by Lucy Hough
HIGHLAND PARK –
The Ruth Ellis Center, an LGBT youth center for homeless and runaway youth in Highland Park, is beginning efforts to make young people more involved with the center on a regular basis. As a part of the Youth Driven Spaces project, fueled by Ann Arbor’s teen center the Neutral Zone, the Ruth Ellis Center will be involved in workshops, training and evaluation to learn how to make young people a part of the everyday operations.
“We’ve done a good job of creating a safe space for young people, and at this point, one of the other things we really need to do to empower our young people’s voices is to make sure they have the skill set … and a part of that is really having a say in how these services are designed and what goes on in a day-to-day basis,” said Executive Director Laura Hughes at a June 21 event announcing the program.
Youth Driven Spaces is a 15-month program that will start with a three-day institute in August for adults and youth in order to figure out the skills and goals each center has in place to make the switch to make young people more involved. The remainder of the year will be focused on implementing those goals with help from outside coaches who have training in such an area to make the transition easier, and then there will be a retreat the following August in order to evaluate how far each center has come.
The goal of the project is to provide young people with larger voice in the organizations that they are a part of, giving them an opportunity to create programs they are interested in, but also helping them to develop “21st century skills” like leadership, communication and critical thinking.
“I really expect to see very much of a transformation to how things happen here at the center,” Hughes said.
She hopes that by the end of the program, it will be young people greeting visitors at the door, doing referrals for housing and mental health, designing programs and also sitting on the board of directors. The Ruth Ellis Center is one of three agencies across the country dedicated to LGBTQ youth, and the only one that is participating in Youth Driven Space. Hughes hopes that after the program, this center will act as a model for other LGBT youth programs.
Hughes said that implementing this leadership is especially important for the youth that come through the Ruth Ellis Center because it provides opportunities that otherwise they likely wouldn’t have achieved, often coming to the center looking for a safe place to be themselves.
“We really see their leadership development as a core part of their long-term plans to live independently,” Hughes said. “My personal and professional philosophy as well as the philosophy of the center is that we don’t believe in missed opportunities, so our young people come to us without necessarily having those skill sets, but they’re capable of them. So they deserve to have that opportunity as well.”
John Weiss, executive director of the Neutral Zone, also came to the Ruth Ellis Center for the June 21 announcement to speak to key members of the center about what the project will entail. Of 24 programs that applied to be a part of Youth Driven Spaces, eight were chosen in to be a part of this pilot project, including The Block in Canton and Bright Futures in Ypsilanti.
He started this project after many organizations had come to the Neutral Zone in order to learn more about how they got young people so involved through their Riot Youth program.
“I believe young people are exceptional, but they need the opportunity to be exceptional,” Weiss said. “And when you give them the opportunity, especially around their own interests and their own passions, they rise to the occasion. They can do so much.”