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Washtenaw United: Ann Arbor-based Community Action Network helping serve veterans in need

Derrick Miller
Community Action Network
Community Action Network executive director Derrick Miller


Derrick Miller is a social service entrepreneur and leader with over 20 years dedicated to service. In his dedication to service, he served honorably in the United States Marine Corps and was a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

In his post-Corps years, Derrick shifted gears and became an educator, which set the foundation for his future accomplishments at Community Action Network.

At Community Action Network, he cultivated a grassroots organization into one of Washtenaw County's most successful and impactful nonprofits with over quadrupled service delivery and doubled operational revenue in his initial 3 years as Executive Director. Derrick also leveraged his experiences as an executive committee member of Washtenaw Alliance for Children and Youth (WACY).

As a bi-racial (white/Latinx) nonprofit leader, Derrick has also taken it upon himself to establish CAN’s first-ever committee on diversity, equity, inclusion, and advocacy, and worked with Michigan Nonprofit Association to conduct DEI assessments with CAN staff and board members. CAN has been a leader in addressing challenges for Washtenaw's BIPOC community and taking a more active role in addressing inequities.

Today, through Derrick's leadership, CAN is administratively 100% paperless with a technological capability rivaling that of medium to large nonprofits, which was a critical aspect of CAN’s ability to pivot its operations literally overnight to serve the growing needs caused and exacerbated by the pandemic.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and welcome to another edition of Washtenaw United. This is our weekly exploration of equity and opportunity in our community. I'm David Fair. And over the years, we've explored how the zip code in which we live plays a large role in our future successes, or lack thereof. It remains true today. The Community Action Network has made its mission to partner with children and families from under-resourced neighborhoods in Washtenaw County to not only improve individual opportunity and successes but to improve the communities in which they live. The network is also making it a priority to help area veterans. Our guest this morning is Derrick Miller, and he's executive director of the network. And thank you so much for the time today.

Derrick Miller: Thank you for having me.

David Fair: I wanted to start with the veterans because we've known for a long time services provided to returning military personnel are insufficient and often hard to access. There are more than 511,000 veterans in Michigan, 6% live below the federal poverty level. Another 20% are considered ALICE. Now, that stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. Essentially, Derrick, they're the working poor. Now, those are the latest figures available, but they're from 2019. How do you see that playing out locally in our community right now?

Derrick Miller: So, the reality is, as I'm sure, the strain on our ALICE-related veterans in Michigan is going to be much more severe. We've certainly seen it across the board with our clients. We're actually still operating at about 200% of what we were at pre-pandemic for our food security-related efforts, and really haven't seen that gone down. And, although we don't specifically track this for veterans within our food programs, we note that they do make up a pretty substantial portion of our population, including quite a few that actually have disabilities that we help coordinate home deliveries for.

David Fair: To take that a little bit further, how does the Community Action Network supplement available services and then better connect veterans with available services?

Derrick Miller: Yes. So, the first thing that we do is make it as barrier-free as possible for all clients, including veterans as well. And, by doing that, we're able to essentially make sure that food truly gets to where it needs to go. There are a lot of challenges still that are being pervasive, like food supply challenges, as well as just skyrocketed demand on our services as well. But we still make it work, and we've actually been applying some pretty creative solutions. So, for example, we've been doing a partnership with Food Gatherers, as well as DoorDash, to actually help coordinate home deliveries, some of which we know are veterans that have disabilities, some of which are actually service-related.

David Fair: Now, veterans come in all different age groups, and the needs for each of those age groups are different. Are you able, with all who are in need, to individualize assistance to meet specific needs?

Derrick Miller: To a degree. The reality is, is that there is just so much limited resources and for ourselves. We're already currently serving, as an agency, a little over 10% of the entire under-resourced family population in Washtenaw County. And we do so on a budget of about $1.3 million across seven sites. And so, the resources, we try to get as much of it out. But the reality is, is that there is a lot of pervasive challenges, and food security is certainly one of them. But it really runs the full gamut. We see it both with education and certainly quite a few of our kids are from families with veterans, but also even in mental health. That has been a very pervasive challenge as well. And for even some context, so I had served in the United States Marine Corps.

David Fair: Mm hmm.

Derrick Miller: And served in Iraq. Since that time, three Marine Corps veterans that I served with have taken their life, and several others have actually had substantial mental health challenges that have been pervasive as well. And that is a whole another category of ALICE veterans that really adds a lot of strain as well.

David Fair: Our Washtenaw United conversation with Community Action Network executive director Derrick Miller continues on 89 one WEMU. Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed--that's a status that extends beyond our community of veterans. In becoming more involved with the veterans in Washtenaw County, are you learning some lessons from trying to literally save the lives of those who have returned that can be applied elsewhere in your service outreach?

Derrick Miller: Yes. So, one of the programs that is out there, and we have quite a few partners that participate in this program, which is called VASH--Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing. So, we actually, in Washtenaw County, do have quite a few units, housing units, and that frankly is one of the biggest resources that we need in our community is stable housing for veterans. And they're just, in general, not enough affordable housing in Washtenaw County. And, actually, one of our communities is a participant in that particular program. And so, we have veterans that live in that particular community. And when they're able to actually stabilize housing, then it makes it a lot more effective in terms of applying a lot of additional resources on top of that--things of mental health resources, food security, but also even just training and increasing employment opportunities and things of that nature. It truly is the foundation to be able to build from.

David Fair: How do you go about steering the priorities in a way that address the people and the communities as a whole? What have you determined are the issues in Washtenaw County that require the most assistance and then allocate your funding in that way?

Derrick Miller: So, Washtenaw County has become very expensive to live in. And it's which is that the cost of living in Washtenaw County is so much higher than what it used to be, which means that those that are employed and then layer that with what's been going on with inflation, it has been extremely difficult to sustain that living within Washtenaw County. And so, we've seen some certainly some shifts even within our communities of having to essentially move further away from Washtenaw County because of affordability challenges. And, unfortunately, that also means that they are often leaving to areas that have less supports in place as well. And so, being able to essentially help address in much bigger ways affordable housing, and we certainly have a millage and some some work that's being done. I guess it's not the amount of resources that can move at a pace to truly address the chronic homelessness needs that we have or precariously housing needs or even the incomes constraint means that we really run into in Washtenaw County. And then, the other big factor that we've seen that has been a very big challenge is around food security. One of the rules of thumb that I just tell people is that when they go grocery shopping, and they see, you know, some shelves being a little bit light in terms of what's being stocked there and certain items being pervasively either unavailable or under available, that it is exponentially worse as it relates to food security for under-resourced families. Not only that, because of those groceries are more expensive, but also because of the rescue process that food banks utilize in terms of refilling their stock and getting out to agencies and then to clients. There is really a much more acute reduction in supply.

David Fair: Once again, we're talking with Derrick Miller from Community Action Network on Washtenaw United on WEMU. As you describe all of the services provided and all of the service that is needed, it sounds very reactionary. You're dealing with existing crisis and trying to project forward. How much can we do in preventative measures? Are you working with younger people to try and have the greatest impact on later life outcomes?

Derrick Miller: Yeah. And that is where CAN actually really truly shines. The biggest impact, especially in the long term, has been around our education programs. So, for example, the youth in our programs graduate at a 97% high school graduation rate. That's compared to about 70% for their economic peers in Ann Arbor Public Schools. There's a lot of research that just demonstrates that the likelihood of being not only employed, but being employed at a level that wouldn't even fall in ALICE goes exponentially up. And so that we can get kind of break that cycle of poverty by being able to really kind of do the front work with with our youth today. And we've seen tremendous successes. You know, I've been with CAN for about 14 years now. And so, I've seen kids go through that entire evolution from elementary school all the way through graduating from college, and it's truly transformative for what has been going on. And, actually, you know, I'm proud to know quite a few that not only have their master's degree but are, you know, making great incomes. And we actually just had a student that, this year, actually started at Cornell University. And just seeing that tremendous amount of potential as well as opportunities that today's youth are starting to realize.

David Fair: That is a positive. Now, you've laid out all of the challenges that exist as well. As you look to 2023, where lies your greatest optimism?

Derrick Miller: So, my greatest optimism is that we are still finding creative solutions to address all of our chronic needs and is actually a partner with the City of Ann Arbor Office of Sustainability and Innovations and a few other partners as well to essentially decarbonize an entire neighborhood or an entire under-resourced neighborhood. And we got some funding from MSHDA--the Michigan State Housing Development Authority--to start doing some home upgrades. But in that whole process, one of the things that we've been integrating as part of this work is solarizing homes. And how this connects into one of our biggest challenges is that we do a lot of utility shutoff prevention type of work. For example, we solarized two households so far and speaking with one of the tenants a couple months ago in what used to be $150 utility bill is now a $30 utility bill. And so, we've now essentially permanently addressed that utility issue for that particular household for at least the next 20 to 25 years. And so, we're just constantly finding all these different types of solutions that are really getting more at the core of the challenges. And in this particular instance, we're also adding equity within the homes as well. And so, there's this, you know, opportunity for generational wealth that can be developed along the way. Now we're starting to branch into even more longer term solutions for very pervasive needs in our community.

David Fair: Thank you so much for sharing the information and taking the time today, Derrick.

Derrick Miller: Well, thank you for having me.

David Fair: That is Derrick Miller, and he is the executive director of the Community Action Network and has been our guest on Washtenaw United. For more information on today's topic and conversation, visit our website at WEMU dot org. Washtenaw United is presented in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County, and you hear it every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.


Community Action Network (CAN)

About CAN

CAN Education

CAN Housing Stabilization

CAN Community Building

CAN Guiding Principles

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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