Family is everything to Charmae Sanders of St. Joseph.
The 1995 graduate of St. Joseph High School said she still goes on yearly vacations with her parents and two brothers, along with extended family.
“We’re very close. I talk to my parents every single day and stop by their house several times a week,” she said of her parents, Charles and Ora Sanders, who still live in St. Joseph. “I talk to my brothers almost every day by phone or text.”
Sanders, who is black, said growing up with college-educated parents meant she had a lot of opportunities and privilege.
“They were able to offer their kids any experience or opportunity that we wished for,” she said. “I never had to worry about anything. Because of that, there were doors open to me and opportunities open to me that were easy to walk into. I never for one day in my whole entire life thought I was not going to college. It was which college was I going to. I never thought that I wouldn’t have a professional career. It was, what do I want to do with my life.”
And what she has done is helped children and young adults who don’t have much privilege navigate the world. After graduating from Michigan State University, she worked with foster children at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services in Berrien County. In 2015, she switched to working at Lake Michigan College in Benton Township, where she is now the operations manager of the Start to Finish program, an academic support program for students from the Benton Harbor Promise Zone and for students who spent time in the foster care system.
“Equality and equity is something that’s important to fight for,” she said. “... I’ve spent my entire career working with people who have little to no privilege. Where are the gaps? Where are the problems? What can we do to fix that?”
Sanders sat down with Herald-Palladium Staff Writer Louise Wrege recently to talk about her journey.
What’s your favorite part of working in the Start to Finish program?
Working with the students. Our students are great. They’re inspirational. They’re very open. They love coming to us and talking about anything and everything. They like to get involved in things around LMC and in the community. So many of them are just so happy to have those opportunities to try something new that maybe they’ve never tried before. Working with them is fun. I tell them all the time, ‘You drive me crazy, but I love you.’
Do you feel like you’re making a difference?
Yes. In the results of the program, we see it. But then, also, just in the growth of the students during their time here. And we maintain contact with a lot of our students after they leave here, be it to go get jobs or to move on to other four-year colleges and universities. Just seeing some of the students and what they’re doing is amazing. One of our students started an internship in Detroit. He’s attending Michigan State University right now. And in the fall, he’ll be part of a program where he actually studies in Washington, D.C. He studies part time and will have a job in a governmental agency while he’s there.
He’s getting his education but then also getting job experience. He graduated from Dream Academy.
Isn’t Dream Academy an alternative school?
We have so many students who are brilliant who just maybe haven’t had the opportunities given to them. This is a student who graduated from LMC with honors. He was on the Dean’s List at Michigan State. I think that students like him are often overlooked because they aren’t given opportunities.
Why do they not have the opportunities?
There’s a lot of factors. Poverty is a huge issue. I think that resources within the schools are missing for some students. I think that vision is something that is missing for some students. Some students can’t see their future, and it’s very hard for them to imagine anything bigger. Many of our students are first-generation college students. Anybody who’s been to college knows it’s a struggle. The transition from high school to college is a struggle. But it makes it a whole lot easier if you’re able to call home and talk to a parent who’s been through it before and they can coach it through. When you’re a first-generation student, you’re often looking for that support from people at the college or outside of your family.
What was it like growing up in St. Joseph?
Growing up in St. Joe and being around a lot of people who had a lot of privilege, including myself. I grew up in a two-parent home. Both college educated with graduate degrees. I know I grew up with privilege.
As much privilege as your white friends?
Here at college a couple of years ago, they had the Privilege Walk. They asked a series of questions and you had to take a step forward and a step back. I knew that I grew up in a family that had many privileges, but even still, I was only halfway to the finish line. There’s definitely things that I see daily, not just for myself. You can come from a place of privilege, but still see injustice and still have injustice happen to you and still talk with your (white) friends who are growing up in the same lifestyle as you who never have to experience the things that you experience.
None of the friends I grew up with in St. Joe had a parent who didn’t want them to go to a dance with somebody because of the color of their skin. I did.
Your parents didn’t want you to go to a dance with somebody?
No. People didn’t want their son to go to a dance with me. And it wasn’t something that I found out at that age. It was when we got older and the kids told me that it was a problem.
That’s terrible. Did he still take you to the dance?
He took me to the dance, but his parents had a problem with it. But he didn’t tell me until we were adults.
I had a professor when I was at Michigan State who said she and her husband were good friends with another couple who were both professors and were both black. She and her husband were both white. And they had kids the same age. The kids would want to go to a concert. She would tell her kids that’s fine, but the other kid’s parents said, “You can’t do that.”
My professor thought the other professor was being too overprotective of her son and it was time to let him grow up. She said she finally asked the other professor why she was holding on so tightly and not letting them go to things.
The other professor told her, “We’re two professors. Our son is driving a luxury car an hour away to a concert, and we have to worry what could happen to our son during that hour drive. Not just being worried about a teenager driving, but what happens if he gets pulled over and they don’t believe that this is his parents’ car? That they don’t believe that he should be where he is at that time.”
My professor said she thinks of herself as being smart and open to these things and she said that had never once crossed her mind.
Why did you become the ALPACT (Advocates and Leaders for Police and Community Trust) co-chair?
I’ve always been somebody who is troubled and bothered by injustice. And there’s a lot of things happening in our country right now where these injustices are forced in our faces every day. We started to see a lot of issues between the police and communities. I started thinking, “What can I do?”
It’s one thing to talk about it and another thing to do something about it. I started attending the ALPACT meetings. Eventually, when the term was coming up for the previous co-chairs, someone approached me about being one of the next co-chairs. My term started in January.