The year 2020 was a watershed for many people, including Safe & Just Michigan’s new intern Sonnet Yancey, who uses she/they pronouns. Yancey, who is finishing a bachelor’s degree in social work at Michigan State University, came to understand the depth of need for change during the tumultuous summer of 2020, as voices called for transformation to the way that policing is done and the way that our culture views people of color in general. These weren’t foreign ideas to her before, but the events of that summer showed her just how urgent that need is.

For Yancey, 2020 was an “acknowledgement of how widespread the issue of racism in policing is, and the need for community action to find alternate solutions.” And Yancey saw an opportunity to become part of that change.

In particular, they envision a future where a 9-1-1 call doesn’t result in only police, firefighters or an ambulance dispatched to an emergency call. They want to see an unarmed response team for calls involving mental health crises or homelessness, for example – people trained to provide care and restorative practices in these situations rather than treating someone like a potential criminal.

“My long-term goal is to pair a social worker with a medic to respond to 9-1-1 calls instead of police,” Yancey said. “I’d like to see community care instead of punishment. I want to learn how a nonprofit can work with its community, and also how to change policy and public perception of a group, and how to work with police and government to agree on that change.”

It’s an ambitious vision – but she is in the right place to learn how to make it reality. For nearly as long as Yancey has been alive, Safe & Just Michigan has been steadfastly working on changing public perceptions about Michigan prisons and the people incarcerated inside them, resulting in several policy changes such as the recent Clean Slate expungement reforms, the jail and pretrial detention reforms of 2020.

Yancey grew up in the Grand Rapids area in a family that respected education. Her father was a professor of Spanish at Grand Valley State University, while her mother worked as a secretary at a local elementary school. Sonnet grew up loving school and reading anything they could get their hands on.

Though they are majoring in social work at MSU, becoming a therapist was never in the plans. Many people tend to associate social workers with therapy, and while those professionals are vastly important, Yancey points out that a degree in social work also opens the doors to career paths more suited to their personal strengths, values and interests.

Social work has very clear values in respecting human diversity, the dignity and worth of human individuals and connections between individuals,” Yancey said. “Social work itself is so diverse and there are so many unique ways you can take it.”

In particular, Yancey is interested in using the tools of social work to lead a nonprofit organization and working for change on a larger scale. At MSU, she had already picked up leadership skills by serving as the treasurer for MSU’s North Neighborhood queer caucus, a founding member of the Macro Social Work Student Association and in her work as a resident assistant, or RA, in a student dormitory.

“I can see bigger pictures, find patterns in problems and come up with creative solutions,” Yancey said. “Nonprofits are a good way to take those solutions and bridge the gap between communities and what they need through policy.”

Her interest in criminal justice reform came by way of a great-aunt who is also a social worker. Her great-aunt had worked in prison settings and had shared stories that had showed the human side of the people incarcerated there. She had also taken advantage of opportunities at MSU to see speakers like Angela Davis speak about criminal justice reform and abolition, which only deepened her resolve to create systemic change with the tools she’s learning through social work.

Learning about social work in theory is one thing, but on the night of Feb. 13, 2023, Yancey had to put the skills learned in class to use in the real world when a man armed with two handguns took the lives of three students and wounded five more on the MSU campus. In the chaotic and frightening hours that followed, police told students to shelter in place and to “run, hide or fight” as necessary. For Yancey, that meant providing whatever guidance and sense of security they could to the residents of their dorm where they work as an RA.

Yancey saw that the actions police took to investigate and solve the legal questions of how and why this shooting had happened did little to restore a sense of peace and security to the students she felt responsible for.

It strengthened Yancey’s resolve to pursue a career leading a nonprofit that will change the way emergency services are delivered. “The people in my building never encountered the actual shooter, but the tactics used by the police — while intended to ensure safety — created its own trauma,” Yancey recalled of the tragic night on MSU campus. “That night, the police were just more people pointing guns in the dark.”

In contrast, she realized that the people who reached out to students to provide mental health care were the ones who did the most to help campus regain a sense of normalcy.

“I found that I’m capable of providing trauma-informed care even when I myself am in crisis,” Yancey said. “In the weeks and months to follow, I also started to learn how we build community and advocate for change after violence.”

Being an intern at Safe & Just Michigan will give them an even greater opportunity to see how policy change happens. They have already been watching committee hearing meetings to see how proposed legislation is shaped and shepherded through the Capitol. She hopes to learn more pieces of the policy puzzle by participating in advocacy days and meetings with lawmakers — as well as the business side of running a nonprofit.

“The great thing, but also the challenging thing, about nonprofits is you don’t just do one thing, you have to do all of it,” Yancey said. “I’m seeing what kind of people, what kind of experience, what kind of talent and knowledge it takes.

“I’m learning how to do it, little by little.”


~Barbara Wieland
Senior Communications Specialist