In the 44 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared the War on Poverty, efforts to eliminate the vicious cycle of poverty have revolved around delivering services and commodities to the poor. Now a new way of thinking is emerging, one that focuses on creating community action against poverty by building coalitions that are needed to bring about change, to empower the poor, and to teach them to advocate for themselves so their voices are heard.
The Community Action Partnership (CAP) of Ramsey and Washington Counties developed the Low-Income Fellows Program in 2004 as a key part of its Blueprint to End Poverty. The Community Blueprint was designed to ensure the participation of low-income individuals and to increase low-income leadership around poverty issues.
In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty. St. Paul Mayor George Vavoulis and United Way Planner William Hoffman traveled to Washington D.C. to request funding from the newly created Office of Economic Opportunity, and William Hoffman became the first executive director of the Ramsey County Citizens Committee on Economic Opportunity (RCCCEO).
Originally, the RCCCEO served as a grant pass-through agency that funded other agencies to deliver services. In those early years, the agency focused primarily on the target areas of Summit-University, Selby-Dale, Frogtown, and West 7th Street neighborhoods, later expanding to include the West Side and the North End.
Each of the targeted areas identified its own needs and developed its own initiatives, which led the agency to offer food commodities and crisis assistance as well as community organizing opportunities to people with low incomes.
Through the years, spin-off programs were created, including the Westside Health Clinic and FARE for All. FARE for All was affiliated with the national group, a program encouraging participants to volunteer two hours of their time each month, in return for an opportunity to buy food or furniture at reduced prices.
In the late 1970s, the name of the agency changed to Ramsey Action Programs, Inc. (RAP) to emphasize the agency’s role in taking action against funding cuts that targeted programs for low-income people. New programs including Senior Nutrition and FARE Share began, and existing programs like Head Start and community organizing expanded.
In 2004, the agency became the Community Action Partnership of Ramsey and Washington Counties. The new name signified the agency’s re-focused strategy as a community catalyst for change and its expanded service area.
In the beginning, the fight was to amplify the voices of low-income people by grassroots organizing, holding demonstrations and marches, and challenging the bureaucracy. Today, although the purpose is the same, CAP operates a little differently: by using data as documentation, building alliances and partnerships, and by educating funders and policy makers.
Thanks to Kirk Hayes, Executive Director of Community Action Partnership (CAP) of Ramsey and Washington Counties, and to JoAnn Tesar and Sandie Albarella—also of CAP—for supplying information on the organization’s history.
In April, the Fellows Program will begin its fifth training class. Since the program began in 2004, 57 Fellows have participated in the six-month long program. Fellows are selected based on their past community involvement and their interest in addressing the issues and impact of poverty; they must also be representative of the cultural diversity of those in poverty. The program is funded by grants from the Minneapolis Foundation and the Bremer Foundation.
Once in the program, fellows take classes with an emphasis on leadership training and development, and receive a generous stipend for their participation. They attend monthly meetings to reflect on and examine their experiences. They learn how to apply their individual skills in relation to the Community Blueprint activities.
I recently visited with three alumni of the program and listened to their stories.
Roy Jackson left a job as a director of Parks and Recreation in Minneapolis to go back to school to finish earning his college degree. Due to his mother’s illness and death, he had to drop out of college with only 30 hours left to go. Unable to find a job, Jackson lost confidence.
“I began to doubt myself,” he says. “I needed to get on the right track. I needed a vehicle to give me back my self-worth.” Jackson credits the fellows program with helping him regain his self-confidence and giving him the chance to meet other people “who were going through the same things.”
After completing the fellows program, Jackson was accepted into the Wellstone Action Fellows Program and graduated in January. He is now working at CAP in a five-month training program. Jackson says that “the beginning of my process to get back into the community started with the Blueprint.”
Sina Black volunteered at CAP in 2003. She helped with voter registration at community events and put together a database for the East Metro Community Voting Project. At the time, she was participating in Project Success, another CAP program that provides support to individuals trying to become self-sufficient. Her case manager referred her to the fellows program. Hayes has high praise for Black’s organizational abilities.
Having graduated from the fellows program, Black now works at CAP as a Community Engagement Associate. Sina says that the fellows program has made a real difference in her life. “It has definitely helped my family,” she says.
Tonya Draughn knows what is like to live in poverty. She remembers the pain of being homeless. When she realized that her family needed help, she figured out how to navigate all of the systems that are there to help, but do not necessarily lift the poor out of poverty.
Her family’s experiences in homeless shelters raised her awareness of the cycle of poverty, as she began to notice many people going through the cycle again and again. She began questioning the way things were done. She made herself a promise that if ever given an opportunity to become involved, she would speak out.
Draughn was born and raised in St. Paul. As a child, she says, “I was lucky enough to have parents who provided for me. I never experienced poverty until I was on my own, with a child and a husband.” She now works for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.
While in the program, fellows become very connected to one another and come to regard each other as family, says JoAnn Tesar, CAP’s Executive Associate of Civic and Community Engagement. She says, “Most of our participants have not been involved in a group like this, other than in a therapeutic setting. They’re staying very bonded and connected.”
That need to stay connected has brought about an unexpected outcome, the formation of a Fellows alumni group. Draughn is the chairperson of the group, which is called LIFT (Low Income Fellows Together).
As a group, the alumni have gone out to advocate for the poor. They attend community festivals and events, and presented a workshop at the national Community Action Partnership’s annual convention.
Some alums are Capitol regulars, and have become heavily involved with the Legislative Commission to End Poverty, chaired by State Senator John Marty. Draughn recalls when her group of fellows approached Sen. Marty and asked him if they could help. “At that point,” she says, “he became our champion.” They are currently working with Sen. Marty and Rep. Carlos Mariani to create a formal advisory role to the commission.
By all accounts, the Low Income Fellows Program has exceeded expectations. Hayes says that in the beginning, “We hoped that individuals would be able to go on their own. We hoped that two or three people would get together.” Instead, she says, the program has grown and may someday help to bring about a critical mass of the poor and formerly poor advocating for themselves “It becomes real people power.”
Mary Thoemke, a lifelong resident of St. Paul, lives in the North End neighborhood. Now working as a freelance writer, Mary is retired from the St. Paul Public Schools. She also served as editor of the North End News, a community newspaper.