Detroit League membership is one of the best ways to add your voice to a powerful force of men and women from all 50 states, Washington DC, the Virgin Islands, and Hong Kong who strive to be better informed at the ballot box. Membership alone gives us the political influence needed to build a voice for citizens and a force for change.
Spotlighting individuals of the Detroit League is the best way for us to promote the roles our members play while supporting the causes they care about.
George Cook, Betty Burdette, and Laura Isom: Team Spotlight by Cheryl Bukoff
With the General Election less than two months away, LWV is focused on its get-out-the-vote efforts. Our September spotlight, therefore, is on LWVD members who take the voter registration mission to heart. Voter registration is part and parcel of our Voter Services Committee. While there are several members on this Committee, three members do the lion’s share of voter registration work: George Cook, Betty Burdette, and Laura Isom.
Unfortunately, Laura could not join us, so I interviewed George and Betty about how and why they got involved in this all-important volunteer work. We had a fascinating discussion, and I appreciated learning about their histories contributing to their current League endeavors.
One of six children, George was born in Detroit, MI, and grew up in the Brewster projects. He ran track and played football at Northeastern High School. Describing his football career as “155 pounds of fighting fury,” George added, speaks more to his passion than skill.
Betty grew up in a family with four children in Lawrenceville, VA, and went to a segregated high school until her junior year, when two school systems merged. Even though Lawrenceville was a small community, Betty feels fortunate to have lived there because she was motivated by the African American student teachers from St. Paul’s College, a historically black college in her hometown. The student teachers served as role models for the town youth, resulting in 75% of her graduating class matriculating to college. Betty, herself, graduated from North Carolina Central University, an HBCU, in Dunham, NC.
George’s career started in probation and parole, working with the courts through the federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) program. After George left the courts, he worked in treatment alternative services to street crimes, first with the Detroit Psychiatric Institute and ultimately reaching his goal, working for Thumb Correctional Facility (aka “the Thumb”) in Lapeer and the jail system in Macomb County. George thoroughly enjoyed his career in prison services. For him, getting to know the inmates and understanding the communities they came from created a more humane workplace.
Betty worked most of her career in human resources for various businesses in the private sector, the last being Detroit Edison (DTE). She watched HR’s role change during her time, from an employee-centered service to one focused on management goals.
Betty had often worked on political campaigns, distributing print materials and going door-to-door registering people to vote, which she enjoyed. After retiring from DTE, she yearned to do more continuous voter registration, not just at election time, so she researched volunteer opportunities with more sustainable voter services organizations. Betty was especially drawn to the League because of its nonpartisan voter education and candidate forums.
George, too, got more involved in politics once he retired. A few years ago, he helped campaign for a congressional candidate, distributed literature, and registered voters. From there, he wanted something more ongoing in this arena. George joined the Detroit League after meeting our past president, Rhonda Craig.
George and Betty learned at an early age that voting is an integral part of our democracy and the best response to threats against a government by the people. Both had parents who encouraged their interest in government and voting.
On Election Day, George’s mother took her children into the voting booth, and that one act left a lasting impression. By the time he was in ninth grade, George was keenly aware of the importance of voting as his civic duty. Betty remembers, at an early age observing her parents on Election Day. They would dress up and together go to vote, which excited Betty and her siblings, making voting a family value.
I asked George and Betty if they had a standout memory or story from their voter registration work. George immediately remembered a young woman who indicated she needed a reason to vote. The thought was so far removed from his ideals that he did not pick up on her rationale. Betty said it’s gratifying when people thank her for being out in the neighborhood to register voters.
Both George and Betty voiced concerns about the more recent threats to our democracy, making the League’s work even more critical.
At the end of our conversation, the three of us brainstormed ways to get the apathetic out to vote. Here are some of our ideas:
- Consider holding more registration drives at felony forgiveness events because one of LWVD’s most successful drives was at such a function. Many ex-cons did not know their voter rights; they were thrilled to register and expressed a desire to vote on Election Day.
- Develop MI voter rights print materials for groups such as ex-offenders, the disabled, and new and permanent citizens.
- For table events, create signage advertising LWVD’s various services (e.g., voter registration, voter rights, change of address, VOTE411, and absentee ballots), which empowers people to ask for help.
- Revisit ‘’Get Out the Vote’’ billboards, which an outside group financed for LWVD during the 2016 Presidential Election.
- Teach civics and offer mock elections in schools to plant a seed with younger generations.
George, Betty, and Laura have come together ‘’in League’’ because they believe in the power of voting and that registering people to vote is the first step toward empowerment. They welcome other LWVD members to join them in this effort. If you are interested in helping this group, contact the League at email@example.com (use Subject Line: Voter Registration) or call 313-288-9500.
Our August spotlight is on Anne Parker, who joined the Detroit League in 2019 after hearing about LWV during a CitizenDetroit presentation.
Originally from Rahway, New Jersey, Anne came to Michigan in 1970 to attend Wayne State University, where she received her Bachelor of Science degree in Education. She earned a Master’s degree in Special Education from the University of Michigan and a second Master’s (MA +30) in Educational Administration from Eastern Michigan University.
Not surprisingly and to our good fortune, Anne began her teaching career with the Detroit Public Schools Community District in various positions, starting as a special education teacher and continuing as a consultant and then assistant principal. She was the principal for several Detroit schools and worked in other administrative positions as assistant director of human resources, director of the office of employment, executive director of school accountability, and eventually executive director of the office of recruitment and retention when she retired from DPSCD in 2006.
Still eager to share her knowledge and experience, Anne worked as the human resources manager for the Pontiac School District, human resources director at Starr Detroit Academy, and finally, administrative coordinator for Chandler Park Elementary School, where she retired (again) in 2019.
Anne was interested in voter registration and education even before retirement. So, after joining the Detroit League, she quickly signed on to chair the Mini-Van Election Notification Project, which trains other league members to use their mobile phones to text and call voters in various low-voting districts. During the 2020 Presidential Election, Anne and her team completed a total of 2,077 texts or phone calls urging people to vote and encouraging them to spread the message.
Around that time, Anne represented LWVD and chaired the Legislative Interview Project, a State League program requesting local leagues to interview their newly elected legislators. Anne’s team interviewed elected officials in Detroit, Highland Park, and Hamtramck.
On behalf of the Detroit League, Anne hosted voter registration tables at Wayne State University, the Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS), and Breithaupt Career & Technical Center. At Cass Technical High School, Anne provided voter information and assisted in their mock elections.
Always active in the community, Anne has been involved in numerous volunteer activities and neighborhood groups, including but not limited to her presidency/vice presidency with the Greater Sandhill Neighborhood Organization; treasurer, Old Redford Radio Patrol; nominations committee chair, 8th Precinct Police Community Relations Council; and graduate of the Wayne County Sheriff Citizens Training Academy. She holds membership with Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc-Golden (50 years)/life member, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)/life member, MI Association of Retired School Personnel (MARSP), the American Association of Retired People (AARP), and the 13thDistrict Democratic Party.
Anne shares her home with an Akita named Natalie and Kendrick the cat. She enjoys working in her yard, shopping, and traveling (which she recently resumed in Florida). Upcoming travel plans include Washington D.C. and Jamaica before the year’s end. She hopes to do all this by keeping fit with her personal trainer.
The Detroit League is fortunate to have Anne willing to share her administrative skills, enthusiasm, and commitment to the League to move our mission forward whenever asked. Case in point, Anne recently joined the LWVD Board as a Director At Large. We appreciate her hard and skillful work, her thoughtful approach to tasks, and her positive focus on those with whom she is engaged.
Our July spotlight is on Rhonda Craig, who became LWVD copresident with Suzanne Cleage in 2015 when League leaders invited political and community activists to join the Detroit League ⏤ at the time a Members-at-Large (MAL).
In 2018, Rhonda took on the distinct role of president, leading LWVD, which serves Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park, encouraging informed and active participation in government at the local, state, and national levels. For the last five years, she hasn’t looked back.
During Rhonda’s tenure as president, the Detroit League regained its official chapter status after being defunct since 2010. LWVD now has more than 60 members, a thriving website, an online newsletter, and a legion of stellar committees providing nonpartisan voter information services.
The LWVD Voter Services Committee, for example, hosts voter registration drives in Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park. Focusing on unregistered voters at high schools, community colleges, and naturalization ceremonies, LWVD volunteers have helped to register thousands of Americans.
Under Rhonda’s leadership, LWVD has developed partnerships with nonpartisan organizations such as Voters Not Politicians, When We All Vote, Get Out the Vote, Promote the Vote, and CitizenDetroit, Michigan ACLU, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Tau Alpha Omega Chapter. Rhonda has also worked closely with other metro area Leagues to produce and moderate candidate forums.
At the pandemic’s start, Rhonda guided the Detroit League’s collaboration with the Detroit Public Library. These nonpartisan entities have pooled their resources to offer voter information and education that encourages voter turnout. The LWVD/DPL partnership has produced more than a dozen virtual forums and workshops. From their first program (Voting Safely), which “aired” in September 2020 at the height of the shutdown, to the moving historical presentation from Rhonda herself (African American Suffrage Movement: Fighting Against All Sides), these collaborative talks promote voter education and tools for action. Other popular forum topics include How Political Cartoons Happen, Detecting Disinformation and “Pink Slime,” and Voting Accessibility: The Disability Experience.
But there’s another side to Rhonda Craig that not many people know.
Born and raised in Gary, Indiana, by her mother, Myrtle, a social worker active in many civic groups, and her grandmother, Blanche, a community leader, and precinct delegate, Rhonda was destined for public life.
In high school, Rhonda was active in Band, Drama Club, Chess Club, the National Honor Society, the World Affairs Forum, and Students for Peace and Freedom. High school may have provided Rhonda’s initial platform for civic service, but she inherited her zeal for activism from her family.
At Indiana’s highly acclaimed and conservative Valparaiso University, Rhonda maintained her interest in drama and activism. As a Black student representative on the University Board of Directors, she influenced the Board to stop buying lettuce during the farmworker’s strike in the 1970s. She graduated with a BA in drama and later received a Juris Doctor from the Law School.
In the early 1980s, Rhonda moved to Detroit, MI, where she worked as a legal aid defense attorney and corporate counsel before becoming an administrative law judge with the State of MI. She expanded her professional work at the state and regional level with membership in the Wolverine Bar Association and the Association of Black Judges of Michigan. Rhonda also served on numerous non-profit boards and supported organizations such as the Valparaiso Law School Alumni Association, Legal Aid and Defender Association, Barnabas Youth Group, and the Black United Fund. After more than 40 years in administrative law and 29 years on the bench, Rhonda retired her robe.
In addition to Rhonda’s contributions to her church as director of Christian education, bible study teacher, and elder, she has continued to act, most recently performing with her daughter in Steven Korbar’s poignant and light-hearted drama, In Her Golden Years at Planet Ant Theater in Hamtramck. Many LWV members were in attendance to see the mother-daughter duo win a theater contest for their performances.
Rhonda survived cervical cancer, diagnosed when she was six months pregnant with her son. She enjoys various crafts, including sewing, crochet, and woodworking. Twice married and divorced, Rhonda has a daughter, a teacher, and a son, a chemical engineer. She enjoys Detroit Urban Ballroom Dancing and is a proud resident of the City of Detroit.
This past June, Rhonda stepped down from her role as president, leaving a remarkable legacy as the second and longest LWVD president to date.
Maria Shriver said, “Starting at the bottom is not about humiliation. It’s about humility, a realistic assessment of where you are in the learning curve.” We were all green when it came to the League. Still, Rhonda seemingly understood the goal, guiding us in developing services, coordinating events, fundraising, and media, and not letting anything “fall through the cracks.” She encouraged members to be involved and grow in their leadership skills, doing it all with a beautiful sense of grace and humor and an evident commitment to the League. She was the absolute right president for our formative years.
Farewell President. Hello Secretary.
Charles Thomas, Jr.
Our May 2020 spotlight is on Charles Thomas, Jr., an active member of the Detroit League since 2019 and guiding light for the LWVD Speakers Bureau. As a minister and a longtime community activist, Charles has extensive speaking experience, which he draws on when representing the League. His League-related speaking engagements include numerous voter registration events and training on MI redistricting. Since the pandemic hit, he has played a significant role with the Detroit League/Detroit Public Library collaborative forums committee acting as moderator, identifying speakers, and providing leadership in discussions to identify forum topics, as well as marketing the virtual DPL/LWVD events.
“Speaking on behalf of the Detroit League does involve some training to become versed on the given subject,” he said, “but the Board always ensures I’m equipped with the information and knowledge necessary to complete the task.”
Having family personally involved in the 1960s fight for civil rights, particularly two aunts who marched across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, AL, Charles launched an initiative to encourage voter turnout: When You Vote, I Win. As Charles explains the name of his enterprise, “We need laws and policies that serve and benefit us as a community. We can only get those laws and policies enacted if we all vote for candidates who will fight for our needs.”
When asked how he got involved with LWVD, Charles said, “I was attending an ACLU event when I heard President Rhonda Craig and Membership Chair Cheryl Bukoff introduce the League of Women Voters. I realized the League’s mission was directly connected to my work ⏤ protecting voting rights and encouraging voter turnout ⏤ and knew immediately I wanted to become involved. Joining LWVD allows me to carry on the legacy of my Selma roots and be at the forefront to secure and protect the right to vote.”
Charles’ mastery of speaking and the League’s commitment to defending democracy through education make for a good team because they share a can-do attitude and always find ways to encourage informed and active participation in government. Thank you, Charles, for all you do to get out the vote.
A California native, Roberta Deering came to Michigan in 2020 with her husband Greg Ptucha, an East Dearborn native. The retirees now live in Detroit in their rehabbed Mies van der Rohe townhouse in Lafayette Park.
Moving across the country at the height of the Covid lockdown added exponential challenges to meeting people and establishing one’s self in a new environment. Having previously supported the League financially and utilizing VOTE 411 to understand ballot issues, Roberta looked to be more actively engaged, particularly with voter participation and voting rights. “I wanted to help with something I care about and meet new people. The League of Women Voters of Detroit really fit the bill.”
Since joining the League, Roberta has participated in the statewide LWVMI Observer Corps. This committee work is a good match for Roberta as she is no stranger to the observation process. Roberta has closely followed the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (MICRC) as they redrafted the state’s district maps. She then took her observation skills to another level:
Teaming up with LWVD members Cheryl Bukoff and Charlene McNary, Roberta has been instrumental in the conformation of the LWVD Observer Corps, which will observe meetings of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers and the Wayne County Election Commission.
Roberta is also helping the League with other efforts. In support of the MICRC, she volunteered at the first Detroit public hearing after the release of the Commission’s draft maps. And in early May, she represented the LWVMI Observer Corps to observe the canvassing of Special General Election ballots as part of the LWV’s effort to observe the canvass in four Michigan counties.
Thank you, Roberta, for all your League efforts. We are lucky to have you.