Sunday, September 16, 2007

Profile of Ish Ahmed

OUT TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE: Acting DHS boss hopes to help people
September 16, 2007



Ismael Ahmed fought poverty and racism as an activist in college, worked on an auto assembly line and managed a punk rock band called the Buzzards.

Last week, the 60-year-old longtime community organizer and executive director of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) took over as acting director of one of the state's largest and most troubled agencies, the Department of Human Services.

The state Senate has scheduled an Oct. 9 confirmation hearing for Ahmed.

"I've gone into this job to make a difference," Ahmed told the Free Press as he prepared to take over the post. "There's no other reason for me to take this job at this time in my life. And so, if I can leave and say that I made some difference in the lives of people, then I'll feel good about it."

The success of ACCESS -- a private nonprofit that grew from a storefront operation helping about 125 people in 1971 to an agency with a $15-million budget that helps 50,000 people a year -- convinced Gov. Jennifer Granholm that Ahmed could boost morale and restore confidence in DHS. The department has nearly 10,000 employees and a $4-billion annual budget.

ACCESS helps recent immigrants, primarily but not exclusively from the Middle East; offers employment training and job placement to the poor; feeds and tutors hundreds of children from many ethnic groups, and provides health care and mental health counseling, including -- with a United Nations grant -- to victims of torture...

Grandmother's grand impact

Ahmed's mentor was his maternal grandmother, Haji Aliya Hassen, a Muslim feminist and confidante of civil rights leader Malcolm X who "counseled him to take a more universal approach to Islam," Ahmed said.

Hassen, who participated in a cleansing ritual at Malcolm X's funeral after his assassination in 1965, moved from New York City to Detroit in the mid-1970s to lead ACCESS.

His grandmother took a particular interest in Ahmed's education and got him subscriptions to comic books to improve his reading. It was she, he said, who taught him that going to protest rallies was fine but what really mattered was helping people in practical ways.

When times were tough at ACCESS and the organization was scraping by on small donations, Hassen "would always take us all in hand and say, 'Look, this person had food today. That matters.'

"All of us here at ACCESS learned lessons from her," said Ahmed, who was a volunteer at the agency until becoming its executive director in 1983.

Ahmed, whose father was Egyptian and whose mother's family emigrated from Lebanon to South Dakota in the 19th Century, has been a Democrat since the 1980s and was elected third vice chairman of the state party in February. But his new job is not about politics, he said.(MORE)

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