As we reflect on the LGBTQ movement in the U.S. and our significant achievements over the past several years, John Allen reminds us that if we want to succeed we must continue to lead. He knew a long time ago not to expect LGBTQ youth to do what he wouldn’t do personally.
The country has come a long way since 1986 when Allen sat in the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law library reading the Bowers v. Hardwick opinion. The Georgia state law banning sodomy really had an affect on him, and he knew that social change was needed.
“I remember being like so angry and so pissed off about that just reading it, but what could I do?” Allen said. So he went back to his books and finished his studies.
“I sit here now and remember that anger from sitting in the law library and reading that opinion and I got the last laugh, really,” he said about the ruling that was overturned in 2003. “It only took like 30 years of Supreme Court stuff and change at the local level and all of the stuff that all of us were doing, but we got the last laugh. We’ve changed things. It has come full circle.”
More than five years passed before Allen became active in the LGBTQ community starting with the March on Washington in 1993 where he met Jeff Montgomery, founder of the Triangle Foundation, who died this year.
“We talked about what I thought we should be doing on a federal and national level. Jeff listened patiently and basically said there’s lots of stuff that needs to be done back home,” Allen said, which drew his attention to Affirmations in Ferndale.
“I just loved it. It was cool, a bunch of kids and adults hanging out. We were turning out little warriors there,” he said, noting that many of the local youth were destabilized.
“We kept getting all these kids who were booted out of the house or in terrible situations. The biggest immediate problem is they had no roof over their heads, they were dropping out of school, and having risky sex.”
A meeting of the minds led to the formation of the Ruth Ellis Center in 1999, which provides a short- and long-term residential safe space and support services for runaway, homeless and at-risk LGBTQ youth in Highland Park and Detroit.
“The sort of thinking behind all that is we can’t as a movement tell society that gay is good and we can’t tell kids, ‘Come out, come out,’ and then not have some safety net underneath them,” he said. “Some are gonna come out or be outed, and it’s not going to go well. To me, it’s a bit of our own collective responsibility to take care of them when that sort of thing happens.”
The small group of community activists that organized the one-of-a-kind youth social services agency includes Dr. Kofi Adoma who has been on this journey with Allen from the beginning.
“John was always a voice of wisdom and reason that stood out. He planted the seed for what we’ve done,” she said.
“He’s just masterful at organizing. We looked up to him. We had that brain power in him. He was able to foresee things we needed to consider the rest of us hadn’t thought about,” Adoma said about Allen’s knowledge of legal matters that contributed to their success.
Allen is a managing partner at Allen Brothers, PLLC in Detroit. While growing his practice, he established himself in the LGBTQ community by spending many of his off hours in service of local and national nonprofit organizations, including the Triangle Foundation (now Equality Michigan) and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
Allen is one of many members of the LGBTQ community who can help us learn from our history by giving us tools we need to move forward in achieving full equality. Allen never wanted the spotlight and remains humble about his work as he talks about his successes, the lessons he learned along the way, how to make a nonprofit organization work, and the challenge of continuing the LGBTQ movement.
How did you make a connection with LGBTQ youth?
There was not a big bang moment with the kids. In the early days, it was about winning trust. When you say you’re gonna be there, you gotta be there. It means that if you’re giving them the expectation that you’re gonna be there to help, you gotta meet that expectation. It means showing up and opening the doors. It means doing things for them that they can’t do for themselves and being consistent about it. Once you win their trust, great things happen. There was a time when we really did have to work for them to take us seriously, to believe we were going to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.
What makes the Ruth Ellis Center sustainable?
We’ve been lucky. We’ve been conservative about money. We’ve been conservative about understanding when people give us money, they have expectations that there’s going to be service delivery and that it’s gonna be done the way it’s supposed to be. You know, best practices always. Find the best people that are doing the best work and ask them, “How can we do this?” That’s exactly the thinking that got us hooked up with Henry Ford for the Health and Wellness Center. There was a need that was unmet. There was a bunch of space that was available and the conversation was, “We don’t know anything about this.” We know about our kids, we know about their needs, but what do we know about running a clinic, right? So the natural thing to me was to call Henry Ford. We know people there, they’re good people, they have a great system, a good reputation, they have an urban mission — it’s a good fit. Let’s call them up and see if they’ll help us. And like everybody else that’s ever come into our little orbit at Ruth Ellis, they got excited about the project and they’re invested in it and we’re invested with them. The partnerships that you build make your program, so it’s just about making connections with people.
What was your big lesson?
Patience. Change doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t. Remember the old saying, “If you want to eat an elephant, how do you do it? One bite at a time.” Having the patience to just calmly sort of stay with something and see it through. You can’t lose faith and hope. Things are not always going to be great. You’re going to hate it sometimes, but you know, stay with it because it’s what you love and it’s what you think is the right thing to do.
How important is having a cohesive board?
We’ve had some tremendous board members over time. Once you start doing this stuff you learn how nonprofits work, and the key to having a great nonprofit is to have a great board. People that bring their own special perspective and want to stay and do the work because nobody can do it alone. People who collectively take responsibility for the mission and not micromanage.
At what level are you still involved?
The other thing that every board ought to do is have term limits, because if you’re not bringing in new people to learn the mission — to embrace it and to carry it out — sooner or later you’re gonna go stagnant. So, board members shouldn’t hang around anything forever. It took us a while at Ruth Ellis to get around to putting term limits in place because in the beginning it was just this core group of us. I served out my terms, did my thing and termed off the board, and you know what? That’s been great, because it let me get active in other areas like the Capital Campaign.
Speak to how the LGBTQ movement has changed.
The movement is maturing. A big part of the challenge is engaging the next generation of people who are going to see a need and do something about it. Here’s the ironic thing: the younger generation is the most connected generation that’s ever been by any objective measure. But I think a lot of times the human contact — the face to face, the being in the trenches everyday with a group of people that actually become family to you, a band of brothers and sisters and others — forging that in cyberspace, I mean, I don’t know, can you do that? I suppose, but to me, this is a retail business. It’s face to face. When people are hurting and there is need, there’s no substitute for the face to face. You gotta connect with people. You know, there is really great benefit in the digital connection … but let’s get out from behind our computers to show up at events, show up at protests. It’s real easy to stroke a few keys and send off a comment somewhere, or a blog post, but to actually show up in person with a bunch of other people and be physically present, that’s what I’m afraid we’re losing. So, that’s not a criticism, it’s just a, “Hey, let’s not forget there’s balance we’ve gotta make here.”
What do you think is a challenge for the LGBTQ community today?
The big challenge today is people that are gender nonconforming. We can’t leave anybody behind. In the movement, there is a faction of people that said we’re about gay and lesbian rights, what do we need the T for? That view does not prevail. Our work’s not done until the T is at the table fully, and that’s gotta happen. It’s probably one of the biggest challenges out there. That’s why we’re fighting bathroom bills. If you can pick off one of us, you can pick off all of us.
Do you have any advice for young LGBTQ activists?
Follow your passion. If it matters to you, then it matters. Change does not happen on the trickle down. Change happens on the trickle up, and it happens slowly. You just gotta be patient. Everybody wants the big bang. There isn’t one. Get up everyday, put one foot in front of the other. Integrate activism with the rest of your life. You have to make a living. We still have partners and spouses and houses and families. You just have to make a place for activism in your life. Here’s the other thing: change starts with each and every one of us, when we embrace our own truth and when you take that truth to your family, take that truth into the community and when you take it upwards. That’s when change begins. Everybody has the capacity to do this stuff. It ain’t rocket science and can actually be fun and satisfying.