Ruth Ellis Center Builds Diverse and Inclusive Board

Youth Social Services Agency Sees Correlation Between Mission, Strategy and Board Composition

BY KATE OPALEWSKI

A strong non-profit organization recognizes that a diverse and inclusive board is essential to its success. It's with that in mind the Ruth Ellis Center in Highland Park added five new board members in January - Gary Astrein, Laura Champagne, Sabin Blake, James Coleman, and Jerrell Harris - to join four others who were appointed towards the end of 2016 - Jim Luckey, Roland Leggett, Asad Muhammad, and Sabrina Gujral.

"We elected board members that we feel like we can count on and engage in work happening both at the Center and in our community. Because we are a small organization, our reach only extends so far, so we rely on the skill sets of each individual board member to help us achieve our long-term goals and these individuals bring a wealth of experience to the table," said Mark Erwin-McCormick, REC director of development and advancement.

As the REC enters a new phase of strategic planning, the organization will look to this collection of individuals who are passionate about its cause.

"A lot of diversity is important to all of us at the Center. This is a community effort regardless of your age, your background, your race or socio-economic status," said Erwin-McCormick. "All of those things play an important role and they define us as individuals. It's really exciting to see their own unique passions and why they're here and what skills they bring to the table."

Sabin Blake, a longtime supporter and former REC board member is so passionate about volunteerism and community involvement that he rejoined the board again this year. Blake turned this passion into an actual role as community outreach manager for General Motors where he collaborated with the company to develop the teamGM Cares program.

Historically, it's common for LGBTQ organizations to have boards comprised primarily of individuals who identify as LGBTQ.

But the REC recognizes that having allies on the board, such as small business owner Gary Astrein of Astrein Jewelers in Birmingham, is critical to their longtime sustainability.

While on the VOICES Committee for the last three years, he has been a champion for the work being done at the Center.

"There is a huge need that caught my heart and caught my mind," said Astrein. "I've never been on a board before, but I will be surrounded by amazing people who I can learn from."

One board member in particular who can help guide the way is Roland Leggett. The 35-year-old has been a social justice activist for more than 15 years working for organizations such as the ACLU of Michigan and Equality Michigan. What attracted him to the REC?

"The mission of this organization is so unique and so needed that it is a no-brainer for anyone that has had any interaction with this community," said Leggett, vice chair of the Human Rights Commission in Detroit and principal at Roland Leggett Strategies.

"A lot of folks on the board have a background in the private sector so I offer a unique perspective - with grassroots organizing experience and having worked in the field - about how the community interacts with the Center and what the needs are of the young folks that come here. This is a great opportunity to hopefully bridge two communities that don't necessarily always interact," he said.

Bridging the gap is an important goal for Jim Luckey also. At 65 years old, the retired Detroit architect said, "Given that I'm here to support a group that is generations younger than I am, it's a little challenging. So I have to be very open to other perspectives. People have lived lives that I haven't had to live. I've been very blessed and I think being on the board will help me to grow too, so it isn't just helping other people, they'll help me too."

The activities Luckey wants to support at the REC are "empowering our young people to be willing to express themselves, to be able to express themselves, to have the power to live the life they really want," he said.

It's not uncommon for REC board members to engage in fundraisers throughout the year as well as host specific events at the drop-in center, get involved in volunteer projects, and participate in the REC's annual events.

"The Center has established an infrastructure that allows us to continually engage community partners on a deeper level. We host quarterly community trainings that are open to anybody interested in the Center's work," said Erwin-McCormick.

Which is one of the reasons why Laura Champagne said she joined the board.

"They are a model for the country, constantly innovating, offering top-notch quality for the kids," she said.

As vice president of the ACLU Fund and managing director for Citizens for Better Care, Champagne is familiar with serving on non-profit boards and hopes to use her skills as a "good organizer" to "make sure voices get heard" while an REC board member.

"It's all about listening to people and that's where it's really great when you have a diverse board," she said. "Everybody has a different perspective. In those discussions, all voices should be heard and then we come to a solution. It drives me crazy when people don't say anything at board meetings. We need to hear your voice."

That's important for Jerrell Harris, an Albany, Georgia native, who was looking for somewhere to go where he could be most useful. The 38-year-old spun the globe and landed in Detroit four years ago. With a background in urban planning, Harris secured a job as director of restructuring and transformation in Mayor Mike Duggan's office.

He gained interest in the organization following a brief conversation with Jerry Peterson, REC executive director.

"They provide a great safe space for people who need it. So you think about all the identities one can have. I'm black, I'm a man, I'm cisgender, I'm same gender loving, I'm this, I'm that. I travel in spaces very easily and I feel safe in a number of spaces, but that is not everyone's experience so the Ruth Ellis Center provides that safe space for people who don't necessarily have that same experience that I have or that I enjoy. My privilege allows me to do that so it's my responsibility to give my time and my talent to make sure everyone has that opportunity," said Harris.

Asad Muhammad said he understands what it's like to be a "black, queer teenager growing up in a predominantly black neighborhood. I can relate to the feelings of isolation and inner conflict that some of the young people of the Center walk with everyday. As a board member, I bring strategic planning skills, a passion for youth development, and over 15 years of experience in both education and non-profit management to the table. More importantly, I bring lived experience, and when I look at a youth member of the Ruth Ellis Center, I see myself."

While Sabrina Gujral, a Ford Motor Company employee with 17 years of finance experience, had already been serving on the board for the last two years, becoming chair in January made her feel "excited, scared and terrified," she said. "I wasn't sure if I was cut out for it or if I was chair material, but the thing - and I've told everyone this - that changed my mind was the election. Everyone after the election was wondering what they can do and I had this opportunity right in front of me and I wasn't going to let it go. It's going to be really important to make sure that we steer the Ruth Ellis Center in the right direction and despite what might be happening in the government, make sure that we don't fail our youth."

Gujral, a woman of Indian descent, said she feels connected to the youth.

"Growing up, I knew what it meant to be different for a reason you couldn't help. I have also grown up in a very different culture than most people that I run into and it's helped me to have an open mind about everything."

Elliott Broom, former board chair and vice president of museum operations at the Detroit Institute of Arts, said Gujral "is exactly who we need in this role at this time. I am delighted Sabrina is in the new chairperson of the REC board. She is whip-smart, an excellent listener, incredibly approachable, dedicated and a respected board member."

As the center transitions from one executive committee to another, Broom will continue to assist Gujral while she settles into her new role.

"When I stepped down from the position as board chair, I wanted to stay involved and help in any way I could. So, we're taking a hybrid approach. I am currently vice chair for one year - of a two-year term - and then Roland will take over for the second year of the term as vice chair," he said, adding that he planned to remain as active on the board after his time as chair. "We are still fundraising for our all-important Health and Wellness Center, a critical new part of the Ruth Ellis Center and our mission to help LGBTQ youth and young adults who are in need."

The mission for James Coleman prior to joining the board was simply to spread awareness about the REC.

"Because for some crazy reason in the community people still think that this is a homeless shelter for LGBTQ youth and that is absolutely not the case," said Coleman, president of PNC Bank's diversity employee resource group. For many years, he has helped the REC host events at Motor City Pride and secured funding for various programs at the center.

"This is an amazing organization. That was the biggest reason for joining. There is a branding gap, for lack of a better word. We need to let people know there is so much more to the Ruth Ellis Center - an education piece, a health and wellness piece, and the story about Ruth herself. When people ask where the name comes from it empowered me to know more myself," he said. "And from a corporate standpoint, when you believe in something it makes sense to want to give money, and I can pull in more resources this way. It's personal. It's passion. It all kind of aligns."

The Ruth Ellis Center, a youth social services agency located at 77 Victor Street in Highland Park, provides short- and long-term residential safe space and support services for runaway, homeless, and at-risk LGBTQ youth in Highland Park and Detroit. For more information, visit www.ruthelliscenter.org or call 313-252-1950.
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