ACCESS — Pretty much everyone in community or social services work in Michigan has known Ismael ("Ish") Ahmed for years, and recognizes his infectious grin.
Forty years ago, as a young assembly line worker, he helped his grandmother start a storefront agency that tried to help a few hundred mostly Arab-American immigrants get by.
Thirty-five years later, that agency,the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services — had grown into the largest private human services operation of its kind in the nation, with a multimillion-dollar budget and hundreds of employees.
Ismael Ahmed had then been executive director of ACCESS for 24 years, during which he built the organization into a powerhouse — and earned himself a reputation as somewhat of a national expert on immigration, poverty, and Arab-American social issues.
He and ACCESS had weathered the aftermath of Sept. 11 and the rise of what he calls "Islamophobia," and survived.
Then in 2007, then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm appointed him to her Cabinet, as director of the Michigan Department of Human Services. Soon after, the economy took a nosedive, state revenues shrank, and everyone suddenly had to do more with less. Nevertheless, the lifelong community activist won high praise.
"He implemented training to get challenged citizens into the work force, helped create an online assistance system and oversaw the biggest reforms ever in child welfare," Granholm said.
But that was more than a year ago.
So what is Ish Ahmed doing now?
Not surprisingly, helping change the social fabric once again. These days, he is working full time to make it easier for the nearly 400 faculty members and 8,600 students at the University of Michigan-Dearborn to get involved with the community, and in return to help them find the resources they need.
He is now the school's associate provost for integrated learning and community partnerships; not a bad title for a man who earned a bachelor's degree from the same school more than 30 years ago.
"This is really inspiring work," Ahmed said. "We have literally thousands of students and dozens of faculty who are deeply engaged, making a difference in their communities.
"But it's them that are doing it — not me. My role is to help them get what they need to do it."
He does that in part by helping cut through red tape, but also by trying to help them find money however he can, whether from the school itself or grants and other sources.
Increasingly, however, he's focused on finding "project partners" to work with students on projects that get the classroom into the world. This has worked well with a number of software design projects spearheaded by engineering students. Satisfied partners include business from Ford Motor Co. to a range of nonprofits.
The number and variety of the programs is startling. Some of the work makes use of new media and Internet techniques.
One of the most popular is the school's "eCities" program, which is designed to collect data and analyze "the community-level factors that have a bearing on entrepreneurship, economic development and job growth," he said, adding that "we have a tremendous level of student and faculty engagement here." Other projects include everything from a prostitution reform project in Detroit to a Holocaust survivor oral history archive.
Possibly most impressive, however, are the university's prison programs. UMD "was the first institution in the state to offer university students and incarcerated men the opportunity to learn together," said Tracy Hall, who works in Ahmed's community partnership office.
It's called "the Inside Out Prison Exchange Program." The way it works is that more than a dozen "outside" undergrads attend class once a week in a Detroit correctional facility with the same number of prisoners. They read the same materials, write the same papers, and work together on a class project.
A project, naturally, meant to address social injustice in the community. The university has been working in women's prisons even longer; two women behind bars have recently earned degrees, according to Professor Lora Lempert, a sociologist whose motto is "forgiveness is not for sissies." Over lunch and a quick time-out from his work, Ismael Ahmed indicated that he felt strongly that "you can't be a place of learning and be apart from your community."
"Dan Little really gets it," Ahmed said of the university chancellor.
He said Chancellor Little, who is also a professor of philosophy, gets that you can't have a place of learning that isn't engaged in the world around the campus.
That isn't always the case at other state campuses. Wayne State University, where this columnist teaches, does see itself as having an urban mission.
Michigan State was founded to bring the benefits of "agriculture and applied science" to the state's farmers.
Elsewhere, however, faculty have often been reluctant to leave their ivory towers. Ismael Ahmed doesn't put down basic research, but thinks the university needs to take a wider role these days.
Half a lifetime ago, he built ACCESS into a model private welfare agency. Now, as he approaches 65 and the birth of his fifth grandchild, he's hoping the concept of a campus deeply engaged in community catches on.
The fact that he's doing this on a campus where he was once a working-class student activist and radical may make it just a tiny bit more satisfying. Maybe even fun.
Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio's senior political analyst, ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade, former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.