In 2003, Faye Alexander Nelson ’75, ’81 became the inaugural president and CEO of Detroit RiverFront Conservancy.
Most people she talked to about the post told her it was a mistake, and that the project was a fool’s errand. No one wanted to visit downtown Detroit at the time and the riverfront, which was overly polluted, had been essentially abandoned for decades.
“It was my hometown,” Nelson said, “and my heart just broke when I looked around and saw the condition.”
Over the next several years, Nelson raised $160 million to support the revitalization of Detroit’s riverfront, acquired land rights and oversaw construction. She helped to develop more than three miles of public space in her decade of work, which included more than a billion dollars in investments from both public and private institutions and companies.
Today, the riverfront is a highlight of the city. It has provided a blueprint for other public-private partnerships in the city, including Campus Martius Park and the Dequindre Cut.
“We dreamed big, and we said, ‘Wow if one day we could have a place where people would actually want to come down and come together and enjoy this international waterfront, how cool would that be?’” Nelson said. “The project today surpasses any of our expectations.”
It’s work like this for which she was named a Detroit News 2022 Michiganian of The Year.
Nelson earned degrees from Mercy College of Detroit and University of Detroit to launch a successful career as a lawyer, philanthropist and transformative community leader.
“I have devoted my entire life to the community,” Nelson said. “Not just in the Detroit region, but to communities throughout the state. I do everything I can, in partnership with others, to make our community a better place. To have my work recognized was quite humbling.”
Nelson led the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy from 2003-13. In this role, she helped spark the renaissance the city is experiencing today.
Rooted in Detroit
Nelson gained her passion for helping others and her blue-collar work ethic from her parents.
She grew up in Detroit’s Boston Edison neighborhood and attended Cass Technical High School. She watched her mother volunteer regularly through her church and her father work six or seven days a week on the assembly line at General Motors.
“I cannot remember one day that my father called in sick or just didn’t choose to go to work,” Nelson said. “He was the single provider for five kids and a stay-at-home mom. I was exposed to his responsibility, showing up every single day.”
In order to stay close to home, she chose Mercy College of Detroit. Nelson majored in Political Science and English and worked part-time, quickly learning that she possessed many of the same traits as her father.
As a working student, she greatly appreciated the individual attention afforded to her by smaller class sizes and felt the faculty worked with her to improve her overall experience. In particular, a professor named Mary Lou Callahan impacted her greatly.
While at Mercy College, she took a few classes at University of Detroit and thought highly of that institution, too. Due to her experiences with the University, she chose to attend University of Detroit’s School of Law after earning her bachelor’s degree.
“I found that Mercy prepared me very well for law school,” Nelson said. “The law and the associated course work very much was in alignment with my skills from strategic thinking to writing to taking a comprehensive approach to problem-solving.”
She graduated in 1981 and spent the next decade at the Kmart Corporation. At first, she worked as part of the company’s legal staff, concentrating on antitrust and trade regulation. Later she became its director of international and national government affairs.
After leaving the Conservancy, Nelson became the vice president, board chair and president of DTE Energy Foundation in 2013, managing the disbursement of more than $20 million in annual grant funding to communities throughout Michigan.
She retired five years later and accepted a fellowship at the University of Michigan, thinking she’d spend more time with her husband Albert Taylor Nelson Jr., and their four daughters.
Her retirement lasted all of six months.
“Then the Kellogg Foundation comes along and it was an opportunity that I just couldn’t say no to,” Nelson said. “The work is so much in alignment with my personal DNA, how I was raised and what I have committed myself to. It was actually an easy yes.”
Since 2018, Nelson has been the Michigan director of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. While it’s a global organization, close to 75 percent of its employees are located in Michigan, which is also its largest funding area.
“All of our grant-making is through the lens of what we call our DNA, which is racial equity, community engagement and leadership development,” Nelson said. “We have three interconnected priorities: thriving children, working families and equitable communities.”
Her work has helped countless individuals throughout the state since, including Detroit Public Schools students, as well as minority and women-owned businesses.
Her education has served her well throughout her vast number of career endeavors. She even participated in the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s leadership development program in the late 1990s and found that she was well prepared when compared to other top business professionals from around the world.
“I appreciate the educational foundation that was established through my Mercy College and University of Detroit experience,” Nelson said. “It worked so well for me. My educational background has had a lot to do with where I am today.”