Her parents were big on civic duty, which led Nelson to study social science as an undergrad at Michigan State University; she later added a master’s degree in exercise physiology. She also studied karate for more than two decades, reaching the level of fourth degree black belt.
Nelson began her career in 1971 as a community organizer for Lansing Model Cities, an anti-poverty initiative that was part of the President Lyndon B. Johnson administration’s War of Poverty programming. With the goal of urban revitalization, the initiative involved residents in neighborhood improvement projects. When her stint with the project ended, Nelson sought adventure.
She spent a year in Key Largo, FL, working as a first mate on a fishing boat, a bartender and a paraprofessional, working with gifted second graders. Then she returned home to begin the next leg of her journey.
She began Movement Arts, a martial arts, health and fitness studio, in 1984. It became a community in itself. “The people didn’t just take classes, they were involved,” Nelson said. She ran the business, and her expertise from it lead to opportunities to consult in violence prevention and personal safety, co-found the National Women’s Martial Arts Foundation, and write two books on self-defense, which were used at several universities.
When Nelson’s son, Peter, was born, she cut her hours to raise her son, and continued only personal safety consulting. She co-organized a group of 12 women and 20 children that grew into a tight knit community that did everything together.
“We were like family,” Nelson said, “and we are still close even after all these years.”
In 2000, Nelson was offered the director’s position at the newly established Allen Neighborhood Center (ANC). The Center provides many services for Lansing’s Eastside neighborhood and adds new features every year. Some of the highlights include the Youth Service Corps, which engages kids in community-building through gardening programs. The Allen Street Farmer’s Market is a feature each May through October, and is spreading into the winter months using ANC’s Hunter Park Garden House as a venue.
“I feel so privileged to be part of an organization like Allen Neighborhood Center, especially on the Eastside [neighborhood] where community is so strong,” Nelson said. “Our projects and goals build on an Eastside tradition of community, self-reliance and mutual assistance.”