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Washtenaw United: Community Action Network Building Equity And Opportunity

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

The Washtenaw County-based Community Action Network (CAN) is taking a neighborhood approach to help those most in need and to build better and more equitable futures. CAN executive director Derrick Miller joined WEMU's David Fair to discuss the successes to date and the work that remains to be done. 

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw County to 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.'




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.


Community Action Network (CAN)

About CAN

CAN Education

CAN Stabilization

CAN Community


Community Action Network has been a long standing community partner with UWWC through grant programs such as Coordinated Funding, the Opportunity Fund, and most recently our COVID Community Relief fund; in total having invested more than $500K over the years. 

Community Action Network has been providing free after-school programs and educational summer camps in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti neighborhoods with low incomes and schools for 30 years. Community Action Network (CAN) “partners with children, youth, and families from under-resourced Washtenaw County neighborhoods to create better futures for themselves and improve the communities in which they live,” as described on their website.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and welcome to this week's edition of Washtenaw United. Each week, we partner with the United Way of Washtenaw County to explore issues of equity and opportunity and how to go about creating the equity that will one day bring us to true equality. I'm David Fair, and this time around, we want to look at how to take a neighborhood approach to achieve those broad goals, even when the issues sometimes seem insurmountable. Our guest today is Derrick Miller, and he is the executive director of Community Action Network. And Derrick, in sports, they say, "You are what your record is." Washtenaw County ranks as eighth-most income segregated in the country. It is 81st out of 83 in Michigan counties on that issue. From your vantage point, how has the pandemic impacted the disparities we see in Washtenaw County? 

Derrick Miller: So, it's certainly put a huge spotlight on a lot of us in the nonprofit community have already known, which is that there is massive inequity issues in our communities. And when you experience things like a pandemic, it really exacerbates the limited support network that we already have in place. And it really just highlights how vulnerable families ultimately are. And so, it is fortunate to see that there has been some steady influx of resources to help address some of those challenges, particularly like the American Recovery Plan that is starting to reach our area as we speak. But again, it's still..it's far from what we really need to be more robustly tackling a lot of the challenges families face day-to-day. 

David Fair: Has the public health crisis changed how Community Action Network goes about its work and what it has to offer? 

Derrick Miller: Yes. So, like many organizations, we've certainly had to adapt a lot. So, for example, we're one of the biggest food distributors in partnership with Food Gatherers in Washtenaw County. And literally overnight, when the initial shutdown took place, our food programs doubled immediately, and they ended up peaking in July of 2020. But really, we're still operating at about twice the capacity for those particular programs. And frankly, it's also just very difficult to sustain. We also did a lot of adjustments with our education programs. Our after-school programs are just occasional summer camps, a lot of hybrid, some aspects of virtual, a lot of actually reframing our curriculum. So, we designed a lot of our content, so that it could be used in the home environment, as opposed to at our community centers. But the other thing that the pandemic did because of our neighborhood-based approach, it really highlighted how important our type of services are. So, overnight, we had about a dozen different partners ultimately seek us out to use us as a resource hub, essentially, because we are literally in walking distance of the families that we're serving and in an area where using, let's say, public transit during a pandemic and a myriad of other challenges as well. Our community centers ultimately became a very valuable resource to help get resources to families. 

David Fair: Is there a potential silver lining in that now the network is going to be better prepared to serve, have more options available because of the lessons we've learned over the past 19 or 20 months? 

Derrick Miller: I certainly hope so. Also, part of the silver lining was a lot of the unnecessary red tape that has been a part of a lot of different funding processes has temporarily disappeared or has been reduced significantly. And so, just even that adjustment has been very important and valuable. Our current concern, however, is that there is, you know, a concern with the funding population donors and things like that, kind of getting a sense that we're past the pandemic. And that is so far from the truth. As I've noted earlier, our food program, for example, is still operating at twice the capacity. And that is very difficult to sustain. And it's not the only area of our operations as well that's been exacerbated. On top of all of this, that there's obviously labor challenges in our community and there's currently a before and after care crisis that is going on as well, which we're directly involved with and a part of. And so, even though we had some temporary influxes of resources during the initial aspects of the pandemic, we're in an environment that is our demand of our services is through the roof and the resources to sustain that are still uncertain. Fortunately, I think there's been a lot of recognition of our types of services and service delivery as having a lot of value. And so, I'm cautiously optimistic. And frankly, United Way has been a huge supporter of our work as well and has been part of the effort to bolster our operations. 

David Fair: Our Washtenaw United conversation on 89 one WEMU continues with Community Action Network executive director Derrick Miller. And the sheer number of entities, Derrick, that invest in and partner with Community Action Network is impressive. You have to scroll down quite a ways when you're on the Web site. Do you seek out diversity in the partners you forge? 

Derrick Miller: Oh, absolutely. In every area of our operations as well. So there's always the internal aspect. So, we always try to pursue and have, for example, staff that reflect our service population, certainly in race and ethnicity, but also in other areas as well. That representation, frankly, is incredibly important. And I will say that we've made some excellent headway in that particular area, but there's always so much more that could be done. And conversely, there's also a lot of things that are outward facing that can be done in terms of who to engage in, how to engage them. For example, we actually have a lot of all of our sibs have what are called back to school barbecues or serving backpacks and school supplies. We actually sourced a lot of our school supplies and backpacks from Black-owned companies and designers. And we actually a lot of the groups that came in and helped partner with us, there was actually a person that brought in a variety of plant life and that was also a Black-owned company and in really putting our money where, you know, our priorities are. 

David Fair: When we talk about access, Derrick, access to housing, food, healthy foods, educational outcomes and establishment of careers, the conversations can become overwhelming and, in some cases, almost paralyzing. How does the neighborhood approach that you utilize help overcome that? 

Derrick Miller: One way I would kind of frame it is that it's kind of like trying to drink out of a fire hose in that you're still immersed in the community, which, yes, obviously drinking from a fire hose is not a very pleasant experience. But, at the same time, it is incredibly valuable in terms of our ability to be impactful and, especially, in a sustained way. And so, for example, I've been doing this work for over 13 years. I've known a lot of our families for over 13 years. And that longevity of interaction, engagement in seeing kids that, like, literally were in elementary school and are now in college and being a part of that whole pathway is such a huge element of why we're so impactful. And so much of the work that we're doing and how we can be impactful is actually about relationships. And if you're not designing interventions and support and things like that that are valuing and building upon those relationships, they're going to have a very limited impact. And so much of the challenges for the families that we work with are what we would call "network pour." And obviously, relationships is a huge element to building out somebody's network. And so, we actually help serve as a conduit for doing that. 

David Fair: What we've learned over the decades is that no issue stands alone. We're unlikely to succeed in education, if we're homeless or we're hungry, if we're born to poverty, the opportunity to overcome is more limited. We can't close achievement and inequity gaps if we don't treat the person and the community as a whole. So, you've kind of touched on it. But what is the network's approach to integrating policy and procedure to accomplish that? 

Derrick Miller: Yeah, absolutely. So, for example, we've actually been working with the City of Ann Arbor in terms of a resiliency project at our Northside Community Center, and this is partly designed to tackle both environmental sustainability. So, we actually have fully offsetting utilities at that particular site, but also it has batteries on site that actually allow us to be able to respond in a crisis and having those resources in place. But, more recently, we're actually working in one of the neighborhoods, our Bryant Community Center location, and actually designing a plan on what it would take to make that entire neighborhood not only carbon neutral, but also improve the health and comfort within that particular community. And so one of the well known fact is that climate change has a very high, disproportionate effect on underresourced families, and it's a primary driver of inequity issues and a lot of communities as well. And so, with this particular plan, we're trying to be highly intentional of getting ahead of it and really creating a framework in which, in the future, for other under-resourced communities that we can have some type of clear cut way in which not only can we improve our environmental sustainability, but all the while we're improving the value of the health of the homes and the value and to some degree, wealth generation, you could even argue from an under-resourced community as well. 

David Fair: Once again, this is WEMU, and our Washtenaw. United conversation with Derrick Miller continues. He is executive director of Community Action Network. How can we, as individual members of our community, advance the cause? 

Derrick Miller: Everything counts is the bottom line. Somebody like think, like, "Oh, I don't know if this will have an impact." I guarantee you it absolutely will. Again, I mentioned earlier, I've been doing this work for 13 years. And even our organization, our supporters, stakeholders, everything, even funders, was very small at that time, very mom-and-pop shop. But we believed in what our mission was. We had more and more people understand and really commit to what we're doing in very little ways. And you fast forward 13 years, and these are just rock stars in terms of, you know, bringing resources of the community, working with our families, coming frequently and volunteering, and all those kinds of things. And so, the bottom line that's always been true is that just every little bit counts. 

David Fair: Derrick, I thank you for your time today and your insights. Much appreciated. 

Derrick Miller: Thank you, David. Appreciate it. 

David Fair: That is Derrick Miller, executive director of Community Action Network and our guest on Washtenaw United. For more information on the network and its local impacts, visit our website at WEMU dot org. You'll find all the links you need. This weekly feature is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County. And you hear it every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is Eighty-Nine one WEMU FM and WEMU HD one Ypsilanti. 

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him atdfair@emich.edu

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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