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2013 Annual Meeting – Alan Jennings’ Speech

On October 2, the Community Action Lehigh Valley held its Annual Meeting, with 200 people in attendance. The agency boasted its 2012-13 accomplishments, introduced four people whose lives were touched by our work, showed a video produced by Marco Calderon, and heard a speech from our executive director, Alan Jennings, commenting on our times and laying out the agency’s agenda for the year. The text of Alan’s speech is as follows: I’m so impressed with the resilience, the perseverance, the drive so many of the people we serve possess when so many obstacles stand in their way. Pat, Erica, Ebisa and Carmen – don’t give us too much of the credit for simply walking with you and supporting you. Your success is due to your determination to succeed.

Most folks identify Community Action as the agency that operates the Sixth Street Shelter and the Second Harvest Food Bank, maybe our weatherization work. But the real antidote to poverty is not human services, as critical as they may be, but economic opportunity.

As people with money flee the cities and boroughs, businesses and jobs and tax base follow them to the greenfields that once were open spaces and farms. Left behind are older, often rundown buildings and people without the resources to escape, to join the exodus. Income disparities between the suburbs and the older urbanized communities widen, and wealth disparities grow, too.

As a society, we cannot afford to waste the human capital, infrastructure, housing stock and other city assets left behind. The neighborhoods victimized by disinvestment become ghettos and America loses its ability to lay claim to being the land of opportunity. Instead, it becomes the land where hopes and dreams are abundant for the lucky few and despair all too common among far too many.

And, so, at Community Action, we help people build assets: we help them buy their own homes, we help them start their own businesses and we try to create neighborhoods where the winners want to stay and there are no losers. In the process, assets become equity, equity becomes wealth, winners become role models, people see reasons to embrace hope. George W. Bush called it the “ownership society” (they may be the only two words he uttered that I enthusiastically endorse).

At your places is a directory of businesses that the Community Action Development Corporation of Allentown, the Community Action Development Corporation of Bethlehem, and The Rising Tide Community Loan Fund have helped start and finance. One of the most significant things you can do to make a difference is to spend your money in places where the market needs affirmative investment. So, in addition to giving money to us or the many other worthy agencies, why don’t we use our purchasing power to extend opportunity where it might not have been. Charity is something you do when you don’t have justice; justice is a functioning marketplace. Let’s choose to pursue justice.

And enjoy your cupcakes – you can buy your own just around the corner at Sugar Babe, financed in part by The Rising Tide Community Loan Fund.

This is a jobless recovery; five years after the Great Recession hit, we still have unemployment that is double what is expected in a recovered economy. That means there is no pressure on wages, people still have trouble paying their bills, including their mortgages, some people lose their confidence in themselves as nothing goes their way. It is downright scary how many people we see who are making less now than they did 10, 20 or even 30 years ago.

Policymakers – those we elect to make our world a better place – cannot come to agreement on how or even whether government can solve our problems. In fact, it looks to me like some in Congress are hell-bent on making sure government doesn’t solve our problems, leaving communities like ours left to find their own resources.

Folks we can be better. We can do better. Collectively, we can agree that the marketplace should be fair, the playing field level. We can agree that those who work hard should be able to afford to pay their rent. We can agree that those who live in abundance can do more. We can agree that the quality of a child’s education should not be dependent on where he or she is born. We can agree to put the word “sacrifice,” especially when it is done on behalf of others, back in our vocabulary. We can love our neighbors, we can do unto others as we would have others do unto us.

For Community Action’s part, we pledge to you that we will not rest.

In just a few weeks, the first expansion of shelter services in years will be completed and five more families will be sheltered each night by the Sixth Street Shelter.

A few weeks ago, we put the warehouse occupied by the Second Harvest Food Bank on the market. Before this fiscal year is out, we expect to have identified a new site for the Second Harvest Food Bank and will start a fundraising campaign to pay for it.

The Lehigh Valley Community Land Trust is adding a housing rehab component in Northampton County to its effort to expand homeownership opportunities.

We will look for progressive companies to sign up to extend the Neighborhood Partnerships that are expiring in all three cities so that we can continue the momentum you can read about in our Annual Report. M&T Bank, National Penn Bank, Lafayette Ambassador Bank, PPL, Just Born, Air Products and Easton Hospital have all led the way and have been able to take advantage of state tax credits for their support.

We will help Allentown establish a massive, new Neighborhood Partnership to bolster the neighborhoods surrounding the Neighborhood Improvement Zone.

We will explore new financing tools to enable merchants on thriving Seventh Street in Allentown to become owners of the buildings their stores are occupying.

With a little luck a new Neighborhood Partnership will be organized in four boroughs in the Slate Belt.

We will do more façade improvements, weatherize more homes, distribute more food, help more welfare recipients prepare to enter the workforce, protect more homeowners from foreclosure, file more people’s tax returns.

Look at this beautiful crowd: white, black, brown, wealthy, poor, borrowers, lenders, advocates, targets, conservatives, liberals, partisans, non-partisans, elected officials, the people who elected them and some who voted against them, donors, beneficiaries, health care providers, patients, manufacturers, consumers. We are the resistance to the mean-spiritedness and racism that is all too common.

It is your remarkable commitment to your community, your generosity, your vision, shared with us, of a far better community that enables us to make a difference. Each one of you, each donor, each volunteer – you, me, we are all, indeed, Community Action.

Thank you all!

-Alan Jennings

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