The Urgency of Community Action

“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.”
Sargent Shriver| Washington, DC| December 9, 1964

Our Quote of the Week underlines the urgency needed in liberating all human beings from the scourges of discrimination and poverty. With these words, Sargent Shriver highlights the direct role that Community Action, a program of the War on Poverty, could play in tackling poverty and inequality.

In his 1964 Address at the Community Action Assembly Sponsored by the National Urban League, Sargent Shriver acknowledged the importance of addressing both poverty and racism in the United States. Initially a concept that emphasized local service to empower individuals and families dealing with economic hardship, “community action” became a crucial part of the War on Poverty. It was based on the notion that to truly empower people, you had to do so on their terms, not according to a cookie-cutter definition of success or prosperity. In this particular address, whose audience included members of the National Urban League, Shriver’s emphasis is on African American communities, who were, and continue to be, disproportionally affected by poverty.

When Sargent Shriver was appointed to lead the War on Poverty, he embraced the notion of community action early on, and was a proponent of setting up local agencies that would focus on the specific and varied needs of the economically disadvantaged. 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 eradicating 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;
  • training 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.

It’s notable in the address that Sargent Shriver welcomed criticism from community members as part of what he envisioned for 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.”

Shriver’s display of openness to criticism posed challenges in the management of local programs at times, as some community members clashed with local politicians in their quest to maintain autonomy over the programs. Nevertheless, Shriver’s openness provides a valuable example for us today. The willingness to listen, to learn, and to adopt viable solutions for those experiencing poverty is an essential part of Community Action.

The degrees of success of individual Community Action agencies have varied from place to place, and the programs, with their model of empowering local citizens, caused controversy at times. But the overall success of Community Action is undeniable. Even after the dismantling of the Office of Economic Opportunity, which oversaw Shriver’s poverty programs, and through 11 Presidential administrations, six of them Republican, over 1,000 local Community Action agencies continue to serve residents in neighborhoods all around the United States today.

If you’re interested in learning more about the history of Community Action, click here. And if you’d like to connect with your local Community Action agency, click here.

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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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