The “Grass Roots Leadership” of Community Action

“We need to involve the grass roots leadership of the poor, to develop more leaders, and organizations capable of representing the poor, of speaking out on their behalf, of participating in the planning and administration of Community Action programs. And — we need those neighborhood leaders to criticize our programs, to make sure our programs are getting at the real needs of the poor.”
Sargent Shriver | Washington, DC| December 9, 1964

Our Quote of the Week emphasizes the role of Community Action in tackling poverty. As we reach the end of May and Community Action month, we celebrate the community model that continues to be at the heart of the programs created during the War on Poverty.

During the1964 Address at the Community Action Assembly Sponsored by the National Urban League, Sargent Shriver speaks about an important connection: that of civil rights to the War on Poverty. He says:

“There is an urgency about the dignity of man. There is a compulsion to act -- to act here and now -- to free men from bondage -- whether it be the bondage of discrimination or the bondage of poverty.”

He goes on to speak of the vital importance of the Civil Rights Act to Black Americans, and says that laws alone are not enough, that economic resources — training, jobs, education — must also be available. In this context, he emphasizes the importance of Community Action, which allows for “grass roots leadership” in communities that are struggling economically.

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 idea from the Kennedy administration, 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 still evident today, with over 1,000 Community Action agencies that continue to serve residents in neighborhoods all around the United States.

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.

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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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