A Brief History of Access: How a Little Bureaucracy Can Be a Good Thing
ACCESS began in 1971 as a storefront operation run by laid-off auto workers and activists who wanted to provide social services to Arab immigrants in Dearborn. By 1995 ACCESS had grown into one of Metro Detroit’s largest, most effective nonprofit human service organizations. Its annual dinner, which regularly draws two thousand people, is the biggest of any Arab-American organization, and the familiar signs of mainstream acceptance are abundantly on display there: U.S. Senators Levin, Riegle, and now Abraham frequently attend the event, as do the mayors of Dearborn and Detroit, their respective superintendents of schools, corporate bigwigs from Ford, GM, and Chrysler, candidates for public office, and a bevy of lesser notables on the local chain of command.
The admittance of ACCESS into the political mainstream was originally based on the organization’s ability to turn a community into a constituency, with political support being traded for social welfare dollars. Today almost all of ACCESS’s $5 million annual budget comes from state and federal funding sources, with additional contributions from Michigan-based corporations, the United Way, and a community telethon. In 1971 the founders of ACCESS were leftist radicals. The current executive director, Ishmael Ahmed, was a Maoist; other staff and board members belonged to a mix of communist, socialist, and anarchist groups. The demands of mainstream politics have long since pushed ACCESS away from the revolutionary fringe, but the close association between ACCESS and the dole remains a source of stigma in the Arab community. For many years a common criticism of ACCESS (made both in and outside the Arab community) was that it “gets Arabs hooked on welfare” and that its progressive ideals translate, in the final analysis, to the distribution of U.S. government surplus cheese.
The critics failed to see the radical impact ACCESS’s administration of government programs was having on its character as an organization. Within a decade ACCESS had been bureaucratized and professionalized; it had cultivated institutional alliances and networks of political patronage that no other Arab community organization could match. In the late 1980s, when ACCESS expanded its programming into the public arts realm, it was well placed to exploit the scant federal, state, and corporate funds set aside for cultural programming in America’s minority communities.