Retiring Southwest Solutions CEO John Van Camp took part in his first “sit-in” for social justice when he was just 10 years old.
His family had moved from Detroit to an apple farm in Romeo around 1948. There was little interracial contact in the city, so his mom Dorothy, a social activist, formed an interracial Cub Scouts den.
When she heard about an ice cream parlor in the city that would not serve blacks she thought of the perfect way to show her den what social justice is all about. The Scouts went to the parlor and – as the waitress asked only for the white kids’ orders – Van Camp and the others referred her to the black Scouts, saying, “Please serve my friend first.”
The commotion caught the attention of customers coming in the door. Three months later the ice cream parlor was sold and the new owner served everyone.
That was in 1953 and Van Camp has not veered from that lesson throughout his entire career. Social justice is just part of his DNA.
On May 4 he retired as president and CEO of Southwest Solutions after a 45-year career there, 37 as its leader.
“I still proudly carry an ID badge that identifies me as ‘employee No. 2’ of an organization that has since employed thousands of individuals dedicated to improving the lives of Detroiters,” Van Camp said in his goodbye letter. He will serve as a special counselor to Fred Leeb, the interim CEO, and to the organization’s executive team.
Van Camp’s parents would be proud. His mom was a founding member of the Detroit Federation of Teachers and his dad Lawrence was a union organizer in Flint and Pontiac. Never rich, the family lived with Roy Reuther, brother of the famous UAW President Walter Reuther, for a while before moving to Romeo. Walter Reuther put up the money for the farm where they settled. It was supposed to become a commune, but that never happened. Instead it became a place for the Van Camps’ friends of all ethnic groups to enjoy.
After graduating from Oakland University with a bachelor’s degree in political science he joined the Peace Corps, spending time in India. After the Peace Corps he worked in Vietnam before returning to Detroit and earning his master’s degree in social work from Wayne State University.
A short time later Van Camp met Bill Mouldwin, a Lutheran pastor who was executive director of the newly founded Southwest Solutions, then a community mental health organization. Van Camp was hired as his assistant in 1973. He was named executive director in 1981.
Since then Southwest Solutions has grown to include early childhood education, community school programs, adult literacy, services for the homeless and veterans, financial literacy and homebuyer counseling, job training, urban and minority entrepreneur programs, and neighborhood and community development, including creation and administration of affordable housing.
Additional programs are aimed not only at addressing community health needs, but also the individual emotional health of residents.
“Our job is to work with the community and open up their hearts and minds,” Van Camp says. “That is why this organization was created. The community needs an intervention more than government can provide. It does take a village.”
The need for that village grew dramatically as Detroit started to unravel after the 1967 riots. Many neighborhoods that once had great schools, great parks, nearby churches and specials programs came undone. The move of white residents to the suburbs accelerated, tax dollars diminished and money that had once been funneled into neighborhoods dried up. More young people found themselves in the juvenile justice system, and the number of homeless grew as did the number of people living in distressed neighborhoods. The emotional well-being of residents quickly deteriorated as they looked for affordable places to live and raise families.
“The number one thing we were not providing in the 1970s was housing,” Van Camp says, pointing out there is still a need today.
He went to his community-based board and said, “We have to do something.” The board agreed and Southwest Solutions added affordable housing to its focus.
Over the last 15 years, Southwest Solutions has done $160-$170 million in Southeast Michigan development. That figure includes residential, commercial and real-estate-owned (REO) properties. REO properties are typically owned by a bank, government agency, or government loan insurer.
“There was a greater need than just our clients,” Van Camp says.
To create more low-income homes and bring more resources into the organization Bagley Housing, Springwells Housing and Detroit Neighborhood Housing Corp. merged with Southwest Solutions in the early 2000s.
“We brought a skill set for new housing – repairing, getting mortgages and workforce training.” Van Camp says. “Our focus is on neighborhoods and creating a system of care for those in distressed neighborhoods.”
To address the medical care needed by the underserved residents of Southwest Detroit, Southwest Solutions partnered with Covenant Community Care to give them a “free, faith-based clinic that treats them with respect,” Van Camp says.
To best create that clinic he went to the board of directors and asked for the dollars needed to hire a grant writer so Covenant could become a Federally Qualified Health Center.
The need is greater than proper health care. Improving the wellness of the community is imperative for enhancing the quality of life and making families more self-sufficient in Detroit.
“We want to move from primary health care to behavioral health care,” Van Camp says. “We have moved from community mental health to the mental health of the community. The wellness of people and the wellness of place must join together.”
A sustainable program that will improve the mental health of communities can only be successfully created through the collaborative efforts of business, government and nonprofits, he says. They must work together to move the needle and put game-changers in place to reduce poverty and get neighborhoods and their residents back on their feet.
For Southwest Solutions those game-changers are:
- Affordable, accessible housing
- Affordable, accessible health care
- Income security and financial empowerment
- Early childhood education
- Affordable, accessible transit
- Community security and stabilization
- Community building and engagement
Van Camp is confident the drive toward those game-changers will continue and Southwest Solutions will focus on the emotional well-being of neighborhoods and their residents. But he points out putting all that is needed in place for the game-changers to be successful will not be easy and could strain the organization as it evolves.
Southwest Solutions has seen phenomenal growth. In 2007 its annual revenue was $20 million. In 2016 it had expanded to $50 million. Collaboration with 150 major partners was the key to its growth, Van Camp says, but those collaborations add new complexities that impede efficiency. For example, Southwest Solutions is still basically a paper-driven organization and needs dollars to upgrade to new technologies and other administrative services.
Like Detroit, Van Camp says Southwest Solutions is in the throes of change and needs to right-size itself. That means better interconnecting all its programs, such as clinics, housing, education and others because, he says, “None of them can stand alone.” To improve a district, Van Camp says neighborhoods must be able to navigate all the opportunities open to them.
The board will take time to review all of Southwest Solutions lines of business and take a 360-degree look at the organization to see “where we are at,” Van Camp says.
The goal remains to enhance the quality of life, success and self-sufficiency of individuals and families in Detroit.
Neighborhood residents, Southwest Solutions’ partners and others will be consulted to get their take on the resources offered, what needs to be done and how the vision can be accomplished.
“The DNA, culture and vision are compelling. We must look at our lines of business so we are sure we have enough resources” to sustain them, Van Camp says.
The key to implementing the vision is getting the buy-in from all involved.
“Leadership is creating a compelling vision that others see as their own,” he says. “If we have the right people in place we can accomplish that vision.”
As it has always done in its nearly 50-year existence, the organization will look for solutions that deliver the right results for the community.
“If I could change our name it would be to Solutions by Southwest,” Van Camp says.
— Pictures courtesy of Southwest Solutions