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Young people could be the key to Detroit's transformation

Jack Lessenberry

Anyone who knows Ismael Ahmed knows he is one of the most remarkable people in the Detroit area. He co-founded ACCESS, the nation’s largest Arab-American private human services organization, while he was still a student at the University of Michigan Dearborn.

That was 43 years ago. Today, ACCESS, which he ran for many years, offers more than 90 programs and reports nearly a million client visits a year.

Ahmed, who is also a Vietnam-era veteran, went on to become the director of the Michigan Department of Human Services during the Granholm administration, and then associate provost for community learning at the his alma mater before retiring last year.

Very few people anywhere have given as much to their community.

But Ahmed, now 68, has proven an utter failure at retirement.

He’s always been a teacher and an activist, still runs the annual Concert of Colors, and there are those who want him to run this fall for either one of the university boards or the State Board of Education.

His main cause these days, however, is Public Allies, a too little-known AmeriCorps program he believes has the potential to transform Detroit by turning what they call “opportunity youth” into community leaders. Opportunity youth is a euphemism for young people who are mostly without opportunities except potential and hope.

These are young people between the ages of 17 and 24 who are neither working nor attending school. There are nearly seven million in the nation, 200,000 in Metropolitan Detroit. They have the long-term potential to either remake societies and cities like Detroit, or to ruin them.

Three years ago, Ahmed founded Public Allies of Metropolitan Detroit, which is still housed at the U of M Dearborn. He got some funding and persuaded some nonprofit partners to provide training and apprenticeship programs and got started with a class of 28 students. Seventy percent of that first class graduated. The next two classes were slightly larger, and one hundred percent of them successfully completed the program.

Today, Ahmed told me, nearly all of the alums are still in Detroit. Seventy percent have been inspired to pursue higher education; about a third are working; a quarter are in a second-year, five-month leadership academy in which they work in teams of four on community projects, with organizations like Focus Hope.

Ahmed thinks that once enough people see how important Public Allies can be, and if they can get sufficient funding, they could train a hundred folks every year.

“If after ten years we could place a thousand young leaders in the city, it could be transformational for Detroit,” he said.

You might see that as unrealistic, but nobody thought Ahmed would be successful when he founded ACCESS – or when he set out to build the truly magnificent National Arab-American Museum in Dearborn. The Detroit chapter of Public Allies has already won a $200,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, some of which will be used for an evaluation to determine whether to make a larger, long term commitment.

Tracy Hall, who runs the office of metropolitan impact at the U of M Dearborn, said this is all about creating “a just and equitable society, and the diverse leadership to sustain it.”

That is, after all, exactly what’s needed, if Detroit is to survive.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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