Newly appointed Ruth Ellis Center (REC) Executive Director Mark Erwin says he felt a connection to the organization the first time he visited in 2011, as a guest of Laura Hughes, former REC executive director.
“I scheduled a tour of the center with Laura, and the moment I walked into the space, I knew that that’s exactly where I wanted to be,” he recalls. “That was the work that I wanted to do in the community I wanted to be a part of.” When the director of programs position opened up a few months later, he applied right away, a moment he now describes as a turning point in his career.
“Never before had I worked for an organization that I was so passionate about the mission and the work and inspired by the capabilities of the organization,” he says. “From that point forward, I just never left.”
Before Erwin first arrived at the Highland Park social services agency, which serves at-risk LGBTQ+ youth, he served in various volunteer roles for Affirmations, the LGBTQ+ community center in Ferndale, after time in L.A., Boston, New York and Minneapolis, where he ran a School of Rock franchise.
Erwin’s time with School at Rock, in particular, planted a seed that would carry through to his role as executive director at REC. “When I came back to Detroit in 2011, it was really important to me that I work to support the LGBTQ+ community. It was something I was passionate about,” he says. “And more than that, I was really wanting to think about, ‘How do we create spaces where young people can show up exactly as they are?’”
Answering this question has been at the heart of how Erwin has helped shape the direction of REC, which is experiencing a period of remarkable growth. Earlier this year, the center opened its Ruth Ellis Clairmount Center, a permanent supportive housing program for local LGBTQ+ youth experiencing chronic homelessness, in Detroit’s Piety Hill neighborhood.
Clairmount Center, Erwin says, is one way REC is creating innovative programming that “truly addresses the needs of the LGBTQ+ young people we’re serving.”
“We’re not taking programs that already exist and adapting them to young people,” he adds. “We are literally creating new and innovative programs that truly meet young people where they are. And that’s really been the motivating force behind my work and my dedication to the center. I would say that’s probably a similar experience for a lot of my colleagues, as well.”
Clairmount Center is a significant achievement for REC as well as the city of Detroit. The facility is the first LGBTQ-affirming facility in the city’s subsidized housing continuum and offers a host of supportive health and community resources on site. “It’s [served] a huge need,” Erwin says. “It’s one of the reasons Ruth Ellis Center was established 23 years ago.”
Before REC, there were no supportive services in the city specifically for young LGBTQ+ people, many of whom were experiencing family rejection. “The fact that the center has been able to really embed ourselves in these systems, so that we can better support these young people, is really a testament to what the center is all about,” he says.
Though Erwin’s career success is personally gratifying, he’s far more likely to tout the successes of the people REC has helped over the years. Case in point: Krystina Edwards, who Erwin met on his very first day on the job in 2011. At the time, Edwards, a trans woman of color, was 16 and living in one of REC’s residential foster care facilities. “She was big and vibrant, just this incredible person,” he remembers.
Over time, Edwards became involved in the center’s peer leadership program and served as an important volunteer. When she aged out of foster care and went off to college, Erwin sent her care packages — “ramen noodles and shaving cream and all the things college kids need” — and served as a mentor, guiding Edwards as she started a career in the nonprofit world. When Edwards decided to move back to the Detroit area, she called Erwin and asked that he let her know if a position opened up at REC.
In a true full circle moment, it was only a few weeks later when a community engagement manager position became available. “I encouraged Krystina to apply for the position and interview for it, and she did, along with many, many other individuals,” he says. “Ultimately, Krystina was the best person for this position.” Edwards has served in her new role since February.
“It’s just cool to see a young person who has gone through all the programs and services at Ruth Ellis Center, and then go off to college and get her undergrad degree, and then to come back and want to continue doing the work that she was able to benefit from as a teenager,” Erwin says.
Edwards says Erwin played a big part in helping her succeed and overcome challenges she faced as a teen. “When we first met, I was a very outspoken and troubled young woman,” she says. “Mark played an important role in helping me channel my focus on completing my goals. He basically showed me the things I wanted were realistic, and he helped me get there. I don’t think I would be where I am if we never crossed paths.”
Reflecting on his 11 years with REC, Erwin says his early work on the ground, working directly with young people as director of programs, still informs his work today as the guiding force for the entire organization. “My goal with philanthropy at Ruth Ellis Center has always been, first and foremost, to advocate on behalf of the young people who come to the center and rely on the center, and then beyond that, be a source of education for the broader community and community partners so that they can intimately learn about the experiences of LGBTQ+ young people, and especially LGBTQ+ people of color,” he says.
When Erwin isn’t working, there’s a good chance he’s hanging out with his canine companions, 13-year-old Henry and 10-year-old Macintosh. “They’re probably less excited about me becoming executive director because of the longer hours I’m putting in,” he jokes.
Erwin’s human family, on the other hand, has always been highly supportive of his work with REC. His mother has been a volunteer with the organization for many years and became the resource coordinator, working on the “Ruth’s Closet” clothing program. Erwin’s dad volunteers handyman services for the center. His two brothers have also served the greater Highland Park community as firefighters. “My family has been really committed to Highland Park and Ruth Ellis Center,” he says. “And so, it’s been just sort of an incredible journey for all of us.”
Erwin also spends some of his free time enjoying and creating art, camping, and engaging with music. He’s a lifelong musician — he sings and can play piano and string bass — who graduated from the internationally recognized Interlochen Center for the Arts, located south of Traverse City. Focusing on music helped him get through his teenage years, when he says he struggled with his identity. “Having the opportunity to go to Interlochen was my very first experience of what can happen when you are celebrated for who you are,” he says. “And that made a big impact on me and has been a recurring theme throughout my career — trying to create those kinds of spaces for young people.”
Looking ahead, Erwin says REC is focusing on getting Clairmount Center fully operational and taking stock of processes and procedures as the organization reflects on its extensive growth over the past several years. “As an organization, our goal is always to provide the best resources possible based on the needs of the young people we serve, and so we’re providing space to really hear from our community about what is working and where we can do more. That should always be our focus,” he says.
He anticipates the center’s recent rapid growth to slow down as the organization evaluates its best next steps. One new program that is set to launch, in January, is an education employment support program called Thriving Futures, which will focus on helping young professionals launch their careers.
Above all else, Erwin says, “We want to ensure that LGBTQ+ young people are safe and supported, no matter where they go.”