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Community Action: Our Past, Present, and Future (Part One of Three)

Written by Jessica R. Dreistadt, Planner for Lehigh Valley Community Land Trust, Rising Tide Community Loan Fund, West Ward Neighborhood Partnership, and Renew Lehigh Valley.

Our Past

I was recently given the arduous task of piecing together Community Action’s early history, a time we unfortunately about which we don’t know very much. With the help of one box of records which had survived multiple moves and transitions, the Internet, and our friends at the Bethlehem Area Public Library, Easton Area Public Library, Allentown Public Library, and Northampton County Historical and Genealogical Society, we were able to reconstruct some of our past.

Community Action Agencies were conceptualized by President Lyndon Baines Johnson and his administration, and their establishment became a part of federal law when he signed the Economic Opportunity Act (EOA) on August 20, 1964. At our 49th annual meeting, held earlier this week, Community Action Board President Olga Negron stated that, “Community Action Agencies grew out of an era marked by turmoil and tragedy but also idealism and creativity.” This context foreshadowed the complexity and intricacy of the work that we do. Our charge was, and remains, “to eliminate the paradox of poverty in the midst of plenty.”

Locally, Community Action was first discussed at the November 1964 board of directors meeting of the Lehigh Valley Community Council (which later merged into United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley). They had received a formal request from the Pennsylvania Citizens’ Council to lead and coordinate local EOA implementation. A steering committee was formed the following month, and a statement of purpose, organization, and responsibilities of the 50-member Community Action Committee was approved by the Lehigh Valley Community Council board on May 13, 1965. Later that month, an application for a program development grant was submitted to the Office of Economic Opportunity in Washington, D.C.

The Lehigh Valley Community Council subsequently passed a resolution to grant full autonomy to the Community Action Committee based on a recommendation from legal staff at the Office of Economic Opportunity. On December 20, 1965, the organization officially incorporated as Community Action Lehigh Valley, Inc. Francis Cosgrove — executive director of the Lehigh Valley Community Council — concurrently served as the first executive director of Community Action (our first full-time executive director, Dr. Charles E. Chaffee, was hired in 1967) and Claude D. Peters was our first board chair.

A lot has happened over the past 50 years. A lot. Our activities are much too numerous, and our impact far too expansive, to exhaustively describe everything here. Our history could literally fill the pages of a book, or perhaps even several volumes. I hope that, one day, our stories, knowledge, accomplishments, heartaches, controversies, and triumphs are all captured in a neatly bound book that inspires the next generation of activists. Perhaps this will be my retirement project many years from now. Or yours.

But just as important as what we as an organization have done are the contributions that have been made by thousands of Lehigh Valley residents over the years. Most of the meetings, activities, and decisions in which we are involved today may seem insignificant, par for the course; but someday those actions may seem monumental, even heroic, to others as they read about and recall our efforts.

I have been so moved over the past two months as I reviewed innumerable newspaper articles, reports, internal memos, and other documents to better understand and paint a more complete picture of our past. I envisioned the meetings, the events, and the dramas playing out in my head as I reviewed scores of what might otherwise be boring documents. I wish I could personally meet all of the many volunteers who have served on our board and committees over the past 50 years, give them a hug or shake their hand — whichever their preference — and tell them how valuable their involvement was. We who are soldiers in the War on Poverty stand on the shoulders of our communal ancestors.

But sadly, so many of the people who made Community Action what it is today are no longer with us. And some have move on in their lives — to new communities and new projects.. As they say, people come into our lives for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. While we wish that our volunteers and supporters would develop a lifetime relationship with the agency, we understand that life brings with it many challenges, opportunities, and competing priorities. Fortunately, we were able to gather 15 of our approximately 25 former board presidents to tell the story of Community Action in this inspiring video created by the very talented Marco Calderon.

“The Presidents” from Marco Calderon on Vimeo.

We are all part of this community, and a piece of the solution to poverty lies within each of us. No matter how small you think your piece is, it means a lot. To us. To you. To your neighbors. To our community. You can be a help us eliminate poverty. You can help us make history.

This blog post is part of a three-part series, Community Action: Our Past, Present, and Future. The next installment will be posted on Friday October 9.

#UnitedWay #annualmeeting #economicopportuntiyact #Volunteers #communityaction #OlgaNegron

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