Power of Art To Move People

Ismael Ahmed and Anan Ameri discuss the extraordinary model of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS).

By Anan Ameri

"A lot of the boundaries that we have in life are artificial and in fact take us away from a more organic human direction."

"When we invested heavily in the artistic part of our community…we did so because we believed that was part of our humanity, almost as important as food and clothing."

Ismael Ahmed cofounded Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) 40 years ago and became its executive director. He served as director of the Michigan Department of Human Services from 2007 to 2010 and is currently associate provost at the University of Michigan Dearborn.

Anan Ameri, PhD, is director of ACCESS Arab American National Museum. Under her leadership, ACCESS cultural arts and educational programs have established partnerships with community organizations, museums, and educational institutions across the U.S. She is a longtime promoter of Arab and Arab American humanities and arts.

ARAB COMMUNITY CENTER FOR ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL SERVICES (ACCESS), Dearborn, Michigan, is a human services organization committed to the development of the Arab American community—and the greater community—in all aspects of its economic and cultural life. To support this goal, ACCESS provides a wide range of human and cultural services, as well as advocacy work. Its staff and volunteers have joined forces to meet the needs of low-income families, to help newly arrived immigrants adapt to life in America, and to foster among Americans a greater understanding of Arab culture as it exists both here and in the Arab World.

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ANAN AMERI: Tell us a little bit about the connections between your personal life and your professional life. Did that work for you or not?

ISMAEL AHMED: Pretty much my work has been an extension of my personal life. I grew up in a home where my mother read letters for immigrants and filled out forms for them. My father loved Egyptian music, and we moved to Detroit so we could open up a record store to sell Egyptian music—which, by the way, failed. So, when I started the work I do now, that wasn’t the direction I wanted to start in. I wanted to go to university and teach in the university one day. I wasn’t interested in ethnic identity or culture. I was more interested in American rock and roll.

But all of those things became a part of a mix, part of my life. I think also of activism in my family. Activism was a big part of my grandmother’s life, and that was something that I looked up to. All of those things were in my personal background. Then growing up in a low-income, working-class neighborhood where you could see parts of people’s lives, and the things that went wrong or right in their lives, and went wrong and right in the way things happened in America. All that has had a profound effect on me. Also, traveling around the world, going into the army, seeing the haves and have nots, the different ways people live. But in the end, people are people, and they are always more the same than they are different.

Taking all those things into consideration, I think, pulled me into the work and activism that really had no boundaries in my life. The work that I took up with other people, and friendships, were a part of that too. Whether it was working with people in my neighborhood or with people who did things that I liked—whether they were in the arts or direct activists, or there were things I was interested in personally—they all kind of fit into community development. There was no wrong direction possible. If you were interested in the arts and community development, there were ways to bring people together around arts, and to strengthen your community in the arts.

The same thing with human services. You would work with people you knew to help them out, and with other people whom you didn’t know. All of those things were part of a no-boundary way of living, and as ACCESS grew, and the work that I did, the boundaries became even less. You could do a giant concert that brought different nationalities together or you could learn about healthcare that affected your life and other people’s lives in such a way that you would end up doing research on cancer. All of these things kind of fit together. I think a lot of the boundaries that we have in life are artificial and in fact take us away from a more organic human direction. Human beings aren’t one category or one thing. I think for community work in particular and creative work, it’s important that we don’t fall into these silos and embrace a broader approach to our humanity and our work.

AMERI: Do you think, looking back, you would have done it differently, some people might call it ‘be more professional’, or do you think your approach was the correct approach?

AHMED: To me, to be professional means that you bring integrity and knowledge to your work. I know there are other meanings to professional, but that’s what I think it means. You do things that you do because you know what you know, you feel what you feel, and you are inspired by what inspires you. I have a big interest in music, and part of our work at ACCESS was around music and arts, and maybe if I didn’t have that interest it would have had less of an emphasis at ACCESS. It is what it is, and we are what we are, and the work we do grows from that. The experiences and the epiphanies that we have as we do our work, and the interactions we have with other human beings, if we’re doing it right, will inspire, teach, and move us. Everyone in our orbit, and some people who aren’t in our orbit, take us to different places, allow us to recheck our direction, recheck our work.

AMERI: ACCESS has very holistic model. Why is this model so successful? Were there any obstacles?


AHMED: There were obvious barriers to the work. They had to do with the environment in which we developed—including racism, ethnic stereotyping and our position in society, and economic barriers. Our strength and our weakness was one of principle; we wanted to reflect the people we came from and the people we served, and that meant that we were unwilling to take some of the short cuts—we wanted to maintain an organic relationship with the community. Those were all really hard things to do.

But there were good things in the environment that helped us. We developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when a lot of these social experimental organizations thrived, and there was a fairly good economic atmosphere to start in. It was a formative period for the Arab American community, one when there was a lot of hope for the Middle East and the community, and we drew strength from that. We also had a lot of weaknesses when we started. Most of the activists tended to be like-minded and couldn’t draw on the diversity of the larger community—the Arab community—let alone the much broader community.

Our greatest strength was that we learned and then applied what we learned to the next level. So, when we discussed should ACCESS be only for Arab Americans, we always agreed that we would serve everybody, they were all human beings. How we thought about both the membership and the leadership of the organization was a big struggle. We weren’t sure if we were right at first, but it has helped us so much since then. When we made decisions, whether small or large, we decided that it wasn’t just about our neighborhood or our people, but that we wanted to take on bigger things in the world. When we decided to take on new work, when we invested heavily in the artistic part of our community and the larger artistic community, we did so because we believed that was part of our humanity, almost as important as food and clothing. So all of those were decisions that grew to a bigger understanding, but they were decisions that we came to from learning. They weren’t innate. So, in that way, I think our greatest strength was in our ability to learn and grow and take the lessons, not only from ourselves, but from those who surrounded us.

The second area that was really important was we came to understand that everybody didn’t have to think like us, that people do good things for different reasons whether it’s because they believe in God or because they believe in Karl Marx. The engine is not the same in everybody and the understanding is not the same. So we looked for the common good to bring us together so we could package our work in a way that everybody could believe in from their point of view. Finally, I think that the decision to stay connected to the community, not only our community but other communities (and it’s very hard as you become bigger and broader), has been important—that is, building those relationships with others who are struggling to be present, whether it’s through meeting the needs in their lives or growing the inspiration from their culture and other cultures.

AMERI: You mentioned being flexible. How do you institutionalize that so the organization remains open to change? Organizations grow and sometimes become stagnant or don’t build the infrastructure to sustain that growth.

AHMED: I don’t know how you teach it. In some ways institutions and the people in them either have that going for them or they don’t. Maybe they don’t have it at one time, then they do later. But I think it’s important that the leadership in any organization preach flexibility, preach a creative approach to the world. That means that they have to have a positive view of the world. You can’t go into the work that we’re talking about and have a negative view of the world. You have to have hope, you have to believe that people will rise to the occasion. You have to believe that you can make life better and that you can change things, that the art of creation resides in all of us.

AMERI: The generation that led ACCESS for many years came out of the ’60s generation. They were activists, they had international solidarity, they believed in humanity, they thought the future was hopeful. Being involved in your community and the kind of work you did was not unusual. Now younger people live in a totally different world where there are more expectations to be financially successful, and they live in a more consumer-oriented society. How do you assure that this work will continue?

AHMED: I think that the ’60s and ’70s were overrated. There were only a small percentage of people who were the activists and, yes, it was a more open atmosphere for creativity and activism, here and anywhere else in the world. But I really think that still resides in America, even in young people. ACCESS is a good example. It is still a magnet for people who believe in things, young people who have hope, young people who have creative ideas and believe in their community and want to do good. It’s a more harsh atmosphere for them to do that now. That’s why institutions like ACCESS are really important, because there has to be a place where they can go to because the larger society provides less opportunity for that.

I was just recently at a social work graduation where I was the keynote speaker. I saw hundreds of young students graduating with master’s degrees who clearly were what I’m describing—they were going out to change the world. I listened to them one after another tell me about their projects, things they wanted to get done, things they believe. I really think that it resides out there, but it brings home the importance of maintaining safe places where they don’t think they’re crazy to do this kind of work. In some ways they’re better at it than we were because they have a more practical bent. I see a lot of hope there—enough to be a catalyst of change for the country and the world.

AMERI: In your experience in the arts, there is more than one way to interpret the arts, and the power of them. There are the ‘large institutions’ and there is community-based arts production. What can these two learn from each other?

AHMED: I think that both of these interpretations of the arts are a bit risky, and I think those are changing in the arts community and the arts world. For very practical reasons, arts institutions are beginning to look around and the arts professionals are saying, “Gee, we’re going to have to open ourselves up to this broader world around us.” I think there has been serious change in the arts community. It has opened up more broadly now. We need to understand that all that is artistic and creative comes from life and that there are millions and millions of people toiling and working and living and enjoying life and creating culture and creating ways that are inspirational for both kinds of artists—within those communities and the arts professionals who may not relate to those communities. There are barriers still there.

That flow between all the practical things that are human and all the aspirations of people needs to be injected more into the institutional life of the arts world. That doesn’t mean that we don’t need our Rembrandts and our Tchaikovskys, but we also need the community drummers and the stories that make up real life injected into the arts. It’s the only way that our arts institutions are going to succeed in a practical way and build new audiences and become spiritually more of the world that surrounds them.

The other thing is that arts have been looked at in a very narrow way and they have such power to reconstruct communities. It’s something I talk about all the time. The arts can play a role in rebuilding the community; arts can play a role in bringing people together; the arts can play a role in bringing out what makes people proud of themselves, their lives, their ethnicities, their history; the arts can be such a powerful force that really has been tamed too long and needs to be allowed to be a little bit more wild. Traditional arts need to be embraced more than individual arts, and also the understanding that arts production takes place many fold more in the street than it does in the arts institutions, and an appropriate marriage really has to exist.

AMERI: Let’s look at the arts in ACCESS. There is the Concert of Colors and its Cultural Exchange Network, which is basically a coalition of almost 65 arts institutions, large and small, from every ethnic group in our area. Through the Concert, various communities work together, and it gives them a sense of pride and a comfort level in working with each other that all these groups would have missed if they didn’t have that experience.

AHMED: The Cultural Exchange Network had other practical outcomes. The immigration reform committee which came out of that helped lead the immigration work and the marches that took place recently. You had the Chinese community and the Arab community help each other on a capital campaign. It helped create the ‘immersion sessions’, which were a way to visit and know communities and know their issues, which is not at all an arts focus. So, there are very practical permutations from the work. That’s a very important thing.

The other thing is that every sector of the society has power. People usually look at the arts and their ability to move individuals or audiences, but the arts have the power to move the world. They played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement, they played a pivotal role in the Vietnam War, and we need to comprehend that they’re playing a pivotal role now and apply that.

I think that the arts community can learn more about art’s ability to move people. Right now most of the experiences are individual experiences: You look at my painting, what does it do in your head? I think we need to think “I’ve created this, how does it change the world, how does it change communities, how is it relevant to the person on food stamps?” It’s really who are you speaking to, and how are you moving the world, not the individual.

AMERI: If you look at the Arab community, what role did ACCESS’ Cultural Arts program play in the reconstruction of communities?

AHMED: There was no presence of Arab American arts outside of the internal community. ACCESS played a pivotal role in injecting Arab and Arab American arts in Michigan’s arts community in a pretty big way. On the national scene, we affected what presenters around the country present, as well as provided a model for that. We have helped to create a network of Arab and non-Arab presenters who work to present Arab and Arab American art, music, poetry, and literature. We were among the first to do that. ACCESS created an institution [the Arab American National Museum] that tells the story of Arab Americans, and it does it as much through the arts as it does through a worded story.

Accurate information on a national level about Arab Americans is really important. We brought together from across the country Arab American artists who either never had a format to think together to look at those practices or to learn from each other and provide support for each other. In many ways we’ve played a pivotal role in the creation of our own community, not only because of the arts, but because of other work that ACCESS has done, including its integration into the larger community. To enrich and help the community is all a part of the work that we’ve done, whether it’s in mental health or health research, in creation of exhibits, or in sharing information about cultural competence.

Is this all what we wish it could be? Did we change the American government’s views on the Middle East? Not substantially, but even there we’ve had some impact. Is there a presence of Arab art like we’d like to see it in America? No, but certainly there’s a place to go to talk to people about it, and there is a creative force in America that helps to harness other creative forces.

One small institution can only do so much. Part of the job is to become an engine for others, a model, in some cases to replicate, like we’re doing with the action network for Arab American communities in 12 states now. In other cases, it’s to show what can be done, and never to forget that institutions are made up of people struggling to do whatever they can do.

I think that in some ways there was a historic confluence of Arab American and other leadership at ACCESS, which happened for a lot of reasons. Part of it was the failure of the liberation movement in the Middle East so good activists had nowhere to go but here, it’s been a magnet for young people who want to find a place to make a difference and for people who want to do good for their community, whether Arab or non-Arab. That’s replicable in many ways, though maybe not in exactly the same way. That’s why it is particularly important that models like the Arab American National Museum and ACCESS continue to exist, grow, and affect the world.

AMERI: Thank you very much. Is there anything else you would like to tell us?

AHMED: The important thing here is I was one of hundreds, maybe thousands, of people who were part of the process, and that’s a very important thing to understand in institutions. There is no great leader that comes forward and moves everybody in a particular direction. You can have many, many great leaders, small and big in their arena. This view of history that tends to highlight people who’ve done this or that, it isn’t those people usually. There are people who do things on their own who impact society. I think the community-embracing model that ACCESS has is a much better model.

Original CAN/API publication: March 2008