A decade ago, Derrick Miller took a summer job at Bryant Community Center. He was twenty-seven and working as a substitute teacher at Huron High. But Joan Doughty, executive director of the Community Action Network, was bowled over by the ex-marine’s talent in working with disadvantaged kids and their parents, many of whom were caught in the economic whiplash of the 2008 recession.
At summer’s end, Doughty offered him a full-time job at CAN. But she knew he’d also been offered a full-time teaching job at Huron, and the nonprofit couldn’t compete with the school’s salary and benefits.
To her delighted surprise, Miller accepted on the spot. He told her, “I don’t even have to think about it.”
For her part, Doughty didn’t think twice about later making him second in command. When she retired last year, he succeeded her as CAN’s executive director.
The Community Action Network was launched in 1987 by Cathy Baldwin and Nancy Bogen. What started as a modest after-school program for kids in the Hikone public housing complex grew greatly during Doughty’s fifteen years at the helm (it helped that she’s a crackerjack grant writer). Today, CAN serves more than 1,200 families at the Hikone, Bryant, Northside, and Green Baxter Court community centers, plus Mitchell and Bryant-Pattengill Elementary schools in Ann Arbor and Brick elementary in the Lincoln district. Though child-centered–it offers after-school educational and recreational programs and camps–CAN emphasizes building ties with parents, teachers, and neighbors.
When I arrive at the Northside Community Center to interview Miller, the food pantry is open. Most of the twenty or so people waiting in line are elderly, but there are also a few parents holding babies. Miller’s “office” is a desk in the corner of a large room across the hall. As we talk, staff come and go, sometimes powering up their laptops at a long table.
Dark-haired and dark-eyed, with a boyish smile and a solid build, Miller, thirty-seven, mentions that tomorrow he’s flying to D.C., part of a local group scheduled to meet with Senator Debbie Stabenow’s staff to discuss the potential impact of an upcoming farm bill on people struggling with “food insecurity.”
It will be a rare outing–he spends much of his time poring over spreadsheets to make the numbers add up. Among many other things, the $800,000 budget must fund the summer camp program, pay for the training of several all-important VISTA volunteers who tutor and design marketing plans, and buy hundreds of Thanksgiving dinners. And there are always unplanned expenses, when families need quick money for car repairs or help with rent. “We will never have adequate resources to work with,” he declares. “We’re constantly inundated with circumstances we don’t have answers for.”
But the mood he projects is upbeat. “He’s a guy who really seems to enjoy himself,” says Mitchell Elementary principal Matt Hilton. Hilton credits Miller with suggesting the food pantry in his school–after Miller learned that kids were asking if they could take food home to their parents.
The city is expanding the Bryant Center to accommodate CAN’s growing programs. The addition will add a “teen wing” to the building, quadruple the size of the food pantry, and put solar lighting and basketball hoops outside.
Obviously happy to see practical improvements, Miller emails that both his military service and his work at CAN have taught him that struggling families and especially youth “absorb the brunt of their society’s inadequacies in addressing community needs.” He’s developed “a much more open and unbiased perspective” which fuels him “in an industry with a high burnout rate.”
He’s also bolstered by a sense of accomplishment: According to CAN’s stats, 97 percent of students participating in its programs “graduate high school compared to seventy percent of their peers,” and “98 percent have improved academically” during their engagement. When I ask how they got the data, Miller explains that CAN staffers ask parents’ permission to check their children’s test scores and attendance records online. Almost all agree, a testament to the trust the organization has built.
Miller grew up in Owosso, one of four academically gifted kids, all of whom helped out their parents at the four photo studios they ran. (As digital photography took over, all but one later closed.) A top student, student council member, and football player, Miller started at U-M in pre-med but says he “lost interest pretty quickly.” While still in school, he joined the Marine Reserves. Most of his six-year service was spent stateside, but in 2004 his unit was activated and sent to Iraq.
In six months there, six people in his company were killed–four from roadside bombs and two in the battle for the city of Fallujah.
He recalls the physical and emotional challenges of battle as “a very humbling experience.” Afterward, one fellow soldier committed suicide.
Miller finds it important to stay connected to other Michigan vets through a Facebook page where an administrator checks in with all of them weekly. “Things are getting better,” he says, “at least in that talking about the experience used to be frowned upon, used to be a sign of weakness.”
He graduated from U-M with a history degree in 2006, the same year his Marine Corps stint ended. Before coming to CAN, he held different jobs, including coaching high school students for the SAT and mentoring troubled kids at the Judson Center. Married to therapist Carrie Miller, and the father of nine-year-old Olivia, he lives on the west side and relaxes by playing soccer.
Thinking back on that pivotal choice between teaching and social service, Miller reflects, “although CAN was still small and had an uncertain future, it was immediately obvious.” He saw “the potential it had in driving [a] major impact in our community.”