Detroit — Faye Alexander Nelson says she learned how to have a purpose, how to work hard and gained a passion for making a difference in the lives of others while growing up on Detroit's west side.
Michiganians of the Year
Her sense of purpose is a trait she says comes from her mother, who consistently volunteered in church groups and with the Torch Drive that's now known as United Way. The passion comes from her grandmother. The gift of hard work? That comes from her father, who spent seven days a week on the Chrysler assembly line.
She spent a decade as an antitrust and trade regulation attorney before becoming the driving force behind the transformation of Detroit's riverfront from an abandoned industrial space beginning in 2003 to the catalyst for economic revitalization in the city that it is today.
The Boston Edison neighborhood native and Cass Technical High School graduate says she's proud to give back to the spaces that raised her.
"It's like coming full circle," she says. "Having the opportunity to work in many spaces, I realized what I loved was working in partnership with the community."
As a child, she had the privilege of being exposed to different walks of life and aspired to be a classical violinist. While she never played professionally, she would later serve on the board of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
Faye Alexander Nelson, Michiganian of The Year
Todd McInturf, The Detroit News
She raised $160 million to support project costs and oversaw myriad complex initiatives along the riverfront, which included land acquisition, conservation easements, finance, program staffing and sustainability. She helped develop more than three miles of public space, generating more than $1 billion in public and private investments.
"As I worked in the region (in the early 2000s), I saw Detroit spiraling down and there was so many challenges that existed. It was always, for me, wanting to reflect on what I could do in partnership with others to really lift up and support the city," Nelson says.
As a member of the senior leadership team at Wayne State University, she co-led the development of the research university's technology park now known as TechTown, a job incubator and small business support system.
From 2013-18, Alexander Nelson served as board chair and president of the DTE Energy Foundation, leading the restructuring of its philanthropic priorities, overseeing the disbursement of more than $20 million in annual grant funding to nonprofits in underserved communities statewide.
Since 2018, she has directed the Kellogg Fund's $8 billion philanthropic endowments toward initiatives throughout the state with a focus on improving the lives of children and their families. Her leadership impact includes 41,000 Detroit public school students securing educational tools and connectivity to address the digital divide during the pandemic, funding workforce development organizations that have trained 1,000 residents, and $5 million of funding support for the sustainability of minority and women-owned businesses.
"Every day we ask, how do we go about the business of supporting the nonprofits that will actually do the work in order for children to thrive?" she says. "Then, supporting communities where people can live equitably, that they have the same type of opportunities in the areas of education, housing and health care."
Navigating her career and working toward leadership roles wasn't easy, but still, she learned to persevere and tolerate the drama she experienced.
"Being a woman and being a woman of color has not been easy because you're dealing with racism, sexism, and just always having to not second-guess your skill and your competency — that takes effort," she says. "To be able to persevere and do your best all the time while managing your grace is not easy but we must all move forward."
Throughout the many years that Alexander Nelson has worked in the community, she has never lost her passion for making a difference in the lives of others, her husband, Al Nelson says.
"The many hours of community service that she personally devotes on a monthly/annual basis, and the lessons learned from her parents and grandmother that being of service to others is a privilege and a responsibility are life lessons she, to this day, follows," he says.
Matthew Cullen, chair of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy and who also sits on nearly a dozen economic development boards, has worked with Alexander Nelson since the 1990s. They worked on TechTown together and started on the riverfront project in 2003.
"She was quickly brought to the forefront because she's tremendous," Cullen says. "Her unique skill set was such that she could bring groups of people together. She was a charismatic leader. She could engage with the community or the religious groups, and a moment later, be in front CEOs of Fortune 50 companies."
Alexander Nelson credited what she called her “kitchen cabinet," a group of confidants she said has been her key to success.
"I've always had a small group of individuals that have supported me and have wanted the best for me," she said. "Along with faith, those have been the keys to my ability to persevere, to sustain and to move forward."
Faye Alexander Nelson
Occupation: Michigan director of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation
Education: Political science degree from Mercy College before earning her law degree from the University of Detroit
Family: Husband, Al Nelson, of more than 33 years, four adult daughters and nine grandchildren.
Why honored: Nelson developed three miles of public space that included parks, gardens, waterfront cafes and a riverwalk, serving as a venue to host 3 million annual visitors, generating over $1 billion in public and private investments. Today, the riverfront continues its growth and development, representing a symbol of pride and community for Detroiters.