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How a Dearborn judge broke barriers while raising a family

‘There really is nothing you can’t do if you just put your mind to it,’

Judge Charlene Elder said there’s no magic formula for juggling a career and raising a family.
Judge Charlene Elder said there’s no magic formula for juggling a career and raising a family.

DEARBORN, Mich.Judge Charlene Elder said there’s no magic formula for juggling a career and raising a family.

“I really try hard to just do my job,” Elder said. “I mean that’s really, that’s really what I try hard to do.”

Elder went to law school and worked full time while she was raising a family. She was born and raised in Metro Detroit and now she’s serving the community she’s proud to call home.

“I don’t really look at myself as a role model,” Elder said. “I know that sometimes some of the kids say that -- I’m humbled by that. That’s really great that people look at it that way.”

Rather than talking about herself, she prefers to focus on her job.

“I have to take it very seriously because I’m dealing with our families and Wayne County,” Elder said. “It’s a lot of pressure. You can’t make everybody happy, because you’re dealing with their children. There’s a lot of emotions on the table.”

Appointed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm in 2005, Elder rules in the Family Division of the 3rd Circuit Court in Wayne County.

“It always sounded good, theoretically. Like, when you’re in law school and you’re a young lawyer, you’re thinking, ‘God, I’d love to be a judge one day,’” Elder said. “Maybe not everybody thinks that way. I did, I used to think that’d I’d be great to be a judge one day. I wasn’t really sure what the path would be to get there.”

The road to get there had many stops along the way, including having a family. Elder had her first child while in law school and her second child a week after taking the bar exam.

She had two more children and continued to work as an attorney.

“It was a big juggling act and then, little by little, I was able to venture out and do more work out of the office. I eventually became magistrate in Dearborn, which they had no women magistrates in the city of Dearborn ever in the history of the city. So that felt good,” Elder said. “When you become a mother, the biggest thing is don’t beat yourself up. You know it’s it’s hard, that balance of being there for your kids and then also managing a career sometimes gets tough, but at the end of the day, it’s doable.”

Growing up in Dearborn, Elder knows she’s setting an example for Arab American women around the world.

“I think that sometimes the litigants come before me and they’re a little shocked. I think it gives other Muslim women a comfort zone when they see me,” Elder said. “Sometimes I get some strange reactions from different people. For the most part, I’m the judge, so people aren’t going to show me their reactions.”

She said she’s proud of her Muslim faith and that she often gets asked about her decision to wear a traditional head scarf or hijab.

“I think it freaks people out sometimes,” Elder said. “To be honest, I think, for me, it was my own personal connection with God.”

Through the years, she’s evolved and found new ways to give back to the community where she grew up and raised her own family.

“People want to be heard and I try to give them the opportunity to be heard,” Elder said. “People are going to go home feeling upset sometimes because they know their family dynamics better than I could ever know their family dynamics, and I’m getting them for a snippet in time, trying to do what’s best for their children and best for them.”

For Judge Elder, success is passed down from generation to generation.

“My biggest role models would probably be my mom and my mother-in-law,” Elder said. “They came to this country at 16 years old, had their kids at 17 years old. No formal education, no college education, but they still instilled in all of their children, all of their daughters are educated. I mean, my mom put that in us.”

She said her best advice for other women -- especially mothers -- is to not beat yourself up and to do the work.

“There really is nothing you can’t do if you just put your mind to it. Really, the sky’s the limit,” Elder said. “I think for women in general, just work hard, and it’s really not about just being a woman, per se, it’s just really about being the best you can be, no matter what it is you choose to do. I really feel that if you, you work hard, it’ll pay off.”

When she thinks about the legacy she hopes to leave behind, she said she wants young women to know they don’t ever have to give up any of their career goals to become a wife or mother.

More: Arab American Heritage Month stories


About the Authors:

Dane is a producer and media enthusiast. He previously worked freelance video production and writing jobs in Michigan, Georgia and Massachusetts. Dane graduated from the Specs Howard School of Media Arts.