Kalamazoo organization recognizes Judge Tiffany Ankley and others as Trailblazers of HOPE

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

KALAMAZOO, MI – The Hon. Tiffany Ankley tends to focus on how people find their way into her courtroom.

She hears cases involving domestic assault, assault and battery, destruction of property, fourth-degree child abuse, attempted resisting/obstructing a police officer, stalking, and retail fraud (shoplifting). Using retail fraud as an example, she says she knows everyone who steals from a store is not on drugs. “Some steal because they’re hungry,” she says.

“You have to listen to them. You have to see them. You have to hear them. It’s not a one-size-fits-all system,” says Ankley, who was elected to Kalamazoo County’s Probate Court in November of 2014, but has been assigned to serve in its 8th District Court since she assumed the bench in January of 2015.

Along with District Judge Christopher Haenicke, she also oversees Kalamazoo County’s OWI (Operating While Intoxicated) Court and has been involved in the court’s Drug Treatment Court Programs since their implementation in 1991.

Because her court primarily adjudicates misdemeanor criminal cases, she plays a big role in trying to prevent people from falling deeper into the criminal justice system. For that focus – and her willingness to help others succeed – she was recently named the recipient of the Judge William Schma Trailblazer of Hope Award for 2023. 

“She was on the original steering committee (for Drug Treatment Court),” says Gwendolyn Hooker, chief executive officer of HOPE Thru Navigation, which presented its annual Trailblazers of Hope Tribute for the fifth year on Jan. 27, 2023. “She was involved when it (the program) was formatted. She was an attorney who advocated for her clients to be put into Drug Treatment Court as opposed to going to jail or prison, in the vein that she is a judge that has been instrumental in preserving and addressing youth as it relates to substance use disorder. That’s why she was nominated and ultimately chosen for that award.”

The Hon. Tiffany A. Ankley, 8th District Court Probate JudgeAnkley headlined a slate of individuals honored for their efforts to help those facing criminal actions, substance use disorders, and other issues. Other award winners were: Rev. Addis Moore, pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church; George McMillon, a corporal retired from the U.S. Marine Corps; Gwendolyn Lanier, co-founder of Mothers of Hope; Jen Strebs, of the Kalamazoo County Board of Commissioners; and Urban Alliance of Kalamazoo, a nonprofit organization that works to teach job readiness training skills.

Since 2018, the Judge Schma Trailblazer of Hope Award has recognized individuals who have been instrumental in implementing and preserving Drug Treatment Court and recovery-oriented services for people who have historically been marginalized, underrepresented and exploited, according to Hooker. Schma, for whom the award is named, is considered the father of the drug court program here.

The Drug Treatment Court diverts nonviolent felons with substance abuse problems away from jail or prison, giving them opportunities to become involved in substance abuse treatment. According to information provided by Hooker, participants typically agree to do such things as attend bi-weekly court sessions, submit to random urinalysis samples, and report to program staff. The mission of the Kalamazoo County Drug Treatment Court is the successful rehabilitation of substance-abusing individuals while maintaining public safety.

“People come in different ages, different stages,” Ankley says. “I’ve got people coming to court for the first time. I’ve got people that have been there over 100 times, and I’m not exaggerating.”

But she says, “We have to tailor what we do to meet the individual on a person-by-person, minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, day-by-day basis. The only way you do that is by asking questions and listening to what their needs are.”

She says she’s never thought of herself as a trailblazer but understands how her work at the District Court and its Drug Court melds with the mission of HOPE Thru Navigation. HOPE stands for Helping Other People Exceed.

“I’m one who continues the fight, I guess, if that makes sense,” Ankley says of helping people with problems find their way to better circumstances.

HOPE Thru Navigation, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary in June, serves people with criminal backgrounds and substance use disorder histories. The nonprofit organization strives to provide wrap-around services for that population as it relates to housing, education, employment, and self-sufficiency.

“They are people who face lots of barriers – to employment, housing, and education,” Hooker says. “We have intentionally partnered and collaborated with organizations and people who have a heart for the people we serve.”

The 2023 award recipients

George McMillon, retired corporal, u.s. Marine Corps.George McMillon, a corporal retired from the U.S. Marine Corps. He was the recipient of the Veteran of HOPE Award. McMillion, who served in the military during the late 1960s, was a participant in the Adult Drug Treatment Court Program in the early 1990s and overcame problems with addiction about 27 years ago. Since then, he has worked and volunteered his time to serve others in the community. That has included work on the executive board of "Challenger for Change,” putting on events for young people and families to promote education and to stop substance abuse and youth violence.
Gwendolyn Lanier, co-founder of Mothers of Hope.Gwendolyn Lanier, a co-founder of Mothers of Hope, was the recipient of the Robert Granville Legend of HOPE Award. Mothers of Hope primarily serves women who have substance use disorder histories and who are being released from prison, as well as their children. Granville was an original on-site substance abuse therapist at the Mt. Zion Safe House, a rehabilitation program that was established in 1992 by the Rev. Otha Gilyard.
Speaking of Lanier, Hooker says, “She gets the award because she’s a legend of hope. She is over 30 years clean (of addictions). She was an original founding member of the Mt. Zion Safe House. She was a consistent member of its board of directors. In her working life, which she just retired from, she was a peer support specialist with Ministry With Community, which navigated people to recovery or residential treatment or anything that has to do with recovery-related services. So she is basically a Robert Granville 2.0. She has kind of taken what he started and kind of built off of it.”
Jen Strebs, Kalamazoo County Commissioner.Jen Strebs, the District 2 representative on the Kalamazoo County Board of Commissioners, was named winner of the Tami Rey Equity of HOPE Award.

“She is an ally for marginalized populations of people,” Hooker says, “specifically, people with criminal backgrounds and substance use disorder histories. So when you look at people on the commission, she’s one of the people who is always advocating for housing for people with substance use disorder histories, providing second chances. She was very instrumental in the city ordinance that was passed that makes asking people (prospective apartment renters) about their criminal background against the law.”
Urban Alliance was named Nonprofit organization of the year.Urban Alliance, a local nonprofit that strives to put individuals on a path to healthy, productive, and safe lives, was lauded as the winner of the Transformation of HOPE Award.

“They serve people who have barriers to employment,” Hooker says. “That encompasses people with criminal backgrounds. They have several programs. They get the Transformation Award because they actually create employment opportunities and training for people with criminal backgrounds to be able to have employment that is actually livable.”
Rev. Addis Moore, pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church.Rev. Addis Moore, the pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, was the recipient of the Rev. Dr. Otha Gilyard Pioneer of HOPE Award. Gilyard, who died in December of 2022, was pastor of Mt. Zion from 1975 to 1993 when he headed to Columbus, Ohio, to become pastor-elect of the Shiloh Baptist Church.
“What Pastor Moore has done since he took over from Rev. Gilyard is really to build on what Gilyard started by creating housing opportunities,” Hooker says. “He is a pioneer in that he is building homes for people with criminal backgrounds and building homes for seniors that are directly related to people who are marginalized or have barriers to housing. He’s one of a kind. Nobody else is intentionally building houses for marginalized people that are affordable.”

Ankley says the awards acknowledge positive efforts that people are making to help others on many levels. Regarding her work in court, she says, “So much of what happens in the courts and criminal justice is negative that HOPE Thru Navigation’s acknowledgment of the good and the positive through this celebration, is important and welcomed.”

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Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.