By Dawn Wolfe Gutterman
HIGHLAND PARK – Collette Ramsey has worked for a state senator, a U.S. President and a major liquor company. She has travelled from her home town of Detroit to Philadelphia and New York and back again.
Now, Ramsey lives in Highland Park and is bringing her collection of public relations, marketing and political experience to work as director of development for the Ruth Ellis Center. And, after only three days on the job, she managed to secure a four-figure donation from one of Detroit’s major corporations.
“Collette is amazing,” said Grace McClelland, the Center’s executive director. “As our first allied staff she not only brings diversity to the table but also her wealth of experience in public relations and private fundraising.”
A sizable grant from the Arcus Foundation made it possible for the Ruth Ellis Center to hire Ramsey, who will be resposible for raising $500,000 a year.
“We expect great things, and we’re confident that that’s exactly what we’re going to get,” McClelland said.
Steering her own ship
Ramsey grew up in a working class black neighborhood at Seven Mile and Hawthorne. Her mother was a teacher and her father owned a liquor store, and together they sent their daughter to private schools in the suburbs until Collette was ready for high school.
“So, whereas I was able to know the reality of city living, I was always educated in the suburbs,” Ramsey said.
After graduating from the Math, Science and Applied Technologies program at Martin Luther King High School and falling in love with the business finesse of Donald Trump, Ramsey was off to the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.
Ramsey credits her admiration of Trump and her father for persuading her to enter the corporate world.
Ramsey’s father, “always taught us – my brother and myself – the value of entrepreneurship, being able to kind of steer your own ship, write your own course, and if you have the intellect and education behind you, no matter what happens, you’ll always be able to take care of yourself,” Ramsey said.
Making a difference
Despite her many business successes, though, Ramsey said that before joining the Ruth Ellis Center, “what really turned me on was my work with The Colours Organization,” a Philadelphia organization that is, according to its Web site, “the very first non-club, non-commercial, free-standing center specifically designed for sexual minority men and women of color ever to exist in the City of Brotherly Love.”
Her work for The Colours Organization was Ramsey’s “first opportunity to immerse myself in a world that catered to sexual minorities of color and … to take all my ideas into this space where people really appreciated them,” Ramsey said.
“At the end of the day, that’s what I was excited about – you look for those things growing up, when you’re in college … and you get out into the work world and you realize they want you to give back what they teach you as opposed to this great creative thought – and at Colours, the lights went on and it was ‘Wow! I can really make a difference,'” Ramsey said.
Making a difference seems to be a key to Ramsey’s motivations, whether in her choice of career moves or her choice of home towns. Ramsey moved to Highland Park last November, she said, because “I can make a difference. Detroit was so massive … you understand the players, but there’s so much to be able to grasp and try to immerse yourself, whereas in Highland Park it’s right here – and the housing is so affordable – why not? It was just small enough that I could get in and make an immediate difference.”
Asked her plans for civic involvement, Ramsey cited the need for literacy and substance abuse programs.
“We have to have literacy programs. We need to address [drug] abuse, because if you can’t read or if you can’t pass the test because you have some substance issues – what comes of that? Why is that? Why?”
Defining a legacy
When the questions turned to Ramsey’s decision to seek the Ruth Ellis Center position, her enthusiasm visibly peaked. Her voice, which she had been losing throughout the interview due to illness, broke with excitement while describing the journey that led her to the center.
“In my other life, that’s a little while ago, I was national (public relations) and special events manager for a spirit company. And – every day, people justify what they do and why they do what they do, and I got to the point [that] I said, ‘What is my legacy? What is it, if something happened immediately and I were no longer here on this earth, what would I be attached to, instantly?’ And I was not happy with the concept of – spirits, liquor,” Ramsey said. “Ok, that’s what it is, I’m a glorified drug dealer, if you will, because if it’s not consumed responsibly it becomes a drug – and that’s just not how I wanted to be perceived.”
While considering what to do next, Ramsey was watching the world around her – particularly Woodward Avenue, which she drove on her way to the airport to commute to her New-York based job.
“I would see young people walking up and down Woodward,” Ramsey said, “[and] I’m like – wow, how did you get there? The same people, no matter whether I was leaving out to work in the morning or at night coming in – the same young people on the street, and I thought ‘Did anybody care about you? Does anyone else see these people that’s walking up and down the street, and what’s their story?'”
While searching for a non-profit position on the Internet, Ramsey found the Ruth Ellis Center.
On seeing the Center’s ad, Ramsey said, she thought, “That’s me! I know I can make a difference! But will they give me a chance?”
Now that she has, indeed, been given that chance, Ramsey said that she is committed to giving the Ruth Ellis Center a voice in the community.
“People don’t know about it – and it’s basically right in our backyards,” she said of the center, which serves homeless and at-risk LGBT youth. “Are we engaged with our state representatives, with our city – a lot of those questions are kind of up in the air.” Ramsey said that she plans to bring in her fiancee, newly elected 5th District State Representative Bert Johnson, to “champion the cause.”
“How do we create partnerships, how do we address some of the atrocities that have been going on? The violence against our young people? The response within the police and the sheriff’s and the like – why does it seem like we’re falling on deaf ears?” she said.
Reginald Scott, the business and finance director for Old Redford Academy, has known Ramsey for 20 years.
Ramsey is “one of my greatest business or professional confidants that I go to,” Scott said. “I congratulate [Ruth Ellis Center] on the person you have working with you. I know that she’s very, very thorough. Definitely a professional, a joyous person to be around. She brings a lot of energy to everything she works on.”
For more information on the Ruth Ellis Center, visit http://www.ruthelliscenter.com