able to move forward with, with some of those conversations and it only happens when we know each other and we only know each other by community engagement.

Shelley Irwin: Getting word out about you. As a top 200 business leader in West Michigan and an influential awardee what must today's leaders possess? What you look for? What do you have?

Michelle LaJoye-Young: They need a heart for service, that's the number one thing that you will not do anything well, if you're not doing it for the right reasons and so to truly influence the community today, you have to have a heart for service, you have to have determination to make positive changes and you have to know how you can best serve those goals.

Shelley Irwin: You have a very important position, but you are human. Tell me about Charlie.

Michelle LaJoye-Young: Charlie is my 60 pound goldendoodle lapdog who gets very interested in every zoom call I have from home now and tries to get into every shot. So, she's so lovable. We were chatting, but, it's been fun to be a little bit more often home with her and having that time. I'm a little bit fearful how she's going to respond when I go back to more regular hours because more of my events are outside.

Shelley Irwin: Yes, part of the family. As is Haven.

Michelle LaJoye-Young: Haven is my brand new granddaughter. She turns 6 weeks old on Monday and she's just a beautiful light.

Shelley Irwin: You are an active sheriff.

Michelle LaJoye-Young: Yes, very active sheriff. You have to be, you know, that gets back to being physically and emotionally ready to serve and so for me, both physical and emotional support is staying active, it's swimming. I love the open swim and open water swim and bike and get out. This is such a beautiful community so, I get out and hike and walk the wonderful trails and it's wonderful.

Shelley Irwin: The opportunity to travel. You’ve climbed the Great Wall, you've been to Ireland. What is this? Taking your kids to all 50 states?

Michelle LaJoye-Young: I did. Yeah, before my 2 boys graduated high school. We took them to all 50 states. Most of it in an 1985 RV that didn't make all 50 states but, made most of them. So, it’s been a wonderful opportunity. In every state we would go to, we would take turns picking something to do in that state, whether it's a national park or we went for a hike or to a lake. It was just a wonderful opportunity to spend time as a family and then understand how blessed we are.

Shelley Irwin: A little birdie tells me, though you haven't traveled since becoming a sheriff. What's up with that?

Michelle LaJoye-Young: Well, it hasn’t been the best time to travel. the last in adventure was about 2 and a half years ago. The last year absolutely has been, you know, struck by covid and some of the community unrest that, you know, nationally we're dealing with. So, I thought my attentions had better be spent more here and dealing with what I've committed to do but, I do hope to travel again very soon.

Shelley Irwin: And let's talk to the adjustments with the events of 2020, the pandemic in particular, the racial protests. Where do you want to start?

Michelle LaJoye-Young: Yeah. It's been a difficult year in so many lives. You know, obviously we've lost a lot of our friends and families and that's just heartbreaking to know that we have that in the community. I have appreciated how much our community has come together, leveraged resources to make sure that we're lifting up

people and make sure that we're doing what we need to keep each other healthy, safe and press forward. You know, whether it's the Pfizer vaccine that happened here in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the other vaccines that are coming to our community and I hope everybody's doing their part to make sure they stay safe so that they can keep others safe. Public safety had a very challenging time with that, obviously I can't keep officers from making human contact. So our officers really did a wonderful job, making sure the safety protocols were followed. We changed our operations and did a lot of things over the phone that we used to do in person. It's not quite as effective but, it was more effective than people getting sick and in the correctional facility, we worked very closely to make sure that anybody might be at risk had an opportunity for segregation. We have 24/7 medical care but, in some cases, some of those individuals were released from custody because they couldn't be maintained in a safe way and their charges were low enough that it didn't cause an issue to the community. So, everyday we look how do we do it better today every every day.

Shelley Irwin: What needs to happen this year?

Michelle LaJoye-Young: Well, I think particularly in the Correctional facility the risk is still very, very imminent in that it really just takes a drop-in protocol for a day or 2 days and somebody can get in and cause very serious risk issues for people who are incarcerated. So we're constantly striving to make sure you know that we don't let that happen. So, that's this year, you know, law enforcement, we start to see the community spread diminish over the course of this year predictably and vaccines are becoming more normal in our community. So, we're going to continue to be very vigilant and start to re-engage in some of our community outreach things because as you also mentioned, racial unrest was a really big issue starting last spring and into the summer and you know what, I would anticipate those conversations are very much still here and we're going to be having to engage often wanting to engage often to build forward from that and you know, often it takes human contact. So we're looking forward to being able to do that more effectively in the course of this you know, 2021 year 2022 and beyond. We developed a strategic plan that we published in February right before Covid struck last year and our top 2 priorities are public safety and community engagement. So, being able to put some of those plans further in place is hopeful for me.

Shelley Irwin: Are you a reader? Do you have a favorite read?

Michelle LaJoye-Young: You know, I am a reader. It's usually assigned reading for different issues. My Grandmother's Hand is the most recent book that I've just read and I did it as part of a group book read for a board that I sit on child Children's Advocacy Center. It was very enlightening. It's something I would highly recommend and it talks about trauma and trauma both personally and as a community and how do we work through trauma to get to the better place that we can be at the end. So, it was a very good read I recommend it.

Shelley Irwin: And you're making sure your boys follow the law?

Michelle LaJoye-Young: Well, my boys are young adults. I try very hard. We'll go with that.

Shelley Irwin: How can the community be the best it can?

Michelle LaJoye-Young: You know, communities keep communities, safe, police don’t and remember that as part of this community you're keeping your neighbors safe you're keeping your family safe and you have to do whatever you can to meet that need and sometimes it's through mentoring somebody or reaching out to somebody that needs help sometimes it's through, you know, advocating for somebody with whatever official government entity they need to be engaged with and sometimes it's telling government you're not doing it right and we need your help differently than what you're doing. So, I think everybody has a different role and I just advocate that people look for their role and then do it.

Shelley Irwin: Thank you. Kent County Sheriff Michelle Lajoye-Young for this conversation.

Michelle LaJoye-Young: Wonderful to be here. Thank you.

Shelley Irwin: And thank you for listening to this edition of Powerful Women Let’s Talk. I'm Shelley Irwin.

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