By Susan Drake Swift
Forward-looking leadership and many years of grassroots community support have made ACCESS the largest Arab American human service nonprofit in America. Then known as the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, it took root in 1971 as a storefront run by volunteers helping underserved residents of Dearborn, Michigan’s Southend neighborhood secure the necessities of life. This seedling matured into the tree of many branches that stands today in a city of 100,000, 30,000 of whom identify as Arab Americans. ACCESS’ 100 local programs, 10 locations, and more than 400 staff members serve the surrounding community in 17 different languages.
The formation of three national programs means that ACCESS’ boughs now stretch coast to coast. These programs include the Center for Arab American Philanthropy, the National Network for Arab American Communities, and the Arab American National Museum. Based in Dearborn, the museum is one of a kind in the nation. Its travelling exhibits provide people across the country an opportunity to learn the truth and beauty of Arab American history and culture. Altogether, ACCESS’ comprehensive and diverse array of services and programs comprise a $23 million annual operating budget that serves 70,000 people each year.
ACCESS ensures that individuals receive the support they need to become empowered citizens — culturally, socially, and economically. By leveraging business community contacts across Metro Detroit, ACCESS helped alleviate job losses suffered by residents of all ethnicities in the Detroit metropolitan area during the Great Recession, which started in Michigan years before it took hold nationally (the state lost 800,000 jobs between 2005 and 2009). The organization continues to place thousands of job seekers each year and assist prospective entrepreneurs, 70 percent of whom are women, by guiding them through government red tape.
ACCESS’ social services department tailors its assistance to mirror the needs of the people of Metro Detroit, no matter how challenging their condition. Refugees coping with post-traumatic stress, many of whom arrive in Michigan from war-ravaged places in the Arab world, Eastern Europe, and parts of Africa, are provided the psycho-social support they need by a team of skilled and culturally sensitive professionals.
Cultivating the next generation of community leaders is another central priority for ACCESS, which places great emphasis on its educational and youth empowerment programs. According to CEO Hassan Jaber, who began his more than 35 years of leadership as a volunteer, immigrant children often arrive at least a year or two behind in their educational development. ACCESS offers programs to help children and young people, age zero to 21, catch up. Within two or three years, with the support of remedial education, almost all of them do.
To engage with community members under the age of 35, who tend to favor causes over organizations, ACCESS is fine-tuning its outreach to inspire active youth participation in community development. While this presents a daunting challenge, says Hassan, it is also a chance for these young people, and for ACCESS, to learn and evolve.
Meantime, Hassan is exploring ways in which the organization can break new ground with the help of a part-time sabbatical funded by a grant from the McGregor Fund. He is considering clearing the way for new growth that could result in ACCESS becoming a national Arab American advocacy organization, similar to the leadership that the National Council of La Raza provides the Hispanic community.
While there is much that is changing at ACCESS, some argue that the organization’s enduring qualities are what matter most, traits to which it owes its long success: in Hassan’s words, “extremely hard-working people,” “culture that highly values education and advancement,” and “a strong current of social justice.” For each wave of newcomers looking to plant new roots, ACCESS is ready to guide by example.