A background in urban planning led this former Detroit resident to help at-risk LGBTQ youth reach their full potential, and to educate others on how to do the same.
Imagine, for a moment, that your parents kick you out as a teen over something you can’t control. In an instant, you go from having a roof over your head and food in your belly to homeless and hungry with nowhere to turn. It’s a reality that many LGBTQ youth face – and one that Pamela E. Alexander, the deputy director of the Ruth Ellis Center, has spent more than 30 years trying to change.
“I myself identify as a lesbian. I came out late in life, but I know firsthand what these young people experience,” the Mount Clemens native says. “It’s one of my motivations.” Her work started back in the mid-1990s when Alexander met “Detroit’s oldest and proudest African-American lesbian” and the namesake of the center, Ruth Ellis.
“I met Ruth Ellis at Unity Fellowship Church in 1994 or 1995,” Alexander says. “We went to church every Sunday until she passed away in 2000 at the age of 101.” Around the time of Ellis’ passing, Alexander – who has a master’s degree in urban planning from Wayne State University and a master’s of administration from Central Michigan University – was heavily involved with the development of the center, which offers housing, health care and other services to at-risk LGBTQ youth.
“I was part of the early group of folks that was involved in the surveys as the Ruth Ellis Center was being designed,” she says. “We were concerned by the level of homelessness at the time (and) the center just prospered over the years.”
In the mid-2000s, Alexander left Detroit where she’d raised her two daughters, London and Andrea, and her son, Vincent, who was a Marine Corps staff sergeant, killed in Afghanistan in 2011. Alexander settled in Macomb Township.
In 2013, she co-founded the Detroit Regional LGBT Chamber of Commerce in an effort to create an LGBT district in the city of Detroit. “I’d already done a lot of work to create a chamber of commerce, but when I was invited to a meeting that day, I presented it to the president of the city council and he really liked that idea,” she explains. “Right now, Detroit does not have a designated LGBT community and I thought by starting a community it would start the gay district.”
She would serve as president of the Detroit Regional LGBT Chamber of Commerce until 2015; she was hired as the deputy director of the Ruth Ellis Center in 2014. “I was hired for a reason,” she says. “I came to bring in a new system on how we could and should provide services.”
Through this new system, the Ruth Ellis Center was able to update and create new policies, which earned them an accreditation through the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities. That means the center operates at the highest standards possible.
“To my knowledge, we’re the only LGBT organization in the country to have that accreditation,” she says. In addition, over the last year, Alexander has also served as secretary of the Highland Park Chamber of Commerce, where she works to support community growth and affect policy.
“We’re at all the tables. We’re at tables in Detroit and Highland Park where people (are) making decisions and policies. We’re at tables that impact young people and LGBT youth, by addressing homelessness, food disparity, safety and education,” she says.
And that’s still not all. She has plans to expand the services at Ruth Ellis and create target programming specifically for lesbians and people who identify as women. She also hopes to one day put her love of history and coffee to use by opening a global coffee house in Detroit.
“I’ve been drinking coffee since I was 12 years old. I learned so much about coffee over the decades,” she says. But that’s still a ways off. “I’m a mom, first and foremost, (but) I love the work that I do, I love working with people and I love working with Ruth Ellis,” she says. “I’ve had a fairly good life, except losing my son; I miss him every day. I enjoy planning for a global coffee house, but, in the meantime, I will continue doing this work in some capacity.”