by Perry Ohren, board member – May 17, 2024

My first job in the “nonprofit” sector, in 1984, was at Ozone House, after having volunteered for a couple of years there. At the time, this was “right down the street” from the NEW Center, at 608 N. Main. Ozone House was fifteen (15) years old, and I was its twenty-one-year-old (21-year-old) Community Resource and Outreach Coordinator. It was (mostly) volunteer staffed and collectively structured, with decisions made by consensus. This meant discussing matters – sometimes painstakingly – until we could all reach agreement. Employees – nine (9) of us at any given time – were also “term-limited.” Paid jobs lasted only twenty (20 months), as the collective did not want anyone to have too much power. And there wasn’t an Executive Director – we were all peers, pulling weight and holding ourselves and each other accountable. This all mirrored Ozone House’s youth empowerment model – advocating for young people, who were largely without voice and certainly without vote. Looking back on it all, it seems very hippy-dippy and quintessentially Ann Arbor-idealistic. It was the most meaningful job I’ve ever had, and a great beginning to a career of helping others. We all believed we were saving the world, and indeed we were, in our service offerings and in the way we served.

Forty (40) years, nine (9) jobs, one (1) MSW, plenty of service on nonprofit/social impact Boards, three (3) children, two (2) wives, and two (2) new hips later, I now serve on NEW’s Board of Directors. I first encountered NEW after a friend introduced me to Michael Tyson, NEW’s then CEO, twelve (12) years ago. We were both new CEOs/EDs, and struck up a supportive friendship around leading in this sector. A few years later I/Jewish Family Service (my workplace) was looking for some help facilitating a Board retreat. Lots of fingers pointed to NEW and I “engaged” NEW’s Diana Kern. Jewish Family Service (JFS) has since engaged NEW to do two (2) more Board Retreats, one (1) Strategic Plan, one (1) Board Reboot, a summer of Race Dialogues, and two (2) trainings in DEIA work. We’ve also had two (2) colleagues participate in Leadership Deli. JFS kept coming back to NEW to help its work. But, it wasn’t because NEW was easy; it was more that NEW was challenging…of everything that this sector is all about.

At some point in 2021, I reached out to Yodit Mesfin Johnson (Tyson’s successor and NEW’s current CEO). “How can I get involved as a volunteer?” Next thing I knew I was on NEW’s Impact Committee and then on its Board, for just over two years.

NEW remains challenging. They have the courage, drive, passion, and integrity to challenge the so-called nonprofit sector. They challenge the communities within which these exist. And they challenge the structures that have created and perpetuated unimaginable hurt.

As an intermediary (i.e., an agency that helps others to do their work), NEW does an exemplary job at Board Retreats, Strategic Plans, and back office supports, like IT HelpDesk’ing. But it’s how NEW does all of its work, with uncompromising values, that sets NEW apart:

  • We value each other’s humanity. We believe in treating people with dignity regardless of their role(s).
  • We value justice. We believe that repairing harm – to people and planet – requires addressing the root causes of inequity – systems and structures.
  • We value collaboration. We believe that the best processes and solutions are built with input from the diverse folks they’ll impact.
  • We value relationships that connect us. We believe that embracing diversity and working across differences requires trust and accountability.
  • We value learning and growth. We believe that transformation requires continuous development of self and organizations.
  • We value collective liberation. We believe that the only way to free ourselves from oppression is to do it together.

The social impact sector has to do more than help agencies and communities and people to cope with the situation in front of them. We must also help rethink the structures that cause the pain and the hurt. Ozone House, from 1969 to 1984 to today, has been a shining example of questioning the status quo for young people. NEW is also a shining example of this, as a proud, thoughtful, and creative leader, “Transforming the Future, Together.”