Duane St. Clair became executive director of the Association of Community Services (ACS) in June 2011. Founded in 1963, ACS is a 120-member organization that supports the human services community in Howard County through education and training, advocacy, and providing information and connections to its members and the community.
Tell us a little about yourself. How long have you lived in Columbia?
We moved here in 1977 — 33 years ago. Rouse’s vision — that people of diverse values could live together — really came through for us. We wanted to raise our kids where they had the chance to interact with kids of very different backgrounds — and they did. My wife and I were involved in foster care as foster parents for 10 years, and I have been a foster care consultant throughout the state for the last eight years. This has had a profound effect on me and my wife.
You worked with the Howard County Department of Aging for many years, and then as a consultant. What made you decide to apply for the ACS position?
About a year ago I decided I wanted to be more engaged within Howard. County. I became a member of the Friends of Library board, consulted with Voices for Children and started blogging about the community (St. Clair’s blog is called HoCo Connect).
When the ACS position opened up I realized that it would give me the opportunity to not only interact, but have an impact on a community and county that I care about deeply. I can say without reservation: This is the perfect job for me. I love it. In fact, if I had wanted to create a job, I couldn’t come up with a better one.
What do you think are the biggest changes you’ve seen in terms of the community?
In Columbia, a lot of the ideals that Rouse envisioned had have been diminished. For example, we have lost some of the smaller town flavor of the village centers and affordable housing is hard to find in the county.
In terms of Howard County, one of the biggest changes is the increasing diversity. The growth of the foreign-born population is a very different type of diversity. Rouse’s original diversity focus was racial. Today, the diversity means a variety of populations, and cultures, many of whom are foreign-born. We see it in ethnic stores and restaurants. It gives us an enhanced ethnic flavor, which I love.
This change has major ramifications for the human services community, including ACS. We need to adapt and reach out to the populations that have cultural and language issues. FIRN does a great job, but it’s imperative for organizations other than FIRN to get involved.
These issues impact organizations and businesses across the board. For example, we see ethnic groups forming their own social services agencies. We need to be sure that these organizations are connected into the whole human services community so their populations have access to a full range of services. We also need to figure out how to integrate new technologies and social media across the board; which is difficult when you have language and cultural differences.
What do you think is missing today in Howard County? What do we need?
Affordability. That’s what’s really missing, both in housing and in the high overall cost of living in this county. That’s the big challenge that this community has: how to have a community in which a broad range of people can live.
The Policy Analysis Center’s self-sufficiency indicators and the recently released “Making Ends Meet” [report], both funded by The Horizon Foundation, track the cost of living here and tell the affordability story — and it’s not a pretty tale. I don’t think we want to become a community where you can work here but can’t afford to live here. We need to figure out how to provide opportunities across the income scale.
You’ve been ACS’s executive director for six months. What have you discovered/learned?
It’s provided me an opportunity to get engaged in many issues, from housing to child care, health care, homelessness and more. I’ve come to recognize that ACS is seen as the go-to place that brings the perspective of nonprofits and the human service agencies to the table.
If you had the resources, is there any initiative you’d particularly like to see happen?
ACS maximizes the resources it has. We don’t have a lot of staff or a large budget. Finding funds — and the time — to expand into things we’d like to do is a challenge. But I knew than coming in.
If I had the resources, I would like ACS to develop the ability to support individuals and groups that want to start nonprofits in the community — kind of an incubator for nonprofits, to help people with a great or important idea make it a sustainable reality. I see it as a natural outgrowth of the training, information and policy knowledge that ACS already provides.
As head of ACS, you spend a lot of time talking with members of the human services community. What do you think is the greatest challenge facing human services providers in Howard County? How do you think it could be addressed?
The biggest challenge is to have the financial resources to continue operating and to grow.
We have to develop partnerships and collaborations that will allow us to maximize dollars and increase services. When dollars are decreasing, these collaborations may be one of the few ways to expand to meet the growing need for services.
What do you think are the most important services ACS provides to the Howard County Community?
Education and training is a very important part of what we do. I was at a meeting recently, and the person with whom I was talking said that for her the fact that the training was available here in Howard County was really valuable. She not only learned about the local community’s resource, but didn’t have to travel.
Our public policy work is also critical. We identify what Howard County needs to be a healthy community, healthy in the broadest sense. The materials developed through the Policy Analysis Center not only provide valuable information for us, but also for the human services community. For example, [the] “Making Ends Meet” [report] made us realize that we need to put special emphasis on child care issues and training needs for workers in low-wage jobs in the county.
ACS celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2013. What do you see as its role for the next 50 years? What are its greatest challenges?
ACS needs to determine how it wants to be seen in the community and what the community wants from us. We need to stay relevant for our members. That means being an important resource for information, for advocating for human services and for education and training.
Networking is sometimes an overused word, but we also need to continue to be the source for connections between service providers, government, the nonprofit and for-profit communities. We also need to find new ways to support efforts to expand the services community in the county.
When you are not serving in your ACS role, what other interests do you have?
I’m an avid runner and a biker. If you come out very, very early, you may see me running on the Columbia paths. I’ve finished 11 marathons and 14 Century bike rides of 100 miles. I’m married with five children. We have three grandchildren and two more on the way.