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Welcome Back, Sylvia Elliott! - January 2021
Editor's note: We originally planned this farewell feature on Sylvia Elliott in honor of her retirement. But now that the Commission has asked her to serve in an advisory capacity, let's just say, "Welcome back, Sylvia!" and let this piece remind everyone of why we are lucky to have her on board again.
“I come from a family that helps,” Sylvia Elliott said during a phone interview from her Detroit office.
For 44 years, Elliott’s history of a “family that helps” has driven her in both the Michigan Civil Services Commission and the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. With a mother who was a teacher and administrator and a father who doted on the neighborhood children with coaching and mentoring, her childhood home was always bursting with energy and bustling with activity as the kids in the neighborhood were being tutored or assisted with college applications.
“That’s the environment I grew up in, and it seemed very natural to me,” she said, “so that’s what I do—I help people.”
She describes her work with the Department as helping people get “unstuck.”
“I realized that being in this position… I can impact people’s lives,” she said. “Sometimes it’s a group of people, but sometimes it’s one person at a time. To help people get unstuck, as I call it – because so many people when they file a civil rights complaint, their life is pretty much on hold while they await the outcome. They feel that they’ve been hurt, they want someone to at least acknowledge that what happened to them was wrong or was against the law. And then you help them to be able to move forward with their lives.”
The one case that stands out for Elliott as an example of how the Department pulls together to solve real world problems is Emmick v. Royalwood. The case ultimately set the stage for reasonable accommodations as they relate to emotional support animals in the state.
“We worked hard as a team and now it is the law in the state of Michigan,” she said. “I think if we had not been open to the possibility that people with mental health issues needed this type of assistance too, we would not have taken it as far as we did; but the fact that we did, we made new law.”
With 22 years with the Department, Elliott is ready to move forward with her own life. She said she’d spend some time figuring out who she is now, particularly in the wake of the passing of her parents. She’ll spend more time with her twin daughters who live in Atlanta – and her sister who runs Detroit-Windsor Dance Academy (right across from the Detroit offices) and her brother who runs Catering Society, Inc, a catering company.
In time, her dream is to teach civil rights law at a law school. “No Michigan law school teaches civil rights law,” she said incredulously.
For Elliott, the lack of civil rights-related education was a glaring concern as she worked with interns at the Department.
“I'm amazed at the number of interns we interview who think civil rights is only about employment and only about race,” she said. “And it's so much bigger than that, and when they come here and they see, they are just amazed.”
When we originally interviewed Sylvia ahead of her retirement, it was indeed her intention to say goodbye to her service to the state. But when asked to assist the Commission as they navigate this challenging time, she said yes. Please join us in welcoming Sylvia 'back home' to the MDCR family!