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DETROIT – Excitement is in the air as Ruth Ellis Center announces the arrival of Jerry Peterson as the new executive director. Peterson comes with years of experience leading non-profit organizations, working with disadvantaged youth, and driving his passion influencing social systems to improve LGBTQ youth outcomes.
“When I learned about the position at the Ruth Ellis Center, I knew that I had to come to Detroit. I needed to serve these young people,” Peterson said. “Although I could have never anticipated it, all of the work I been doing for 30 years with non profit and LGBTQ-focused organizations was preparing me to work with the youth in Detroit and to break down barriers that are coming between them and their successful futures.”
Peterson most recently served as facilitator for the LGBTQ Youth Advocacy Collaborative in Concord, California. He managed an innovative collaboration with six nonprofits in Contra Costa County to reduce rejecting behaviors and increase accepting behaviors toward LGBTQ young people in families, schools, service providers and faith groups. The work took to heart the philosophies of Dr. Caitlin Ryan, who created the Family Acceptance Project to help families focus on how parental behaviors affect their children psychologically. See BTL article on Dr. Ryan at https://www.pridesource.com/article.html?article=57209.
“The emphasis is always on our families of choice. But we can do more to reach out to families. Sometimes you do need to be separated from family, but if we can help young people have some relationship with their family it can reduce harm, and reduce the feelings of rejection,” Peterson said. “It makes a difference. Most of these families really do love their kids and want to do what’s best for them. They try to protect them. They tell them: You can’t dress that way. You can’t be friends with those people. You can’t act that way, without realizing that lock-down attitude is harmful.”
“We use FAP materials and help them understand what behaviors cause harm to LGBTQ children and youth. Then we talk with family members about their willingness to stop some of those harmful behaviors. We have conversations that nurture the family. It’s more productive than passing judgment or saying ‘Your child is gay and you have to accept them.’ This helps them come around on their own terms, and helps them change the most harmful behaviors first.”
Peterson knows firsthand the struggles young people go through when they feel like they have to hide themselves. He also knows the additional struggles that families face in economically challenged areas, and places of racial and religious diversity.
Before moving to California, Peterson spent 14 years with the United Way of Allen County in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he served as its president and CEO for four years. In the 90s he was also a pastor there. “In Indiana I had direct connection to people who face many of the same challenges people in Detroit face. I worked on the south side of Fort Wayne, a place hit hard by the loss of manufacturing, fraught with redevelopment issues. I did work and training around white privilege, and tried to identify opportunities where young people could gain experience and develop positive identities.” In this position, he led the $6 million, 30-person organization, nurtured community partnerships and launched a 10-year initiative to improve reading levels of children.
He’d never been to Detroit before, but felt drawn to the position by a desire to go where there is the most need. “I have an incredible amount of admiration for the strength people here have in spite of the challenges. Around the country, Detroit is known for its perceiving spirit – that attitude of ‘we will make it work.'”
Ruth Ellis Center has a history of strong leadership as well. Peterson is carrying on work done by Laura Hughes, who was the executive director for three years, and Margaret Warner, who has been the interim executive director for the past six months. The center’s reputation and array of services has been built up over the years by such strong leadership. Ruth Ellis now offers Ruth’s House, a full-time residential program that is a State of Michigan-licensed Child Caring Institution and Second Stories Drop-in Center, a facility that offers youth resources such as full meals, gender identity support groups, laundry facility and clothing, a cyber-center, and recreation, and Second Stories Outpatient Mental Health Services.
“It speaks to the strength of the Ruth Ellis Center that we were able to attract Jerry Peterson, an incredibly skilled leader in the LGBTQ community, to Detroit,” said Bill Greene, Ruth Ellis Center board chair. “Jerry’s nonprofit expertise, his experience collaborating with public and private entities, and his passion to change social systems to improve the outcomes of the youth we serve, make him a perfect fit for the Ruth Ellis Center. We are honored and thrilled to bring him to our organization and to Detroit.”
Joining Peterson in Detroit is his husband, Reverend Roland Stringfellow, who is well known in his own right as a worker for equality in the realm of religion. He works for the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, CA, and works with faith leaders in several states on a project to engage African American clergy in dialogue about becoming more affirming of LGBTQ folks in their ministries.
To learn more about Ruth Ellis Center, visit their website athttp://www.ruthelliscenter.org.