Firing, resignations cause Ruth Ellis Center to suspend services for a week

By |2003-10-23T09:00:00-04:00October 23rd, 2003|Uncategorized|

DETROIT – What would Ruth Ellis say? If she were alive today, the feisty and fiercely beloved senior citizen would be 104. And though she’s been gone for three years, one cannot help but wonder what words of wisdom she would have to offer about what’s going on these days at the agency that bears her name. As construction on Ruth’s House, the transitional living program for LGBT youth that has been the impetus of the Ruth Ellis Center’s work since its inception in 1999, nears completion, the center is without the outreach staff that helped bring the agency to where it is today.
On Oct. 15, REC’s director of street outreach services, Imani Williams, who is also a BTL contributing writer, was terminated. Upon hearing the news, the center’s four paid outreach workers walked off their jobs in a show of support for Williams, followed by the three volunteers who assisted regularly at the REC drop-in center. The walkouts forced the center to temporarily discontinue services and close for a week.
“We had hoped that the street outreach workers, the four individual young people, would stay with us,” said John Allen, co-chair of the REC board, noting that one of the outreach workers had just received a promotion.
That, however, did not happen. Following Williams’ termination, the four outreach workers, Elizabeth Aulette-Root, Nkosi Figueroa, Tonya Gooden and Natasha N. Jackson, sent out a community-wide email claiming that REC’s “existence is in jeopardy. At the end of June, a new executive director was hired who, for unknown reasons, has decided to radically change established procedures and to drive out the current group of employees who have worked so hard for the welfare of our young people.”
Three days later, on Oct. 18, the outreach workers organized a demonstration in front of the center. Several dozen concerned community members – many of them youth members who regularly visited the drop-in center – picketed the center, singing “We Shall Overcome” and chanting “Speak the truth for Ruth.”
Kofi Adoma, REC’s other board co-chair, said the decision to terminate Williams was personally painful, but deemed necessary by a unanimous decision of the board.
“We were very pleased with her work and we thanked her for those years that she was with the center and we intended on keeping her forever until she was ready to go,” said Adoma. “That was our intention.”
But something happened to change the REC board’s plans. The board chairs cannot legally discuss the reason Williams was fired, and Williams says she was never told why she was being let go.
“I still do not know why I was suspended, nor do I have a definitive reason for being terminated,” she said. “Generally people are given a verbal reprimand followed by a written reprimand and an expected outline to improvements that are expected along with a timeframe.”
Adoma denied that a reason for the termination was not clearly stated. “We had a whole meeting just to tell her and to have her respond,” she said.
Further, the co-chairs claim that the center’s executive director, Grace McClelland, had nothing to do with the decision to terminate Williams.
“This was a board-driven decision,” said Allen. “This was not a decision that the executive director either took place in the deliberations or had any sway over any of the board members. This was a board-driven decision, and our board [now] is essentially the same board that hired Imani.”
Regardless of why, Williams is no longer working for REC. The drop-in center has now reopened under the direction of Atiba Sietu, who until last month was a member of the REC board. Sietu originally left the board to run the center’s transitional living program at Ruth’s House, but following Williams’ termination he agreed to take over the street outreach program.
“There’s always positive changes that can come out of any negative situation,” said Allen. “And that’s, at this point, what we’re focused on: going forward and making positive changes out of a negative situation.”
That won’t necessarily be easy for some of the drop-in center regulars who have become very attached to Williams and her staff.
“It won’t feel the same,” said Rafeal, a 19-year-old who’s been coming to the center for the past five months. “I probably won’t be too quick to talk to another person. It will take a while to get used to. I pray they get their jobs back.”
A slim possibility, as the center moves on to its next phase, one still can’t help but wonder what Ruth would say about all this. Adoma, who knew Ellis for many years, thinks she can answer that.
“She would be very disappointed,” said Adoma. “I’m sure she would. But the Ruth Ellis Center still stands and is offering services. I think she would be happier knowing that.”
Asked about racially charged allegations raised by some workers and volunteers
regarding the new executive director, Grace McClelland, who is white, Adoma said
“I’m praying that the public will trust that this board has the best interests of the youth in mind. We wouldn’t let something like race,(or) something like some insignificant thing, get in the way of that. And if it looks like that, if the picture has been painted that way, I don’t think Ruth would have liked that. That’s playing with the public’s mind.”

About the Author:

Jason A. Michael
Jason A. Michael earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Wayne State University before joining Between The Lines as a contributing writer in 1999. Jason has received both the Spirit of Detroit Award (presented by the Detroit City Council) and the Media Award from the Community Pride Banquet & Awards Ceremony for his writing and activism. Jason is also an Essence magazine bestselling author having written the authorized biography "Strength Of A Woman: The Phyllis Hyman Story," which he released on his own JAM Books imprint.