This post is the first of a two-part series on participatory institutions. The second will address participatory budgeting, following Chicago Alderman Joe Moore’s visit to Harvard on April 13th.

“Have you heard of Community Action?”

It was to my surprise that, as I asked this question to my peers over the course of several days, most students responded in the negative. The Community Action Program, which had arguably been one of the most innovative and controversial fronts in the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty, and had captured the hopes of the poor, the ire of prominent mayors, and the considerable annoyance of Congress for several years in the mid-60s, had somehow been relegated to a footnote on the Great Society. Despite the fact that 1,100 Community Action Agencies (CAAs) continue to service more than 16 million individuals every year, covering  96% of America’s counties with a variety of services, the immense transformation that Community Action has undergone since its inception has somehow shed the program of its novelty and inspiring promise.

The Watts Labor Community Action Committee in South Central Los Angeles

So what was Community Action, what has it become, and why does it matter? Community Action was born in the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which also created the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO)—a new agency charged as the frontrunner of the War on Poverty—and various programs such as the Job Corps, the Neighborhood Youth Corps, and the Neighborhood Youth Program. Community Action would require the federal government to funnel antipoverty money to various municipalities; local groups, led by the local CAA, would decide how to use these funds by designing and implementing their own programs. Crucially, Community Action mandated the “maximum feasible participation” of the poor themselves. What was innovative about Community Action was the idea, revolutionary at the time, that the act of participation itself could be transformative; what the poor needed was not the dole, but the opportunity to test their self-assurance to lift themselves out of poverty, and the means to develop and access capacity- and skill-building programs to corroborate that self-determination.

For a time, CAAs and the poor took the idea and ran with it. Agencies spread across the country, incorporating a multitude of different programs such as Head Start, Legal Services for the Poor, health services, and job training. In some areas, truly significant changes were made, such as the expansion of welfare rights and increased community involvement in education in New York City. However, giving the poor real space and real means to make and act upon demands had another consequence that the political establishment, especially in the socio-political context of the time, was not ready to so easily swallow. Community Action mobilized the poor, often in direct challenge to local government. In some areas, the poor protested against the government to demand better services. For example, in Syracuse, the local Community Development Association (CDA) began to mobilize to poor to take direct action for their needs. Residents were demanding protection from unjust evictions, better garbage collection, and the like, and launching marches against Mayor Walsh, which of course did not make him very happy. Mayors were quickly angered by such challenges to their authority, and this quickly led to the 1965 resolution by the US Conference of Mayors accusing “maximum feasible participation” of instigating tensions. Especially following the 1967 race riots, politicians pointed fingers at Community Action as fomenting unrest. While in some cases this may have been true, it was also often the case that local CAAs took action to ease neighbourhood tensions and advocate nonviolence.

Nevertheless, Community Action was not to be let off the hook. The federal government took increasing control of how CAAs’ money was to be spent, with increasing proportions used on “National Emphasis programs,” which were programs designed at the top by the OEO. Moreover, with the Republicans’ gain of 47 seats in the House in 1966, the Green Amendment of 1967 was passed, mandating that the CAA boards would now require one third representation of public officials, and one third representation of business and civic groups. The “maximum” in “maximum feasible participation” was being cast aside in favor of a new claim to the meaning of “feasible”. The Amendment also emphasized control by local public officials, mandating that CAA employees would not be allowed to protest or picket.

The combination of attacks from Republicans and states-rights Democrats, the increasing perception in some corners that Community Action was merely fuelling black militants, and increasingly diverted presidential attention toward a different war in Vietnam were all key factors in the transformation of Community Action. Each year, the attempt to gain enough funds to keep Community Action going strong was a struggle. The OEO itself was abolished in 1974 in favour of the Community Services Administration (CSA), representing the shift in focus from social action to the provision of social services. In 1981, under the Reagan administration, the CSA itself was abolished, and the CAAs were to be funded through a grant allocated to each state, meaning the end of direct federal funding.

Community Action, and its promise of maximum feasible participation of the poor, was about both recognizing the poor as able and perhaps better qualified to make judgments on their needs, as well as recognizing the participatory process itself as a powerful lesson in self-agency and self-respect. However, for many among the poor and among social activists, this recognition of individual capacity to make change translated into capacity to make demands of the state. This part did not jibe so well with many politicians, because to the poor, fighting poverty had to mean more than transformation of the individual into one that was fed, clothed, and educated—people wanted to transform the system. It meant ending discrimination, it meant more jobs and better pay, and it meant pushing local government to improve public services and infrastructure. It was perhaps a passionate desire that could not maintain federal support in a context where the urban poor also happened to be mostly black, and where therefore mobilization of the poor was colored by race and politics. This was how Community Action lost those initial explicit, legal foundations for a different kind of participatory promise, and was molded into a vehicle for service delivery.

This is not to say that Community Action has not left significant legacies, such as the increasingly mainstream norm of the participation of the “clients” in all kinds of programs, agencies, and bureaucracies. But when we consider why participation more broadly matters, what Community Action could not do gives us important insights. As an institutional space created by politicians, a program that led to active mobilization and contention against local government could not be sustainable. Was it a lost cause? Poverty clearly was about more than the individual, it was about the entire socio-economic and racial system. However, even given the context, Community Action could have developed differently. It could have fought government’s increasing neglect and decreasing funding, and community residents’ growing disillusionment. As a political institution, it could have from the start been an avenue and a space for the poor to cooperatively engage with public officials about their needs, and an opportunity for local politicians to take an active part in helping meet those needs.

With or without Community Action, the Civil Rights movement was bound to embroil many of the poor in mobilization against the legal and political order. However, just as CAAs were often active in bringing calm and order to communities in the wake of race riots, they could have become models of effective civil-political cooperation within that heated context. Community Action brought out to the open many of the underlying tensions of race, poverty, and political power, but it was a space that could not be used to meet those tensions in constructive ways. What does it take for a participatory institution to become an arena for the resolution of the pressing issues of the time? Context matters, but political leadership also matters, both on the part of existing political society’s willingness to support civic participation, as well as on the part of civic leaders to engage in cooperative behavior while acknowledging contentious context. Community Action lacked this mutual understanding and leadership from the beginning.

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