Political Poverty-phobia and the Future of Community Action
An Interview with Denise Harlow
by Rick Cohen for the Nonprofit Quarterly
Excerpts from interview with Denise Harlow, Chief Executive Officer of the Community Action Partnership
For Harlow, there are overriding elements of community action that “make our movement unique and impactful.” One is the tripartite board structure of community action agencies, a legacy of the commitment to the maximum feasible participation of the poor. One third of the seats on community action agency boards are held by low-income people; in theory, as it should be in practice, that makes community action agencies accountable to their stakeholders and committed to their engagement and mobilization. But when agencies get bogged down as program administrators, that sense of a movement of low-income communities calling for fundamental social change on the issue of poverty can get lost. Network members need help developing a theory of change that expresses what is distinctive about community action, what the cumulative effect of their programs and operations are supposed to accomplish...
Harlow takes over at a challenging time. Last year was the 50th anniversary of the Economic Opportunity Action. This year is the 50th anniversary of Head Start, and for many community action agencies, this year is their 50th anniversary, too. It is a time to demonstrate an image that Harlow told us about last year:
“I think our network has shifted. You serve the entire family; you’re not a Head Start family, you’re a Community Action family. I think we’re going to continue to transform ourselves to be responsive, helping the family from a macro perspective.…You look at our sophisticated agencies, they’re just incredible regarding the diversity of resources they bring in.”
It is the transition of community action back toward the future, a revival of community action’s deep commitment to solving poverty and to mobilizing their stakeholders in that cause. That’s not just Harlow’s challenge, but the challenge of the Community Action Partnership’s membership, and its national theory of change.
Community Action Partnership
The Community Action Partnership is a national, nonprofit organization that works to strengthen, promote, represent and serve its network of member Community Action Agencies (CAAs) to assure that the issues of poverty are effectively presented and addressed.
The Promise of Community Action
“"Community Action changes people’s lives,
embodies the spirit of hope, improves communities,
and makes America a better place to live.
We care about the entire community,
and we are dedicated to helping people help themselves
and each other.