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2021 Michiganians of the Year

J. Ricardo Guzman guides a generation of health leaders

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When J. Ricardo Guzman was growing up in southwest Detroit in the 1950s and '60s, his mother was sick most of the time. 

Marina Guzman did not have health insurance, and it was not until near her death at the age of 49 that she learned the cause of her illness: lupus, an inflammatory disease caused when the immune system attacks its own tissues.

Perhaps if she'd known sooner, doctors could have prolonged her life, J. Ricardo Guzman thought. 

That experience led Guzman to pursue a lifelong career devoted to improving health care for people in southwest Detroit and in neighborhoods across the country where people lack access to medical care.

J. Ricardo Guzman, Michiganian
CHASS Center CEO Emeritus J. Ricardo Guzman, 72, talks about the center and being named a 2021 Michiganian of The Year.
Todd McInturf, The Detroit News

"I grew up in the neighborhood, just a kid from the streets, and got involved in health care because my mother was ill much of her adult life, and they couldn't figure out what the problem was," Guzman recalled recently. "Physicians were fleeing the city, and four community hospitals closed in four or five years.

"People were left in the lurch, trying to figure out what they were going to do for primary care, for being able to see a physician if they were sick."

In the late 1960s, Guzman began working with community leaders on his vision of opening a health center that would provide a "one-stop shop" where people could receive both medical and mental health care, as well as social services — regardless of their insurance status or ability to pay.

He caught the ear of then-Gov. William Milliken, who provided the first $100,000 of funding for the project, Guzman said. The Detroit health department agreed to provide staff, supplies and equipment. And Holy Redeemer Church provided space in its rectory. 

In 1970, the Community Health and Social Services Center, CHASS, opened in southwest Detroit — providing medical and mental health care and social services to the community for more than 50 years now.

"It wasn't me," Guzman said. "It was a group of individuals who kind of came together and said, 'What are we going to do?'"

At the same time, Guzman was working to mentor like-minded young people, many of whom went on to become health advocates or community leaders in Detroit. And he became involved in efforts to increase access to health care on a national scale.  

Ozzie Rivera, a retired community organizer and academic who still teaches courses as an adjunct professor at the University of Michigan and Wayne State University, met Guzman when he was still a teenager in the 1960s. 

"I remember the first day we met Ricardo," his friend Ozzie Rivera recalled of the day he and a cousin first approached Guzman. "I was 16, my cousin was 15, and we wanted to talk with someone who was involved because we wanted to get involved. 

"He took a liking to us and he became our mentor. He was maybe in his early 20s. And he became a mentor to many people. Literally, many."

Rivera currently teaches a class in Afro-Latino studies at Wayne State University's Center for Latino and Latin American Studies, a center of learning he said Guzman worked with others to create. Rivera is also a UM adjunct professor of social work. 

The center "now is celebrating its 50th anniversary," Rivera said. "(Guzman) helped recruit myself and a lot of other people into this leadership program, and that really, really changed our lives.

At the national level, meanwhile, Guzman chaired the Policy Committee of the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Community Health Centers from 2008 to 2014, successfully advocating for inclusion of Community Health Center policies and funding within the Affordable Care Act. He was elected chair of the organization's board of directors in 2014. 

When Guzman stepped down as CEO of CHASS at the end of 2016, he had someone ready to continue his legacy at the health center: Dr. Felix Valbuena Jr., whom Guzman had mentored since he started working at CHASS in 1989 as a social worker.

A construction crew passes the CHASS Center (Community Health and Social Services Center) on West Fort St. at Junction, Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021.
A construction crew passes the CHASS Center (Community Health and Social Services Center) on West Fort St. at Junction, Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021. Todd McInturf, The Detroit News

Guzman introduced Valbuena to state, local and national leaders in health care, took him along to meetings and immersed him in the world of health care. Then on Jan. 1, 2017, Valbuena's goal became a reality and he took the reins of leadership from Guzman to become the health center's CEO. 

In October 2017, the CHASS Board of Directors created the J. Ricardo Guzman Legacy Fund to further Guzman's work in support of public health. 

"Ricardo for many, many years, aside from the work he was doing at the center, played an integral role in growing future leaders in public health," Valbuena said.

Twitter: @kbouffardDN

J. Ricardo Guzman

Age: 72

Occupation: Emeritus CEO of Community Health And Social Services Center (CHASS) in southwest Detroit

Education: Bachelor of arts in philosophy, 1975, and master's in social work, 1977, Wayne State University; master's in public health, 1997, University of Michigan

Family: Denise, his wife of 22 years, four adult children, and three grandchildren

Why honored: His belief that health is a basic human right has resulted in care to more than 400,000 people throughout his career.

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