I first heard of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) through someone I know in Washington D.C. She introduced me to Maha Freij, their Deputy Executive Director a few weeks ago, as I was researching for a paper on ethnic giving and community based philanthropy. A short visit to Dearborn, MI just yesterday opened my eyes to the tremendous amount of work the organization has put in, over the last 41 years in assisting the local community and also transforming the narrative of Arab American giving.
I believe that ACCESS is effectively positioning themselves in ways that will impact not only how Arab Americans are perceived, but also offer a model for civic engagement and advocacy to all other minority groups across the country. This short piece is an attempt at looking at how they are using philanthropy and community mobilization towards civic engagement- across the spectrum, from the most basic needs i.e., social services to empowerment, locally to advocacy for change at the policy level, nationally.
Through a creative use of philanthropy, community mobilization, partnering with local government and non-government organizations and acting as an organizing hub, the organization has become the “largest Arab American human services organization in the country.” In its 2012 Annual report, the organization points out that it has raised $ 30 million for endowment and various projects, including the first ever Arab American National Museum.meant to portray the contributions of Arab Americans in the U.S. “ACCESS was founded 41 years ago, and was run as a volunteer effort by the founders and volunteers, who believed that people in the community needed help with basic services and the government agencies and others could not provide them the kind of service they wanted, given the language and cultural barriers,” pointed out Jamie Kim, Director, Center for Arab American Philanthropy. It comprises the National Network of Arab American Communities (NNAAC), Center for Arab American Philanthropy (CAAP) and the Arab American National Museum.
CAAP, Museum and NNACC are all national projects and are branded differently. CAAP is lead by Maha Freij and is modelled after a community foundation. There is a grant making arm at CAAP, both generally and in specific areas, such as disaster relief. ACCESS also runs a Community Health and Research center that takes care of the health needs of the local community, with the underlying philosophy of health promotion and disease prevention. Social services form another critical component of the services available, as senior citizens, those on welfare and jobless people with very low or no English language skills come for support and help, to reach out to government agencies for help or to upgrade their skills, to make themselves job-ready.
Strategic philanthropy and the Arab Americans
While the challenges to Arab American civic engagement have always been present, they have become acute since 9/11, given that many Arabs immigrated in the early 1960s and have faced an uphill challenge integrating in the U.S due to language, cultural and other barriers. While there are several organizations that have worked locally, to provide social services, there aren’t many nationally representative projects that have addressed issues such as advocacy, training and leadership development. Also, one can argue that the understanding of strategic philanthropy among Arab Americans is not as developed as some other communities.
Speaking of their priorities in fund-raising, Maha Freij[i] pointed out: “Endowment, unrestricted funding that allows the organization to be strong and sustainable for important projects to the needs of the development of the organization,” are our priorities in fund-raising. “The Museum is a safe project that people can relate to, and is national in scope,” she added. Her job is also to educate people about the need to build institutions across the country, as social change occurs through them, she pointed out.
There is also a concerted effort to teach skills of philanthropy to the younger generation. Teens Grant-making Initiative (TGI) is an initiative launched by CAAP to teach the next generation of leaders basics of grant-making. Founded in 2006, the initiative brings together about 10 high school students, who work with a mentor and are guided through a process of how grant-making occurs. They are also given about $5000 to grant to a local organization involved in youth issues. “This not only teaches them a lot about grant making, but also gives them confidence, builds their skills,” pointed out Kim.
Overall, the objective of philanthropy is also in part to tell the story of Arab American empowerment and involvement in the daily struggles, as Americans. Often, there is an attempt at “othering,” of Arab Americans and ACCESS, through its various projects seems to be engaged in dispelling this myth, as it works with all its stake-holders to solve problems that face the city and the nation, at large.
Strategy: Address real problems, partner with the right people
Reading between the lines and observing the beneficiaries (many of whom seem to be non-Arabs), one gets the sense that the organization has targeted real problems and focused very hard on providing solutions to solving them, irrespective of who approaches them for help. The fact that they have had tremendous success, much leverage with the local government and their formidable reputation, all go to prove that their strategy has worked.
While taking me on a tour of their East side building, Mariam Ismail, health educator at ACCESS. spoke with pride about the program on quitting Hookah, which they are running, quite successfully. “Most people don’t know how harmful the smoke is. I have put together a simple curriculum that we present to those who come here for checkups etc. and we encourage them to quit. Those who do get a$ 10 gift card from the quit line, making for some incentives too.” She pointed out. There was obvious pride in the manner she spoke.
While real challenges such as Poverty, joblessness, lack of insurance remain, the will to addressing and solving them can create solutions that may have been unthinkable earlier on. This is as much a move towards self-empowerment and agency creation, as it is about organizing. With over 58% of annual revenues coming from government contracts, the remaining stream comes from individual donors, corporate foundations. The focus on local issues and in particular on immigrant community gives ACCESS an edge, with deep cultural knowledge of the clientele. ACCESS’s job training program is a success with the local businesses and the government has also recognized their modules to help young people enter or re-enter the work-force.
With several women in leadership positions, the organization is also making a statement, although not intentionally about women’s involvement in philanthropy and community development. ACCESS seems to have perfected this process, navigating the various challenges that confront the organization and society, at large.
As I heard more about ACCESS, toured their facilities, reflected on the impact they are making and read their literature, I was reminded of a talk I heard by Pam McMichael, Executive Director of Highlander Center, one of the finest and most well-known NGO for organizing in the U.S. High-lander center was instrumental in the civil rights movement and is still regarded as one of the finest places to learn organizing.
ACCESS is to the Arab American Community what the high-lander center is for the organizing and grass-roots community in the U.S: A power-house of ideas and concerted action.
[i] Interview in April 2013, for a paper I wrote then.