Blogger extraordinaire Bernie O’Hare recently put your friendly executive director on the “far left.” Others have done that, too. Of course, the check-points on the political spectrum are relative. Folks who were once moderate to conservative are now liberals in the eyes of the extreme right that seems to be taking over the Republican Party. The Jim DeMints (senator from South Carolina) and Rand Pauls (newly-elected senator from Kentucky) are far more common these days than the Susan Collinses and Olympia Snowes. And the Paul Wellstones and Russ Feingolds are nearing extinction.
But let’s assume that readers of this blog have their understanding of political ideology squarely where it should be (in the interest of time, since explaining all of this would take lots of that).
Let’s look at the approach Community Action takes to community problem-solving.
“WE DON’T DO ANYTHING FOR ANYONE”
That’s our mantra. It’s basically the Teach-a-Man-to-Fish axiom with Community Action attitude applied to it.
At our shelters, we require our residents to sign a “social contract” that identifies the issues that got them there and sets out a plan for how they are going to address them so they can get out of the shelter and on the path to self-sufficiency. We will let them fail and give them another shot but, if it becomes apparent that they lack the commitment to achieve those goals, we will sever the relationship. That’s right, we kick them out. At any given time, we have 30 or more families waiting to get in to the Sixth Street Shelter; why waste precious resources on people unwilling to deal with their problems. And speaking of problems, we teach problem-solving, because if we don’t, they will be back at our door real soon and, except in very, very limited circumstances, we won’t take them back.
Understand, we do plenty for people. But only when their own efforts are thwarted by a system, like the welfare bureaucracy, that often treats them like second-class citizens. We often have to step in. But we only do so after their own efforts have been exhausted.
We believe in personal responsibility. One of the best illustrations of that concept at Community Action is our Fowler Community Technology Center. Located at Northampton Community College’s south Bethlehem site (also named after Sts. Linny and Beall), the program teaches Southside teens the interesting and vocationally-relevant aspects of technology. The kids learn how computers are used in automotive repair or hospitals. If the kids stick with the program, they earn a refurbished computer. More than 300 south Bethlehem homes have computers that might not have if these kids hadn’t earned them.
Some of our detractors hammer us for holding banks accountable to their communities. Well, banks provide the lifeblood of an economy – access to credit – and, by and large, the Lehigh Valley’s banks are pretty sincere about doing just that.
But we push banks because we believe the best community development program is called “profit.” That’s right, folks, we’re all about ensuring that the marketplace works in our urban neighborhoods. We are not all about welfare (although we need a better-functioning welfare system) or any other kind of hand-out (though certainly our Second Harvest Food Bank does facilitate food assistance). We’re about a functioning marketplace, because functioning neighborhoods can’t exist without them. So, we try to run the payday lenders (we were successful at making them illegal, by the way), the pawn shops, refund anticipation loan companies like Jackson-Hewitt and H&R Block, check-cashers, scummy mortgage brokers and other bad guys out of business.
A key part of our strategy is helping people in the neighborhoods start their own businesses. So, we run comprehensive small business training classes, provide technical assistance to start-ups as well as existing businesses and make loans to businesses to which banks can’t lend.
Markets can’t function when their only prospective customers have no money, so we also want to facilitate a mix of incomes in neighborhoods. The old antipoverty strategy of helping people escape the hood is flawed. If we help the “winners” get out, leaving the “losers” behind, then we concede the permanent ghetto.
There are many other ways to develop livable places and Community Action is on them. We have focused, neighborhood revitalization projects in each of our three cities that do things like install decorative street lights and trash cans, replace sidewalks, plant trees, create parks, and improve residential and commercial facades.
Homeownership is also key to strengthening communities and anyone who knows anything about us knows that we have aggressively promoted home ownership as an asset-building and neighborhood-sustaining strategy for twenty years.
CHARITY IS SOMETHING YOU DO WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE JUSTICE. WE PURSUE JUSTICE.
And justice means a good paying job. When Pennsylvania raised the minimum wage, we were widely praised as being among the three organizations statewide that deserved the credit for making it happen.
SO, THERE YOU HAVE IT
A market based strategy that promotes personal responsibility and encourages people to earn what they have doesn’t sound like a bunch of pinko bed-wetters now, does it?
But if by “far left” folks mean that we believe our society should use community (which might translate to “government”)to level the playing field, improve access to economic opportunity, tax wealth fairly, and make sure that a job pays enough to feed the family and pay the rent, then call us “far left.” We prefer to think of it as, simply, civilized.
ONE LAST THOUGHT
Maybe folks misinterpret activism and a passionate embrace of the notion that, in the year 2011, we ought to be able to call ourselves civilized as “far left.” If only more people worked tirelessly to promote some of the most basic precepts of the Founding Fathers’ lofty ideals, maybe we’d all be a little more inclusive when we call ourselves “Americans.”