#100 Jul/Aug 1998

Community Action Agencies

Born amid 1960s strife, nearly 1,000 Community Action Agencies fight poverty all over America today. While CAAs deliver essential services, a renewed focus on citizen involvement and collaboration is needed […]

Born amid 1960s strife, nearly 1,000 Community Action Agencies fight poverty all over America today. While CAAs deliver essential services, a renewed focus on citizen involvement and collaboration is needed to win the ongoing war on poverty.

When Project Now Community Action Agency in Rock Island, Illinois, tried to convince the city to preserve and improve the Arsenal Courts public housing complex slated for demolition, it accomplished more than its immediate goal.

In 1993, Project Now began helping Arsenal Courts residents press city officials to rehabilitate rather than demolish the development, while Prairie State Legal Services filed a class action lawsuit to stop the demolition. HUD offered $1 million for rehab and threatened to withhold Community Development Block Grant money if the city proceeded with demolition plans. But the city still balked, so Project Now and residents continued to “bombard” officials to take action, Executive Director Vince Thomas said. Eventually, a federal court settlement determined that 60 units in the 305-unit development would be demolished, while another 20 would be converted into a social center and the rest would be rehabilitated.

During the dispute over Arsenal Courts, Terry Brooks, a resident of the development and member of a local organizing group called Quad City Alliance for Justice, led a march to City Hall to oppose the demolition. He subsequently ran against a city council incumbent and was elected as an Alderman in 1997. Project Now also had a hand in his election – though indirectly, since Community Action Agencies (CAAs) are barred from endorsing candidates for public office. But in the early 1970s, Project Now had begun working to change the city’s election system from an at-large to a ward system. After voters finally passed the measure 16 years later, Project Now filed suit to challenge the wards drawn by the city. The city was ordered to redraw the wards, which created a 40 percent African American district and helped to give Brooks, who is African American, a better chance to be elected.

While Project Now has also had other disputes with the city, Thomas said the city now sees his organization as a companion. Project Now also worked with HUD and developed partnerships with HUD officials during the Arsenal Courts struggle, Thomas said. After the matter was resolved, residents and the Statewide Housing Action Coalition (SHAC) of Illinois, of which Thomas is a member, presented awards to two HUD regional officials who helped push the city to rehabilitate the property.

“There are people in the system who are sensitive to the needs,” said Thomas, “but because of the bureaucracy they are not outspoken, so they need to be encouraged.” He added that Project Now doesn’t look for issues to agitate around, but when an issue arises that affects the low-income community, Project Now wants to be counted on to take a position. However, Thomas noted that Project Now actually engages in less advocacy and more service provision than in the years just after it was established in 1968.

CAA Services

Urging public officials to take action on poverty issues and involving community residents in such efforts has historically been central in the work of CAAs, created as part of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. Contemporary CAAs are generally less focused on advocacy and citizen activism but provide an array of services to 38 million Americans in urban and rural communities throughout the country.

“We have close to 1,000 CAAs covering virtually 100 percent of the geography of the United States,” said John Buckstead, executive director of the National Association of Community Action Agencies (NACAA). About 15 percent of Community Action Programs (CAPs) are run by local government and the rest by private nonprofit organizations, according to Buckstead, who once worked in the Office of Economic Opportunity’s (OEO) Kansas City, Missouri, regional office. OEO was the federal agency initially responsible for the War on Poverty programs.

“[CAAs] enjoy the support of their local communities and they respond to the needs of their communities as defined by those communities,” Buckstead said. “They’re not single-purpose agencies – they’re comprehensive.”

Project Now, for example, serves a three-county mixed urban, suburban, and rural area with nearly 20 programs. Project Now’s range of services includes: Head Start/Home Start pre-school education; a food-buying cooperative and a community garden; various senior services, including a senior center and elderly outreach, meals for the elderly, a nutrition program for Spanish-speaking elderly, and a senior employment program; a program to serve latchkey kids and their parents by providing a meal and place to stay after school; and affordable housing development and property management. Thomas said he tries to encourage staff to consider whether the agency is offering a particular service because it’s needed by the community or because there’s money available for that service.

Collectively, CAAs run about 40 percent of the nation’s Head Start programs – also begun under the Economic Opportunity Act – and they are the primary deliverers of the Low Income Housing Energy Assistance Program, according to Donald Sykes, director of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Community Services (OCS). OCS administers the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) that provides core support to CAAs, and it funds NACAA to assist CAAs through regional and national conferences and trainings.

CAAs receive 90 percent of states’ CSBG funds, Sykes said, while state governments use 5 percent for administration and 5 percent for additional service programs, which may or may not be run by CAAs. According to NACAA, CAAs have been able to leverage an average of $13 for every $1 of CSBG funding. To varying degrees, CAAs receive money from private and foundation sources, and most receive additional county, state, and federal funding, including HUD funding for emergency shelter programs and affordable housing development.

“Many CAAs have become another quasi-governmental institution, but they’re not primarily an advocacy organization or an instrument for change,” commented Pablo Eisenberg, the recently retired executive director of the Center for Community Change, who also worked for the OEO, first as coordinator of Pennsylvania operations and then as deputy director of the Research and Demonstration Division for Community Action Programs (CAPs) in the 1960s.

“They’ve changed like the country – become more conservative,” Sykes said of CAAs overall, adding that they have not often enough encouraged people to be involved in recent years.

Yet Sykes said that CAAs provide essential services, their coordination with state and local government has had positive effects, and they’ve played a central role in developing a generation of minority community leaders who have assumed important positions in government and the private and nonprofit sectors. CAAs have also been important in championing the needs of low-income people in rural areas, Eisenberg commented. In rural areas of Minnesota and Wisconsin, for example, CAAs have begun developing housing for the increasing numbers of low-income Latino workers who have moved there and had trouble finding decent affordable housing.

An attempt to get CAAs more involved in public policy is found in NACAA’s 1996 National Dialogue on Poverty [see sidebar], noted Eisenberg, who served on the initiative’s advisory group. Sykes said his office has also worked to invigorate the Community Action Network, and training and technical assistance funds for CAAs have recently increased from $200,000 to $5 million. Sykes, who served as a CAA director in Milwaukee for 22 years, said he tried to support community organizing in that role, but – as many community development corporations (CDCs) know – such efforts proved difficult to fund.

The Early Years

At least some of the planners of CAAs envisioned them in the tradition of the New England town meeting and initially wrote the legislation to encourage the “maximum feasible participation” of poor citizens in local anti-poverty efforts, according to Daniel P. Moynihan’s 1969 book Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding. Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding traces the confluence of social science theory that gave rise to CAAs but emphasizes the “inexcusably sloppy work” of federal officials and staff who created the program. Clearly, some working in the OEO had more ambitious intentions for the community action program than did others, including OEO Director Sargent Shriver. Congress struck the phrase “maximum feasible participation” from the Economic Opportunity Act before it was passed, but a number of people running CAAs worked toward that goal.

Begun during the height of the civil rights movement, many CAAs began pushing local government for change. CAAs “appear to have often been captured by the civil rights movement and caught up in the dynamics of political struggle,” according to Carmen Sirianni and Lewis Friedland in a paper presented to the American Sociological Association in 1995. Many local officials were taken aback by their federally funded critics and registered their complaints with Washington. In 1967, Democrats in Congress supported and passed a measure to give city governments more control over CAAs/CAPs.

“At the risk of oversimplification, it might be said that the CAPs most closely controlled by City Hall were disappointing, and that the ones most antagonistic were destroyed,” Moynihan says in his book.

UCC of Newark, NJ

One of the early CAAs that came under fire was United Community Corporation (UCC) in Newark. After the infamous Newark riots in the summer of 1967, Newark Mayor Hugh J. Adonizzio charged that UCC was stirring up dissent. While, according to Moynihan, “it was generally agreed that the United Community Corporation had not sponsored the demonstration in front of the fourth precinct house, following which the riot began neither was it much disputed that UCC employees had been among the demonstrators, or that leaflets calling for the gathering were run off on UCC equipment.”

Since the riots, UCC has weathered 31 years and a financial crisis that almost led to its end and is now a much different organization, according to Executive Director Floyd Melvin.

The current mission of UCC is “to provide comprehensive services for low-income families and individuals in crisis or at risk, to focus its commitment to providing a multiplicity of social, educational, recreational, and developmental programs to improve and stabilize the quality of life in the community.” Melvin said UCC’s main thrust is family, from infant to grandmother, and its primary services include education and employment training, such as free computer classes through a contract with a firm that provides general job readiness counseling along with computer training. UCC, which serves on the board for Newark’s Enterprise Zone, stresses its role in facing up to “the monumental task” of helping people, some of whom struggle with drug problems, attain long-term employment.

In contrast to some agencies that work with low-income people, Melvin said that UCC does not turn away people who are difficult to serve. Since the late 1960s, UCC has offered emergency shelter services. Its program now includes a 60-bed facility with showers, laundry, and hygiene articles, along with case management services, including referrals to various health professionals.

Like many CAAs, UCC has more recently begun to develop housing. Last March, UCC held a groundbreaking for its first project, 36 affordable homes for low-income families and a community center offering health counseling and other services. Melvin noted that there’s especially heavy competition for affordable housing development funds among nonprofit organizations in Newark.

As the city’s designated poverty program, UCC has provided funds and assistance to other CBOs for various programs. Melvin said that, for all the community services it provides, UCC doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. For example, UCC provides holiday food baskets and toys for children. “Some kids otherwise wouldn’t be able to get that,” he points out. UCC Housing Director Gin Cohen added that UCC needs to become better at marketing itself and demonstrating how its programs benefit the community.

UCC remains involved in some larger community issues, such as a recent community uproar in reaction to a comprehensive plan to rehabilitate housing in a section of Newark and the adjacent city of Irvington. The New Jersey Housing Mortgage and Finance Agency planned to dismantle housing in the neighborhood without any substantive resident involvement, but the controversy led UCC to come into the process to facilitate, working with residents on a plan to relocate people appropriately and provide financial support. Residents were not treated like cattle, Melvin said: “They had a say in how construction was to come about and are still playing a major role in that project.”

Melvin said he’d like UCC to be a more vocal advocate, but “you don’t get money for advocating for the poor, you get money for services.” He added that the only possible way to change that would be for the federal government to once again directly fund CAAs, which changed under the Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 1981.

Just prior to that, UCC had faced questions over the spending of funds (before Melvin’s tenure). The federal government gave UCC 60 days to come up with $2.5 million that was incorrectly spent. Soon after, President Reagan tried to dismantle CAPs and cited charges of financial mismanagement in that effort, Melvin noted. Similar attacks on CAAs by conservatives, veiled in questions about the use of funds, date back to the program’s origin.

“Community action was created for people to have a voice,” Melvin commented. “Who wants you to do that? Not politicians.” Though UCC in its early years was instrumental in helping local black and Latino leaders develop their skills and eventually seek public office, Melvin added, “I think some of them have forgotten from where they came.”

Involving the Community

CAAs have a “tripartite” board structure, made up of one-third public officials, one-third private sector professionals, and one-third community representatives, who may be low-income residents but could also be representatives of the poor. Public officials on UCC’s current board include Newark Mayor Sharp James and State Senator Wynona M. Lipman. Melvin said UCC tries to have equal citizen representation on board committees. The organization’s planning councils also elect one community representative for each ward in Newark, though Melvin acknowledged that some planning councils are more active than others.

Some feel that “the tripartite board dilutes [CAAs’] ability to be the true voice of the community,” commented Robert Zdenek, who has served as executive director of National Congress for Community Economic Development and economic development director of New Community Corporation (NCC) in Newark, which has also faced questions about the degree and nature of resident participation in its projects.

John Buckstead of NACAA says the tripartite boards have been a positive factor and have enabled elected political leaders to see first-hand the needs of low-income people. He added that over time, most communities learn ways to deal with tensions concerning the undue power of elected officials and business leaders.

CAAs must also seek community input each year in order to submit Community Needs Assessments for CSBG funding. The Community Assistance Network (CAN) in Maryland taps into a network of community- and faith-based groups during this process, according to Executive Director Bob Gajdys, who once worked for the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs and, a Native American himself, advised the federal government on Native American issues when the initial CAA legislation was drafted. CAN, which is the designated CAA for Baltimore County and assists other CAAs around the state, also participated in NACAA’s National Dialogue on Poverty.

CAN has been willing to prod public officials if need be, according to Gajdys. For example, Dick Doran, CAN’s associate executive director, is president of the Baltimore County Housing Coalition and “had to send the county executive a letter saying his housing policy was inadequate.” And CAN’s involvement in the controversial Moving to Opportunity program, which involved relocating low-income people from high-poverty city neighborhoods to low-poverty suburbs, particularly involved advocacy and fighting entrenched bias. [see Shelterforce # 79]

However, Gajdys noted that MTO was eventually killed in Baltimore due to the community uproar, which he said shows that it’s sometimes important to work in partnership with local government in order to be an effective advocate. He also said that, while he’s seen CAAs over the years that have not involved the community enough, he’s seen cases in which community involvement was too great, in that it was merely disruptive.

Working with local government is critical, Gajdys continued, in light of devolution and welfare reform. While CAN continues to provide typical CAA services, such as energy assistance and weatherization, the organization’s increased housing and economic development reflects a general trend among CAAs. CAN has recently focused on work-related issues, such as the out-migration of jobs beyond the Baltimore Beltway. CAN assists people in both city and rural areas, and Gajdys said the needs of low-income people are basically the same everywhere: access to jobs is the dominant issue.

CAN recently negotiated an agreement with the Census Bureau to employ people moving off welfare in the Baltimore region in a national data capture center for the upcoming 2000 census. The effort is expected to employ 3,500 in the region and 6,000 statewide. Gajdys said CAN has been working with government and private business to transition workers from jobs with the Census Bureau into permanent employment. Clorox® and Rite Aid® are among the companies with distribution warehouses on the Interstate 95 Corridor in Maryland that may employ some of these workers.

Gajdys noted that it’s crucial for CAAs today to learn to operate like businesses, to be efficient and productive. “Fifteen years ago,” he said, “an executive director of a community action agency would not have said that.”

Macro CDCs

Sound financial management is crucial “when you’re touting a lot of opinions,” said Joyce Dorsey, executive director of the Fulton Atlanta Community Action Authority, a private CAA that began in 1991, after Atlanta’s previous CAP program had ceased. Dorsey encourages renewed activism among CAAs. “We’ve become complacent for fear of defunding,” she said during a Community Action policy forum convened by NACAA in Washington, DC, in April. She urged forum attendees to work with other groups fighting poverty to bring attention to their issues. “Corporations understand this,” she said. “They’re linking globally. We’re not linking locally.”

Indeed, CAAs sometimes work apart from other groups doing antipoverty work, such as CDCs and especially community organizing groups. Observers attribute this to various factors.

“One reason is that organizing groups look at CAAs as instruments of the establishment,” said Pablo Eisenberg. This view is nothing new. Moynihan writes that Saul Alinsky took a dim view of CAAs at their inception, even as some who became active early in CAA/CAP history – such as Vince Thomas of Project Now – were influenced by Alinsky-style organizing.

CAAs also primarily belong to NACAA and state CAA associations, while CDCs and community organizing groups have separate networks. Though some CAAs are members of the National Congress for Community Economic Development, for example, (see article, this issue) the majority of the organization’s members are CDCs. Roy Priest, NCCED’s executive director, attributed the gulf between CAAs and CDCs mainly to their different origins and primary funding streams.

Yet CAAs were in a way the precursors to CDCs. According to Sirianni and Friedland, “The ferment of self help and community leadership development in and around Community Action helped to spur independent capacity building projects,” which indirectly spurred the growth of the CDC field. Today, CAAs and CDCs alike are challenged to engage in more advocacy and organizing while being diverted by the need to show funders and their communities that they can produce tangible results.

Donald Sykes of OCS maintains that “there are no canned CAAs or CDCs,” and that each community has its own variety. Where CDCs typically focus on a particular neighborhood, said Joyce Dorsey of Fulton Atlanta, CAAs can be seen as “macro CDCs,” addressing poverty on a city-wide and sometimes regional level. She added that groups fighting poverty are too focused on their own territory and promotion, rather than advocating for low-income people.

Fulton Atlanta regularly shares information with other CDCs, CBOs, and service providers in its community, Dorsey said during a recent telephone interview. Partnerships are crucial in Fulton Atlanta CAA’s mission to help families achieve self-sufficiency, added Yvonne Thomas, the organization’s director of programs and services. Fulton Atlanta has served 200,000 people since it began, with activities that include energy assistance, senior services, homeless assistance, mortgage counseling, a homeownership workshop, and a Youthbuild program. “We can’t do it alone,” Thomas said. “We have to make sure we have a continuum of services provided to families.”

Fulton Atlanta also worked with students, tenant leaders, and others to turn out the largest audience of the cities participating in NACAA’s National Dialogue on Poverty, Dorsey said. Fulton Atlanta is also collaborating with the local Latin American Association and NAACP chapter to bring gubernatorial candidates to community forums before the upcoming elections. Dorsey noted that while CAAs cannot endorse candidates, they’re legally allowed to conduct forums to educate voters and to encourage low-income people to advocate for themselves. “There have been many attempts to legislate us away from this feature of community action,” she added.

Vince Thomas of Project Now said it’s important for CAAs to continue citizen education efforts, especially when faced with increasing prejudice against the poor. Bob Gajdys of CAN in Maryland attributed this prejudice to the misconception that poverty exists because of people who don’t want to work, but he noted that 10-15 percent of the 50,000 people that CAN assisted last year were welfare recipients and the rest were working poor. Thomas said Project Now has encountered NIMBY resistance to low-income housing developments, even among minorities and people of modest means. He said that  after projects have been completed Project Now has tried to follow-up with residents who have voiced such complaints, to show that the housing hasn’t hurt the neighborhood.

Thomas added, however, that CAAs and other groups that are serious about resident education and participation also need to be prepared for the potential consequences. “Everyone says, ‘Empower the people,’ but then maybe the people want to see some changes in your own organization,” he said. He added that CAAs and CDCs are learning this, though some reluctantly.

To build on the impact of its work, Project Now tries to support the growth of resident-based organizations in communities that lack such groups, Thomas said. For example, in the Florenciente neighborhood of the neighboring town of Moline, Project Now sponsored a class on the area’s history and invited representatives of other CBOs to speak. During the class, Project Now also encouraged residents to ask the city for a copy of the Con Plan, which elicits community participation in the spending of HUD Community Development Block Grant funds, and to become familiar with the plan in general. Project Now has also made space in one of its commercial properties available to residents that have started a neighborhood watch group.

Thomas said that the many scattered efforts by CAAs and other groups to revitalize low-income communities give him hope that progress can be made against poverty. But such programs need to be replicated on a large scale, he said, to have a dramatic impact on poverty – the kind of impact the War on Poverty programs of the 1960s were created to bring about.

A National Dialogue on Poverty

During the spring and summer of 1996, nearly 500 Community Action Agencies (CAAs) around the country brought their communities together to develop solutions to economic and social problems that continue to resist the efforts of CAAs and other community-based organizations.

“One of the raps for CAAs is that the War on Poverty wasn’t successful because there’s still poverty,” said John Buckstead of  National Association of Community Action Agencies (NACAA). The resources to fight poverty are insufficient, he said, but CAP agencies have been doing a pretty effective job in fighting poverty nevertheless.

The National Dialogue on Poverty, spearheaded by NACAA but locally sponsored by individual CAAs, aimed to deepen the impact of CAAs’ work by helping move poverty issues to the fore of the national agenda, bring low-income people into the policy-making process, and develop a vision of how to transform the nation and communities over the next few years.

Based on results gathered from more than 3,000 local dialogues that brought out 150,000 people in 48 states altogether, the demand for good jobs was the top priority – before housing, health care, food and nutrition, and education – in 64 percent of the communities. This indicates that Americans want to be self-sufficient and self-supporting and could meet their needs with good jobs, Buckstead says in the executive summary of the NDP final report.

Buckstead said NACAA is encouraging CAAs to follow up on the information gathered though the NDP, and the organization is also now planning a Dialogue 2,000 to continue the effort to re-engage Americans, especially poor people, with each other and the process of public policy development.

For more information, contact NACAA, 1100 17th St, NW, Suite 500, Washington, DC 20036; 202-265-7546; . (ed note: NACAA has since changed its name to the Community Action Partnership.)

Back to main article.


  • National Congress for Commuity Economic Development (NCCED)

    July 1, 1998

    More than three decades after the community development field began to grow by leaps and bounds, community-based development organizations are still taking on the same challenges they did in the […]

  • CDC Networks and Intermediary Organizations

    July 1, 1998

    As the community development industry has grown, networks, associations, and intermediaries have developed to support CDCs and other community-based organizations. Some provide funding, some offer training, and others provide direct […]

  • Cities Back from the Edge: New Life for Downtown, by Roberta Brandes Gratz

    July 1, 1998

    In The Living City: Thinking Small in a Big Way (2nd edition, John Wiley & Sons, 1994), Roberta Brandes Gratz wrote about urban rebirth from the bottom up, with a […]