As Jerry Peterson resigns his position as executive director of the Ruth Ellis Center (REC) after nearly a decade, he speaks of leaving Detroit, the city he has called home for the past nine years, with regret.
“I love Detroit,” Peterson, 65, told Pride Source in a phone interview from his new condo in Mesa, Arizona. “I’m a community development junkie. I moved here in 2013, right around the time of the bankruptcy. Bought a home in the University District that needed a lot of work.”
Peterson finished the home, as well as two additional renovation projects, over the next few years. His time in the city was an education of sorts for Peterson and, as a white man, he appreciated not being in the majority for once.
“I always, always was aware of that and what it means for a white man to show up among Black and brown people,” he said. “That was a constant learning and growth for me that I loved. So, hands down, Detroit will always be my favorite place to both live and work.”
Peterson, originally from Indiana, spent 14 years with the United Way in Ft. Wayne, focusing on community building, development and partnerships. Peterson credits his position there, along with the three years he spent with the Contra Costa LGBTQI2-S Youth Advocacy Collaborative in California’s Bay Area, as the experiences that best qualified him to lead REC.
When he saw the executive director position open up at the agency, Peterson said he was immediately intrigued. “I knew I had one last career in me before I retired and the mission of REC just captured my heart on both a personal and professional level,” he said. “I really wanted to bring resources together to serve the young people of Ruth Ellis.”
Personally, thoughts of the position took him back to even before he’d started working in the non-profit sector, to when he was married to a woman and pastor of a church in Fort Wayne. Peterson came out late, not until he was 40 and a father of three. In 1994, Peterson said he saw no way to be his authentic self.
“I was very suicidal. When I turned 40, I finally decided that coming out was better than dying,” he said. “That experience of coming out so late in life and hating myself for so long, it was the experience that really captured me when I saw the posting.”
Taking the big leap
As excited as he was about the position, Peterson said it took him a week to accept it once it was offered to him. He worried whether a white man should hold the position at the helm of a predominantly Black workplace where it was mostly Black youth that were being served.
“That was a personal concern to me,” he said. “Because as much as my lived experience gave me a lot of compassion for people at REC, I had a lot to learn from them about their lived experience, and that process was a joy, and it will always be a really important part of my life.”
Ultimately, Peterson decided to take a leap and accepted the position and moved to the Motor City. There, Peterson racked up an impressive list of accomplishments during his nine years, including dramatic increases in grants and fundraising, as well as building partnerships with Henry Ford Health that resulted in the creation of the first integrated health center and the soon to be completed Clairmont Center, a mixed used 43-unit building that will also house a second health center. Peterson also oversaw the purchase and renovation of a new building that doubled the center’s space in Highland Park.
Peterson said managing the pace of change has been his greatest challenge.
“The budget the first year I was at REC was about $960,000,” said Peterson. “This year, it’s in the neighborhood of $4.5 million. We grew from 16 staff members to around 50. There seemed to be a never-ending pace of change.”
But such growth comes with a unique set of challenges.
“How do you keep up with systems and growth and really be able to keep a culture that is really attuned to equity and core principles at work that REC stands for – restorative justice principles and so on?” asked Peterson.
Leaving a mark
Peterson’s legacy at REC is sure to shine bright in the years to come. Kofi Adoma, a founding board member and founding board co-chair of REC, said Peterson’s role in the center’s history was “transformative. … I admire him for his persistence, having put in his time, efforts, energies, sweat, tears, and I’m sure sacrifices in order to grow the services that REC offers. I wish everybody had whatever it was that kept him going.”
As someone who sat around the table from the very first meeting in June 1999 where the name Ruth Ellis Center was decided upon, Adoma said she is proud of the work Peterson has done and the growth of the center since his arrival.
“Our founding board could not have dreamt this far,” she said. “I appreciate that he humbly took on what was already built from the previous directors and put his own hallmark on it. I’m absolutely sure that Miss Ruth, herself, would give him a big hug and maybe a few kisses, too.”
Adoma’s fellow founding board member and founding board co-chair John Allen said much of the same, calling Peterson’s commitment to the young people REC serves “absolute.”
“It’s tempting to measure his legacy in annual budgets grown or brick and mortar put in place,” said Allen. “You could look at it that way and conclude that Jerry was a very successful E.D. But the real measure of Jerry’s success at REC is in the countless young lives he changed for the better over the past nine years.”
Peterson said he first spoke to the board early last year about his plans to leave later this summer. “I was very well aware that I had accomplished everything I had set out to do and a little more,” he said. “I also knew that for the nature of the organization as it is now, they needed a new kind of leadership and it was time for that leadership change.”
A health concern with his daughter pushed up his retirement by a few months; Peterson’s last day was March 1. He said he feels good with the shape he’s leaving REC in. “The organization is really strong — strong staff, strong board,” he said. “The plans are in place. The core funding is now in place. And they have the resources they need to be successful.”
These days, Peterson is getting settled into his condo in Arizona and enjoying being closer to his daughter and granddaughter. “I had devoted a lot and given up a lot in those nine years, and this is the time in my life that I really decided to switch my focus to family.”
The task at hand now, he said, is learning how to have a life.
“I’ve never done a very good job, frankly, in my life at having a personal life,” he said. “So I am all about learning how to do that.”