By Andrea Poteet
“Rochelle goes into a center because she’s biologically a boy, and the center staff calls her ‘It.’ They say, ‘We can’t do anything with ‘It,’ can you do something with ‘It?'”
This is just an example of what Laura Hughes encounters during a typical workday.
When she talks about the injustices she sees in the child welfare system for LGBT youth, her calm exterior begins to subtly crack. Her brown eyes widen and her dangly earrings bounce off her neck with every incredulous syllable.
For 30-year-old Hughes, who is the executive director of the Ruth Ellis Center, it’s these stories that help drive her to fight for LGBT youth in and outside of the center, which provides residential and drop-in support services for more than 2,000 homeless, runaway and at-risk LGBT teens and young adults each year.
Hughes has always been an advocate. Fueled by her desire to serve overlooked populations, the Chattanooga, Tenn. native earned a bachelor’s degree in sociocultural anthropology at Brown University in 2002, and went on to earn a master’s degree in public heath at the University of Michigan in 2004.
She took on her current position at the Highland Park-based center in October 2009, after being introduced to it while she was working as the HIV and STD manager at the Wayne County Department of Public Health. While leading a chlamydia and gonorrhea screening project at the center, she struck up friendships with some of the residents.
“The conversations I had with young people weren’t necessarily about chlamydia or gonorrhea or HIV, but were just about life,” Hughes says. “They were curious. And I feel like that’s the kind of curiosity that spurs growth.”
As she was befriending center residents, Hughes says she was also becoming frustrated with her work at the county and the lack of a comprehensive approach to HIV prevention. Coming to the Ruth Ellis Center, one of only three centers for homeless LGBT youth in the country, allowed her to address all aspects of quality of life for an underserved population of youth.
She has helped to build a pipeline of LGBT professionals within the child welfare and runaway and homeless systems, so that LGBT youth are no longer underrepresented. Hughes has also encouraged youth to become stronger voices for themselves. Under her leadership, the center began a youth-driven advocacy program called Out and Up Front last October. The program provides a forum for youth to lobby for changes in bullying policies, the child welfare system and other areas that affect them.
“It was really about a forum for youth voices,” Hughes says. “So it’s about the bullying, but it’s also about their voices having a say in something that impacts them in their lives … We’ve let youth open that door in an intentional way so that other folks can come in and build off the work that they’re doing.”
Seeing the dedication of youth in that program has been one of the most rewarding parts of her time at the center.
“The young people who work on the bullying work, many of them have already dropped out and they’re not going back,” Hughes says, “but they are doing work for the other young people who come that they will never know.
“These are young people who are couch surfing, who are sleeping in Palmer Park, who have not completed high school, but none of that matters. Their commitment to the work is higher than all of that, and that’s pretty rare.”
Though she loves her job, it has not been without challenges. A month after she arrived, she was part of the decision to reduce the number of days the drop-in center was open from five to three, a move she called “heartbreaking.”
“It was the decision we had to make to be able to leverage forward,” Hughes says. “This is a financially stable and growing organization, and we wouldn’t be able to say both of those things with confidence, and know that we are a worthy investment for our community, if we hadn’t made some of those hard decisions.”
Her time at the center has taught her lessons about listening, teamwork and being a better ally for the LGBT community. But the biggest lessons she’s learned have come from seeing firsthand the resilience of some of the center’s youth. She’s met young people who have been disowned by their families because of their orientation and watched them jump from home to home and school to school – and still go on to work towards their dreams.
“When your back is up against the wall, people keep moving and they respond,” Hughes says. “I think that’s a universal lesson that we learn from an unlikely population sometimes.”
Seeing those success stories firsthand is her favorite part of the job. One of her proudest moments at the center was when a young girl burst into a meeting between Hughes and a potential donor to announce that she received an A in her algebra class.
“She was just exuberant,” Hughes says. “I was so proud of her. Those are the kinds of moments I get all the time. Young people drop by to tell me what’s going on and the strides they’ve made. That provides me immense amounts of drive and joy.”
On the other hand, “Young people drop by and tell me exactly what they need and I know that systems have failed them,” Hughes says. “That’s what drives me to figure out what else we have to do.”
Next, Hughes hopes to the make the Ruth Ellis Center a replicable model – so that more centers are able to provide the specialized care it gives runaway and homeless LGBT youth.
“We want every young person to go with a family, to have a backyard and a white picket fence,” she says. “You shouldn’t have to come to Ruth Ellis to get that, but until we can ensure that, we will be here.”