“Democracy and Local Government,” AKA Community Action

“We believe in democracy and in local government. We oppose the theory that the Great White Father in Washington, D.C. always knows best.”
Sargent Shriver | New Orleans, LA| July 20, 1966

Our Quote of the week evokes Sargent Shriver’s concept of “community action” and reminds us that we, the people, must act to organize and to shape our communities according to local needs.

In 1966, Sargent Shriver spoke before the Association of Counties about the ways in which the structures of the War on Poverty were meant to empower residents of communities suffering economic hardship. This concept of local empowerment, which was referred to as “community action”, grew to be central in the War on Poverty.

Sargent Shriver 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. This belief is evident in this week’s quote, which, read from our point of view in 2020, also seems to acknowledge that our systems are built around a White, patriarchal view of “Americans” that many people in the US do not identify with.

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, and, in some cases, unthinkable. 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 economically disadvantaged people. 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 those members. 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.

Sargent Shriver believed that by investing in communities, and by empowering people with the skills and opportunities that would allow them to advance economically, we could create a more engaged and empowered population that could strengthen our democracy. He said:

“The issue is not and has never been one of power – of who had the last word. The issue is one of cooperation, communication, and of democracy.”

It’s past time to build on a vision of the United States in which all people are empowered. We have an opportunity with the upcoming elections to continue building on such a vision: let us support leaders who have the strength to strengthen our most vulnerable communities, not simply to cater to the privileged groups who can uphold the existing power structures. And let us continue working together to create a society in which we are all encouraged to reach our full potential.

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Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
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