DEARBORN — Governor Jennifer M. Granholm this week announced the appointment of Ismael Ahmed to director of the Michigan Department of Human Services. Ahmed is a 1975 graduate of the University of Michigan with a bachelor of arts degree in secondary education and a minor in sociology.
Ahmed, co-founder of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, has labored there for over 32 years. His name is virtually synonymous with the organization. He began it in 1972 with 12 employees in an office rented for $250. He was appointed executive director in 1983.
Today, ACCESS is the largest Arab American human services organization in the United States, offering over 90 different programs with more than 900,000 client contacts annually.
Ahmed has also worked closely with New Detroit, Inc. and co-founded the popular annual Concert of Colors. Under his direction, the National Arab American Museum in Dearborn was also established, the first in the country.
In his new role, Ahmed will lead the state’s second largest agency. The Michigan Department of Human Services’ nearly 10,000 employees administer a $4 billion-plus annual budget, including the federal TANF grant and Food Assistance Program. The DHS is the state’s child and family services agency and administers child and adult protective services, foster care, adoptions, juvenile justice, domestic violence, Medicaid and child support programs. Its staff serves 1.5 million medical assistance cases and 1.2 million cash and food assistance cases statewide.
“Ismael has a wealth of experience responding to the needs of people, and we are so fortunate to have someone with his leadership skills and compassion moving the Department of Human Services forward,” Granholm said. “Ismael shares our goals of encouraging strong families and helping citizens become self-sufficient, and we look forward to his leadership on these issues and more.”
The son of an Egyptian father and Lebanese American mother, Ahmed worked on a cargo ship in his early life. He gained valuable experiences traveling around the globe seeing different cultures and people. Although he was fascinated by the world’s diversity, he was also troubled by the extreme degrees of poverty and class distinctions he witnessed. In a visit to Korea, he began to question America’s role in the world as well.
Ahmed served stateside in the military and after an honorable discharge, vigorously protested the Vietnam war. It was around that time that he also began lobbying for the rights of Arab Americans. The rest, as they say, is history.
“I am honored that Governor Granholm has given me the opportunity to serve in this important role,” Ahmed said in a press release. “The Department of Human Services does so much to bring help and hope to people in need; as director, I look forward to working with the department and its partners to reduce poverty and improve the lives of children and vulnerable adults in our state. I am particularly interested in building and strengthening the statewide and local collaborations established under Marianne Udow, which can expand the ability of government to reduce poverty, help citizens support their families, and protect children and vulnerable adults.”
“Poverty and illiteracy are both enemies of civil rights, and whoever suffers from these two ailments will struggle in attaining his civil rights,” Ahmed said recently in an interview with “The Arab American News.”
His priorities as head of DHS will be to “shine a light on the situation here in terms of poverty,” he said. “We need to tap our own conscience and bring those who don’t have to those making the decisions.”
He also cited the situation of the child welfare system in the state. “Several children in the care of the state have died recently,” he said. And he observed that reorganizing and upgrading that system of care needs to done based not on ideology but in terms of the outcomes of care.
A third priority will be reimbursement issues. He said that more federal dollars are available than what the state has been getting and accessing them has been hampered by ineptitude.
And Ahmed has a special interest in three other areas under the DHS banner: refugee resettlement, migrant issues and Native American rights.
Ahmed has three and a half years to work on these problems. He realizes that the economy is going to be the biggest obstacle in his path and that the normal politics that go on may prove some problems intractable. But just as he did with ACCESS, he intends to devote his life during these years to whatever he can accomplish.
First, of course, he has to be confirmed by the state senate. He doesn’t anticipate problems. “There are the usual people out there who have dogged Arab Americans all along, and they are working overtime to defeat me.” But he fully expects to be confirmed.
Many in this community are wondering what will happen to the institutions Ahmed has fostered. “You know, people think the leaders of an organization do the work. But there are 300 people here who really do the work. And 1000 volunteers. ACCESS has grown into an important, capable institution. Our institutions must live beyond the leaders who founded them. We feel good that we have a whole set of new leaders that will emerge and grow.”
“ACCESS has also developed strong relationships with other local and national advocacy groups that Ahmed said will continue to serve the organization well.
As he departs ACCESS, Ahmed has a clear idea of the institution’s priorities moving ahead.
“First, we want to conduct a governance reform campaign that will ensure open and transparent governance and that there be a continual changing of the guard. Many of us have been here 32 years. We need new blood.
“Secondly, we need an internal good service campaign, to ensure the quality of our service and our workplace culture.
“Third, the quality of the services we deliver must be the highest possible.
“Stabilizing the National Arab American Museum is another high priority. We need to establish an endowment fund. We need to raise $5,000,000 over the next year. The museum’s reputation is growing and we want it to be national in its scope and impact.” The endowment fund is important, because operating expenses cannot be covered by membership or entrance fees alone.
Stabilizing the institution’s infrastructure is another immediate priority. In this interview Ahmed announced that the entire Southend campus at Dix and Vernor will be rebuilt, beginning soon. “All buildings will be stabilized and renovated and we will add to the campus a new youth facility that will cost $4-5.5 million dollars. About half the money has been raised. The new youth facility will include all kinds of sports.”
Finally, ACCESS wants to strengthen the National Network of Arab American Communities. There are currently 15 organizations in 11 states tied together in the network. They share information and resources. Six to eight more are ready to join. “This is a 20-year project,” Ahmed acknowledged. “But this kind of network can be the pivotal base for future Arab American activism.”
That’s a mighty tall agenda. But ACCESS leaders are not worried.
“We are in the fortunate position of having skilled staff and leaders who will be able to maintain the high level of services during this period of transition,” said Noel Saleh, president of the ACCESS board of directors.
Hassan Jaber, ACCESS COO, will pick up the duties as executive director. Jaber has had long years of experience and has been responsible for developing various social and legal programs, and administering the organization’s immigration and advocacy services. He is a major proponent for the advancement of ACCESS’ development in the departments of mental and community health, employment his avid support for ushering in the next generation has helped to expand ACCESS’ youth and education services. He led strategic planning for the entire organizationand has maintained national and international relationships.