Our Quote of the Week emphasizes the role of Community Action in tackling poverty. Initially a concept that emphasized local service to empower individuals and families dealing with economic hardship, Community Action was central both for the War on Poverty and for Sargent Shriver, who believed that to truly empower people, you had to do so on their terms, not according to a cookie-cutter definition of success or prosperity.
An early idea during the brainstorming for the War on
Poverty, the notion of “community action,” i.e., of creating small, local
projects managed largely by community members, for community members, solicited
both excitement and trepidation in President Johnson and others involved in the
War on Poverty strategy. For men who were accustomed to wielding power, the
idea of yielding authority to local groups seemed bold, but also intimidating. When
Sargent Shriver came on the scene to lead the War on Poverty, he embraced the
notion of community action and was a proponent of setting up local agencies
that would focus on the specific and varied needs of the economically
disadvantaged. After all, he had set up a similar model in the Peace Corps, in
which volunteers would immerse themselves in the culture of a country and embed
themselves in a community so that they could serve its members in ways that were most
beneficial for them. These programs would invite, according to terminology
established early on, “maximum feasible participation,” i.e., involvement of
all individuals and groups in local communities who had direct experience with
poverty and who wanted to work on alleviating it for themselves and for their
neighbors. The programs varied from community to community, but generally revolved
around the following areas:
- preparing people for employment through training and education;
- imparting financial literacy and tax expertise;
- teaching people to advocate for themselves;
- supporting families with young children through education and child care;
- helping people stay safe and warm in affordable housing with functioning electricity and heating.
The degrees of success of local Community Action agencies varied from place to place, and the programs, with their model of empowering local citizens, caused controversy in some jurisdictions. But the overall success of Community Action is undeniable, and today, there are over 1,000 Community Action agencies that continue to serve residents in neighborhoods all around the United States.
One final point about our Quote of the Week: it’s notable that in speaking about Community Action, Sargent Shriver welcomes criticism from community members as part of what he envisions for the program. His openness to criticism shows a leadership quality that continues to be valuable today: the willingness to listen, to learn, and to adopt solutions that truly benefit those for whom those solutions were designed.