By Tunde Wey & Claire Nelson
March 21, 2012
What does it mean to be an ally? An advocate? Is there a difference between the two? For Laura Hughes, age 30, it’s an important distinction. “Being an ally might be passive. But being an advocate means doing work on behalf of the cause, and investing time and talent.”
As Executive Director of the Ruth Ellis Center
, Hughes is both. Founded in 1999, the Center is the only mission-specific agency in the Midwest dedicated to at-risk lesbian, gay, bi-attractional, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth. Named for Ruth C. Ellis, whose home served as a refuge for gay African-Americans before the Civil Rights Movement and Stonewall, The Center provides residential and drop-in programs, helping youth find pathways to safety and independence.
“Without the Ruth Ellis Center, I would be dead,” is the response guests give when asked where they would be if not there. The statement is frank and frighteningly true. The statistics around the vulnerability and victimization of LGBTQ youth are not encouraging. Nationally, around 40% of the 1.7 million runaway and homeless youth self-identify as LGBTQ. In Detroit, up to an estimated 800 homeless LGBTQ youth are on the streets every day.
A native of Chattanooga, Tennessee, Hughes came to Detroit by way of Brown University in Rhode Island. She joined Ruth Ellis in 2009 after coordinating HIV/AIDS programs for Wayne County and DMC’s Sinai Grace Hospital, as well as managing grants for the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History.
One of Hughes’ key priorities at Ruth Ellis is cross-agency collaboration. The problem, as Hughes sees it, is a fractured response to the issue of youth homelessness. “Society is not collectively addressing youth homelessness and the larger infrastructure that allows this,” she says.
In response, the Center is working to break down silos and forge connections between different groups. Employing a collective impact model, they convene all youth service providers to discuss collaborative strategies. Through this work, Hughes is opening up conversations with leaders in the school system, community health advocates, and other emergency housing agencies to create a web of services and institutions working together for LGBTQ youth safety.
Part of that solution is creating a “safe space” without fear of judgment or abuse. That freedom to be authentic and genuine is essential for personal development and empowerment. With zero tolerance for all violence, youth at the Center learn to navigate difficult conversations and uncomfortable topics with respect for one another – and themselves. This, says Hughes, offers “an opportunity to celebrate people.”
At its core, the Center’s work is premised on the idea that young people know what is in their best interest, and will make healthier decisions if given the proper guidance and tools. This is demonstrated through their Youth Leadership Program, a ten-week “boot camp” to nurture their talents and teach hard skills, like public speaking and public advocacy. Participants choose their own focus area and create actionable solutions.
Sometimes these lessons in leadership translate to real-life opportunities, as with a recent successful campaign against bullying in schools. Youth from the Ruth Ellis Center created videos to record student experiences, distributing to teachers and testifying before the Detroit Public School Board. After a moving testimony, the School Board President pledged to personally support their work. The students were invited to help amend the DPS policy on bullying, including specific protection for LGBTQ youth.
Hughes recalls this as watershed moment – a reminder of the power of youth. An issue like bullying is also a reminder that LGBTQ youth aren’t the only kids at risk, and the benefits of successfully addressing these issues extend to all vulnerable youth. Caught at the intersection of race, gender, sexuality and poverty, the young people Hughes serves are the proverbial “canary in the mine” – an early warning sign that youth services are lacking. “By improving the lives of these most at risk,” she says, “we can affect the lives of most homeless youth.”
Through greater collaboration and education, Hughes is leading impact to make Detroit safer and more welcoming for all. Even more importantly, she is empowering the next generation of leaders and advocates to carry this work forward.
Portrait by Marvin Shaouni Photography.