Community Action and PEACE, Inc.

Community action started fifty years ago when President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on poverty. On August 20, 1964, President Johnson signed into law the Economic Opportunities Act creating a variety of programs that helped people with low incomes. Taking a grassroots approach, community action empowers people living in poverty to help make the decisions about programs and funding.

In Syracuse, the work of community action was underway before the official war on poverty began. Primarily through two agencies – the Mayor’s Commission on Youth and Crusade for Opportunities – people from diverse backgrounds had already started working together to improve the quality of life and break down racial barriers in their neighborhoods.

In 1968, Crusade for Opportunities became PEACE, Inc. which is an acronym for People’s Equal Action & Community Effort. Our agency was born. When the doors of PEACE, Inc. opened, there were two sites, three programs – including Head Start and Family Resource Centers – and the budget was $400,000. As community needs changed, PEACE, Inc. added new programs and funding streams accordingly.  In 2018, PEACE, Inc. operates nine major programs and manages a budget of over $25 million.

Looking back over the past fifty years, we can celebrate many successes. People have been able to rise out of poverty – get a college degree, purchase a home, run for public office, start a business, and maintain a stable job.  But, we know the work of community action is not complete.  There are too many people in our community who continue to struggle in poverty and remain economically unstable.  There are children who start school unprepared to learn; seniors who need companionship or a healthy meal; adults who cannot find stable housing or employment.

Our challenge moving forward is to build upon our first fifty years of work and maintain our commitment to empowering people to recognize their own potential and work toward a better life for themselves, their families, and the community at large.

Community Action Nationally – The War on Poverty

In his first State of the Union address on January 8, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared “[t]his administration here and now declares an unconditional war on poverty.”  Continuing the work begun by President John F. Kennedy, Johnson’s team developed the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. The act includes a variety of initiatives including Head Start, Job Corps, Work-Study program for university students, VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), Neighborhood Youth Corps, adult education and job training, and Community Action Programs.

The Economic Opportunity Act was innovative legislation and Community Action was a bold idea, especially for the federal government.  A new and sometimes confusing concept known as “maximum feasible participation” required that funds were allocated at the local level and people living in poverty were involved in the decision-making.  In testimony before Congress urging passage of the Act, Attorney General Robert Kennedy explained the requirement of “maximum feasible participation” this way:

“The institutions which affect the poor – education, welfare, recreation, business, labor – are huge, complex structures, operating far outside their control. They plan programs for the poor, not with them. Part of the sense of helplessness and futility comes from the feeling of powerlessness to affect the operation of these organizations. The community action programs must basically change these organizations by building into the program real representation for the poor. This bill calls for ‘maximum feasible participation of residents.” – Testimony by Robert Kennedy

Economic Opportunity Act of 1964: Hearings before the Subcomm. on the War on Poverty Program of the House Comm. on Education and Labor, 88th Cong., 2nd Sess., pt. 1, at 305 (1964) (emphasis added).

Maximum feasible participation still serves as a guiding principle of Community Action. For instance, all local community action boards are tripartite – one-third represent elected public officials, one-third community leaders, and one-third of people living in poverty.

Why Community Action?

Community Action equips low-income citizens with the tools for becoming self-sufficient. The structure of the program is unique – federal dollars are used locally to offer specialized programming in communities. It coordinates neighborhood efforts to address the root effects of poverty and to, ultimately, move families and individuals to self-sufficiency.

This work is not easy and demand is always shifting and changing. Over the years, the federal government has changed as well. The funding is now part of the Block Grant System, which allows for the flexibility and specialization of unique programs. Poverty is viewed as a systemic problem and Community Action is a systems approach to resolving those issues. There are now over 1,000 Community Action Agencies throughout the United States and Puerto Rico.

Community Action Agencies promote self-sufficiency – not dependency.  Among their three key assets are flexibility of funding, the immediacy of action, and coordination of services.

In other words, The Community Action Method:

  • Prioritizes prevention
  • Addresses the causes of poverty
  • Involves the Community
  • Improves the Community
  • Creates Opportunity

And, Community Action Agency response to clients/customers is:

  • Flexible
  • Coordinated
  • Directed to Long-Term Client Development

The unique characteristics of community action agencies include a tri-partite board structure, wide-scale volunteer support, ability to leverage resources, focus on innovative solutions, low administrative costs, and an emphasis on community and family programs.

Visit www.communityactionpartnership.com to learn more about community action.