Posted by Basseem Houssami on March 30, 2016 in Blog
Sally Shaheen Joseph has always thought of herself a rebel. Even as a child, she did not hesitate to go against the grain. Her unwavering tenacity and independence often conflicted with expectations others had for her as an Arab American woman. Now in her 80s, Sally is undoubtedly still a rebel but is also many more things – a jazz singer, high school dropout turned lawyer, proud mother, and devoted public servant in Flint Township, Michigan. While Shaheen Joseph has been an impactful member of her community for many years, her road to public service began in an unlikely way.
Long before settling into a career of public service, Sally was focused on an entirely different path: she was a traveling jazz singer. Armed with self-taught and undeniable talent, Sally began performing in local talent shows at a very young age. Despite facing resistance from her family, Sally decided to pursue her craft and performed around the country. She firmly rejected the notion at the time that a ‘woman’s place was in the kitchen’. It was not long before she was singing with the likes of Sammy Davis, Jr, Johnny Mathis, and Connie Francis.
It was an act of fate that ultimately changed the course of her life and fueled her love of education. While visiting family in between shows, her agent asked her to fill in for a singer in Flint. Sally did not really need the extra performance, but decided to do it as a favor. She opened the show on Monday, met her husband, Edward, on Tuesday, and got engaged on Thursday. A year later, they were married. Sally knew that juggling a budding singing career with her responsibilities at home would be nearly impossible, so she decided to step away from the stage to focus on family.
However, Sally was not a typical housewife for the time. Sally was always an avid reader, and Edward thought that she ought to get some credit for having her nose in the books and that she should pursue her education. With Edward’s support, Sally began taking classes and earned her GED. After that, she attended Mott Community College where she found professors who were patient and willing to work with her.
After finishing community college, Sally attended the University of Michigan-Flint. She earned a degree in psychology while balancing the pressures of being a student, wife, and mother. With the continued support of her husband, who Sally calls “the wind beneath her wings”, she decided to tackle law school. After receiving her law degree, she went on to hold several positions where she began making a mark in her community.
Despite being well educated, she met other obstacles in the workplace. She quit one job because they did not offer health benefits to women. Sally says, “If it’s not right, I won’t do it—regardless of the political circumstances”. Sadly, Edward passed away in 1987, leaving Sally with four children in college and one in high school. It was at that moment she truly appreciated the transformative power of her education that enabled her to provide for her family.
Sally has held several public service positions, even if they were not always her idea at first. When she was encouraged to run as a Trustee
in the Township, she was not sure if that was the right move. As usual, she had a lot going on in her life. However, she surprised everyone, including herself, when she ran and won. She spent eight years as a Trustee before becoming Township Supervisor. In 2007, Sally was elected to the Mott Community College Board of Trustees after others suggested she run. After unseating a long-serving trustee, Sally was re-elected to a second term in 2014. She sees her service on the board as a way for her to give back to the institution that gave her a chance at success.
Dr. Jill Biden has called community colleges “America’s best kept secrets”, and that’s a statement Sally wholeheartedly agrees with. If she hadn’t gone to school, she would not have had the wealth of opportunities she has had. Sally is also active with Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT), where she serves on their Diversity Committee. She mentioned that Arab Americans often do not come into the picture when discussing diversity, and that she wants to work to change that.
Above all, she hopes to break down commonly held misconceptions surrounding community colleges. Sally rejects stereotypical statements such as community colleges are for people who can’t handle a four-year college. Sally believes that community college is for everyone noting it’s a wonderful environment to better yourself in smaller classes, with great professors, less debt, and transferable credits.
Whether it’s singing on stage, raising children, studying law, or serving her community – Sally remained committed and passionate. Her story is particularly inspiring to young Arab Americans, especially women, who are trying to find their path and make their mark. Sally’s advice is that if you get an education, there’s nothing you can’t do. “There’s no reason you can’t do it, and that’s coming from someone who didn’t believe in herself. When I think of what I could have become as opposed to what I did become, I look back and think, how did I do that”? It was most certainly possible thanks to her undeniable passion, drive, and resilience.