Stir It Up: Coming out of retirement for Education

Sep 7, 2016 at 1:00 am

When I attended Ismael Ahmed's retirement party and roast last year, I didn't expect the longtime social activist to disappear from the face of the earth. He has too many irons in too many fires for that to happen. It wasn't exactly clear to me where he was retiring from. Was it from the University of Michigan-Dearborn, where he was associate provost for integrated learning and community partnerships? Was it from the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), an organization he helped found back in 1973 and has been associated with ever since?

He certainly wasn't retiring from the Concert of Colors, the multicultural music festival that just marked its 24th year by celebrating Detroit's greatest songs.

But he did indeed retire from something, as Rep. Debbie Dingell noted in the U.S. Congress when she spoke to honor him last Dec. 3, listing his many accomplishments and concluding with:

"Most remarkably, Ish's family has graciously shared his talents and time with our community. He is a loving husband to his wife Margaret, father to his five children, and grandfather to two. I know in his retirement he is looking forward to spending more time with them."

Well, with all due condolences to Margaret and the grandkids (Ish tells me he actually has six of them), Ahmed is back on the public scene, stepping into statewide electoral politics no less. Ahmed is running for the State Board of Education. After serving on the Coalition for the Future of Detroit School Children, I guess he just couldn't help himself.

"I want to help put the public back in public schools," Ahmed says. "Parents and local elected officials don't have enough say in the running of schools. Emergency managers and the legislature have undermined the public part of public schools."

Ahmed is running as a Democrat on a team with board President John Austin, who is up for reelection this year. The school board might be the only statewide elected entity that has a Democratic majority — six of the eight seats.

If Ahmed wins in November, it won't be his first whirl in a state office. He was director of the Michigan Department of Human Services from 2007 to 2011 under Gov. Jennifer Granholm. (Granholm herself has been enjoying a bit of a revival as an avid supporter of Hillary Clinton out on the campaign trail.)

For all of his elbow-rubbing with high level elected officials — he's been in on advisory groups for President Barack Obama — Ahmed is a down-to-earth guy. I first saw him in the 1980s when he would be at the door taking admissions for bands at bars in the Cass Corridor. I didn't know him. He was just someone that I saw around at the time.

We met in 1989 when I was hired by the nonprofit Palante Productions to help put on the Machito Memorial Concert at Orchestra Hall. Ahmed was a member of the committee, a multicultural group mostly focused on promoting Latino music. When I went on strike from the Detroit Free Press in 1995, he offered me a job at ACCESS. I didn't take the offer, but I certainly appreciated it. Since then I have worked with him, but not for him, at the Concert of Colors.

It's in working across cultural divides that Ahmed has distinguished himself. As a part of the local Arabic community, he knows there is plenty of opportunity and need for that kind of effort. For instance, although the Concert of Colors is mostly known for presenting great music from around the world, it also features a Forum on Community, Culture and Race where community cultural activists explore the more serious side of how artists use their work to express their roots and bring people together.

Ahmed always seems to step in where the need is, and lately there has been a lot of need around Detroit Public Schools, which is experiencing every level of emergency that a school system can have.

The Coalition for the Future of Detroit School Children includes a diverse group of participants including the Skillman Foundation, neighborhood organizations, elected officials, teachers unions, parents, ministers and churches, the UAW, United Way and others. The group fought for and had a hand in creation of the new school district in Detroit.

"It's not exactly what we asked for," Ahmed says. "It stripped those people who were elected [school board members] of their positions, but it really did take care of the problem with the deficit. Any substantial measure to preserve some of the solvency of Detroit Public Schools is better than nothing ... The job is half-done. The governor will walk away and say, 'We did the job and the job is half-done.'

"Every school should have equal resources dependent on the needs of the school. It's not a cut and dried answer and it not just Detroit schools. Flint schools have the same problems, and it's not just the urban centers. We're watching the quality of education dip at a time when it's super necessary to have an educated population."

The need for that educated population is underscored in the work of the group Michigan Future Inc. The research from that organization has shown that the one characteristic of economically successful cities is they all have a lot of young, well-educated residents.

"It's fundamental," says Lou Glazer, president of Michigan Future Inc. "Increasing economic success for an enterprise is human capital driven. Increasingly that's the factor that matters most, and at the moment the best measure for that is education attainment."

Or, as Ahmed puts it: "We're not fodder for the factories. We need to think and operate in an increasingly complicated society."

The future of Detroit and Michigan stands in the balance. All of those office buildings being renovated downtown are intended for well-educated workers. Even if there was to be a boom in factory work around here, it wouldn't matter much. Factory work basically pays about $12 to $15 an hour these days — despite the higher rate of UAW contracts at the Detroit Three.

Presidential candidate Donald Trump stumps on the notion that he's going to bring those jobs back to America. Those jobs are slated for people who are not highly educated. But then, Trump has declared his love for the "poorly educated." Those are the kind of folks who can get behind a candidate whose central position is that he is going to build a "wall."

Ahmed's interest is to make people richly educated, and to work across barriers rather than to build them. That's the basis for successful futures in a complex society. It's also a way to have more people experience success in Detroit's future, and more Detroiters taking jobs in those buildings downtown.

The State Board of Education doesn't control the budget for schools. The legislature does that. But they do hire the state superintendent. The board is also a bully pulpit that can help set an agenda and alert the public in crucial areas.

I got to tell you: If there's anyone I would want as a bully for me, it's Ismael Ahmed.