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Multicultural Leadership Institute's new leader Cecilia Ruffin shares how faith and service led her through hardships and to care for others

Cecilia Ruffin is the executive director at the Multicultural Leadership Institute in Bloomington.
Cecilia Ruffin
Cecilia Ruffin is the new executive director at the Multicultural Leadership Institute in Bloomington.

A passion for serving others is what drives Cecilia Ruffin, the Multicultural Leadership Institute's new executive director.

Ruffin was described as a someone who “embodies all the traits of a servant leader” by Multicultural Leadership Institute board president Barbara Bouboutsis.

“I think constantly about how to help people. I think about that a lot, and I try to live a life that is consistent with that thought pattern because I received so much in my life that I just want to make sure that I am giving as much as I am receiving. So, I think about that a lot,” Ruffin said.

The Bloomington-based Multicultural Leadership Institute provides transformative leadership experiences while serving the community and advancing equity. Its flagship program, the Multicultural Leadership Program (MCLP), graduated its 13th class earlier this month.

In January, Ruffin accepted the executive director position. However, her journey of service began over 20 years ago.

Before MCLI, she was a volunteer for the McLean County jail and led a women’s bible study there. This year marks 21 years since she began using this opportunity to teach women that just because someone has broken the law or made a mistake, it does not mean there are not opportunities for them to heal from the past.

“What I tell the women is it’s important to understand that rehabilitation starts right now. It’s a matter of the heart. It’s a matter of the way in which you perceive what it is that you’re going through,” Ruffin said.

"That’s part of what makes our program really great – is because we bring that diversity in, and it’s just amazing how much a person grows in that atmosphere."
Cecilia Ruffin, new Multicultural Leadership Institute executive director

Ruffin said she wants others, including these women, to ask themselves tough questions and allow themselves to understand how the choices people make impact our past, and how the choices people can make give us the potential to become better people in our communities.

“So, it’s always a message of hope, it’s a message of choice and it’s a message of change. Because when we apply all of those things together, we can really begin that process of rehabilitation and become a better citizen in our community,” Ruffin said.

Additionally, Ruffin began a trauma and loss program called We Care that provides outreach, free counseling and a safe space for people to process grief and loss.

Ruffin is also involved in several committees through the MLI. She graduated from the MCLP herself in 2018.

“One thing that MCLP did was it really helped me to, I’m being honest, it really helped me to magnify my voice because sometimes, especially as women, we don’t always feel like we belong,” Ruffin said. “So, it gave me a confidence that I hadn’t had before to really branch out and really put my name in something different to see what would happen.”

Writing about loss

Ruffin is also known for her love of writing and storytelling, a trait she gained from her mom. Ruffin wrote two children’s books: “I Miss You Big Grandma,” and “Kiss Me Goodnight and Tell Me You Love Me.” She said since she was a little girl, she has always enjoyed writing.

She also wrote “Letters To A Sleeping Giant” in honor of her first son, who passed away unexpectedly in 2009. The years following her son’s death were dark and difficult times for Ruffin, and so she began writing letters to her son to continue conversations with him.

Ruffin immediately took steps to put herself first after the loss of her son, such as putting herself in counseling and writing letters to her son. She said this allowed her to safely process and discuss what she was enduring.

“Because he died unexpectedly, there was just this wealth of conversations that I never got to have. So, I start the book about some of the letters that I’ve written to him. It kind of depicts where I was on the journey,” Ruffin said. “Then, I wanted to be able to also let people know that even after loss, there’s still life. Even when you have experienced something as traumatic and devastating as the loss of your first born, you can rebuild, and you can recover, and you can move forward.”

Ruffin continued, “One of the things that stuck with me is one of the questions they ask in MCLP, and that is, ‘What are you going to do next?’ Now that I had this experience, what was I going to do next?”

The message she hoped to convey through writing “Letters To A Sleeping Giant” was one of hope for anyone facing similar circumstances.

“Even when your life feels decimated, you can still choose your way forward. That’s what I did,” Ruffin said.

Family ties

Ruffin’s life devoted to serving others and guiding others through times of trauma and grief, even as she was personally dealing with hardships, is rooted in the impact her mom made on her life.

“One of the most awesome things my mom taught me was even when you have less, you still have a responsibility to share. That, in and of itself, makes us rich because we understand our ability to give back. We understand on a higher level that there may be someone that has less than you,” Ruffin said.

On top of her dedication to supporting her community, Ruffin is a wife, a mother and a grandmother. She has nine children in total, five of them being adopted, and she has poured her love to several other “bonus” boys and girls too.

Ruffin said what keeps her grounded is her faith and her understanding that time is limited.

“Time is a precious commodity. So, you only have a limited amount of time to leave your mark and opt leave an impact. I want to make best use of my time,” Ruffin said.

Ruffin continued, “I would hope that my faith and my beliefs would assist me in helping to ensure that I’m treating people with dignity and with respect. That I’m operating from a place of integrity, that I’m understanding that as humans, we make mistakes, and that we can be better.”

Serving the local Bloomington-Normal community through the Multicultural Leadership Institute is something that Ruffin said she loves because diversity and inclusion of everyone are at the core of what this organization does.

“We welcome people from all walks of life, all walks of faith and all walks of diversity of thinking. That’s part of what makes our program really great – is because we bring that diversity in, and it’s just amazing how much a person grows in that atmosphere, in that ecosystem of inclusion and acceptance,” Ruffin said. “So, I would hope that as I carry who I am with me, that I would be a light to someone else meaning that they would see what’s possible when we apply our best. That they would see what’s possible when we treat others with dignity and respect, and that they would see what’s possible when we allow everyone to have a seat at the table.”

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Jordan Mead is a reporting intern at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021.
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