Benjamin Ahmad was employed at an oil company in San Francisco when he found his life work. Immersed in a culture that defined itself in terms of cultivating material worldwide, the 23-year-old junior engineer had a sense that something was missing. He saw that something on his bus rides through San Franciscos Fillmore districta social dynamism, a vibrant energy, a spirit, in the communities he passed through every day. It was a realization that led Ahmad to hand in his resignation to Standard Oil and change his college major at San Francisco State from engineering to psychology.
That same inspiration has guided him in his work for the last 30 years as a social entrepreneur creating new possibilities with diverse communities. A rehabilitation counselor by day and community organizer around the clock, Ahmad sees his work in East Palo Alto as an outgrowth of his counseling profession; both involve understanding assets and working constructively toward self-empowerment. After joining with others in a successful effort to turn East Palo Alto into a municipality in 1983, Ahmad became an influential leader within the city, serving as chairman of the Human Services Commission, the Bayshore Employment Agency board, the East Palo Alto Planning Commission, and the East Palo Alto Senior Center. In those roles, he has helped establish positive interagency partnerships and completed a redevelopment plan that includes a recreation center and low-income housing development.
Seeing faith as central to human and community development, Ahmad has also served as an imam and infuses his work with a spiritual framework and spiritual terminology. I try to establish a means by which a common spiritual quality connects people. The common aspect of spirit is the air we breathe. Every culture may have a unique way of expressing it, but every culture has a spirit, he says.
Viewing East Palo Alto as sacred ground, Ahmads vision for community revitalization includes increasing peoples ability to appreciate and sustain their humanity and their core values without getting wrapped up in politics that sabotage that humanity and those values. When youre working with an individual, theres a clear understanding of the issues and challenges, he said. When youre working with a community, there are diverse opinions and either clarity or confusion. My focus is the total community.
Ahmad has been a Wildflowers fellow since 2002.