Editor’s note: This commentary is by Paul Dragon, who is the new executive director of Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity.
In July, I will start working at the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, a community action agency in northwest Vermont. The ideals that lead community action are embedded in social and racial justice. Community action agencies were part of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty which began in 1964. Yes, a war, a fight to end deep, divisive poverty in the wealthiest country of the world. There are five community action agencies in Vermont doing impressive outcomes-based work.
Still, I often think that community action agencies fight poverty and racial injustice with one hand tied behind their back. How can you truly succeed in a country with social and economic systems which, by their very nature, keep the poor and people of color on the margins? Systems that are so entrenched they affect the very way we see the world.
Many years ago, when my oldest daughter was 5, we were walking down Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C., when she saw a man asking for money. It was her first trip out of rural Vermont to a large city. “What is he doing?” she asked me. I told her that he did not have a place to live or enough to eat. She stopped, tugged on my arm, and would not move until I walked over and gave him money. And so, it went for the rest of our visit.
Martin Buber, the 20th century Jewish philosopher said there are two ways to connect in this world. One is through the “I and It,” seeing other living things as separate or other; the other is through the “I and Thou,” seeing yourself in the other. Most young children do not see through the dualism of I and It. They still have imaginations and can see themselves in others but gradually, over time, our social, economic, and educational biases accrue and take over.
We become adults with a molded worldview, sometimes thought of as progressive and liberal-minded until we realize it was a worldview built on shifting sands. So when tragedy strikes, exposing our worldview as hollow and our privilege as unearned, we scramble to retrace our footprints, as if lost in the forest, trying to recover a path we lost long ago. This, to me, is completely backwards.
It is better for us not to try and backtrack, but to spend the time to reimagine and build new, empathetic and community-minded institutions built on a solid foundation with our systems pointing true north; institutions that are based on our deep connection to one another and to the environment which we depend on. Western and Eastern wisdom will help us here as will modern science, which has demonstrated that all life is interdependent. As Democritus said over 2,000 years ago, the truth is in the depths. We need to look both beyond ourselves as well as within.
Poverty and racial injustice are closely linked. We must move equally on both fronts. Karl Marx once said that if a poor white man were to board a train and had a choice to sit near a wealthy white person or a poor Black person he would sit next to the Black because, he surmised, we primarily identify by class not race. Growing up poor, I believed Marx and the idea of class struggle, but I now know that is not the case in America where race and class are exploited by leaders who are adept at pitting poor white people against poor black people.
Community action agencies depend mostly on federal and state dollars. This money is insufficient to end poverty and eliminate racial injustice. We all know that, and we do the work anyway. But we want to do more than hold back the flood, which concomitantly supports an untenable status quo by providing “just enough.” Rather, we prefer the systemic and institutional change that will help individuals, communities, and our environment flourish.
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The community action work I look forward to is not content to preserve the status quo. The work is to advocate for an end to systematic and historic injustice. It is a demand for livable wages, universal health care, reparations for black and native American people and the restitution of nature, including our polluted sometimes toxic waterways. Systemic racism, systemic poverty, the hostility to our own environment are mutually destructive and all self-inflicted. We built it and we can now change it. The people who work for community action agencies are honored and humbled to do this work, and ask that we be released to do it with both our hands.