Reflections of a Lifelong Civic Leader

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When I was in the twelfth grade in 1960, two members of my homeroom class were the first students arrested in the sit-in movement. In fact, the only time I ever got suspended from school is when a bunch of us students decided to go down to the hearing for the two who were arrested. I am now the mayor of Savannah, Georgia. But all along the way, I have been involved in community organizing. I was trained as a social worker in the community-organizing track and subsequently have functioned in various roles: doing social planning, sitting on the school board; building a public/private youth development initiative and serving as Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences at Savannah State University. But all of it has always been about building and organizing for a strong community.

There are two sets of principles that I live by as I work in all of these capacities. The first is the seven guiding principles of Nguzo Saba of Kwanzaa. These are: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. The second set of principles I observe is from the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi: To have the courage to change the things you can, to have the serenity to accept the things that you cannot change, and to have the wisdom to know the difference between the two. As an African American, those two sets of principles have guided my work.
I do believe that there is much that must be and can be changed to make this country and our communities healthy. I have had a life-long commitment to improving the conditions, specifically, of the African American community. That community in the city of Savannah represents fifty-seven percent of the population; in Chatham County, it represents about thirty-eight percent of the population; and in the state of Georgia, it represents approximately twenty-six percent of the population. So I’ve committed a lifetime of work to improving outcomes for African Americans and other impoverished people. I came from a poor background but I have been fortunate enough to have had opportunities. I have taken advantage of those opportunities and worked hard. Now, I’m paying my dues for life.

In the 60s we believed that we could make the United Sates what it proclaims to be; and the Community Action Program (CAP) agency, with its commitment to citizen participation, really appealed to those of us who wanted to make things right. That concept of maximum feasible participation spoke to the democratic ideal that I was taught in elementary school—and believed. So I jumped in to advance that ideal when I graduated from the University of Georgia and sought my first professional job opportunity. I believed that through that kind of work, I could, with other active people, make things right. Many other people believed it as well, and we all started acting like we should have maximum feasible participation—like it was our birthright—which I still believe it is.

But when the local citizens organized themselves, they naturally began challenging local governments, and those local governments challenged their representatives in Congress saying, “Hey this thing is getting out of hand. These people really believe that they ought to be in control! Do something!”

And so, the federal government started chipping away at the core intention or strategy of activating communities. They did so by changing the rules of the game. And that’s been the history in this country: when citizens from the grassroots level really get involved, the rules change. And so rather than allowing a majority of the citizens to make decisions about how this CAP money would be spent, the government changed the formula and made citizens less powerful than they originally were by giving the cities, counties, and school boards more representation. The governing bodies of CAP agencies were eventually broken down into thirds: the nonprofit and service groups had a sector, the government had a sector, and the citizens had what was left. Then along came Nixon who changed it substantially by overshadowing the CAP and taking most of its influence away with the Model Cities Program, which was totally under the control of local government.
In places like Oakland, you had some real struggles; many people have written about it. But there were struggles all over the country, especially where there had been strong CAP citizens’ groups. When Model Cities came along, those groups challenged the cities for control of those programs. From then on, slowly but surely, maximum feasible participation as a guiding concept got, and I don’t mean this in a nasty way, just got castrated. Since that time, there has never been a genuine citizen-controlled federally funded program. They’ve always found a way to have “citizen input and participation,” but never real citizen power over the way the program is operated or how the finances are controlled.

Now, as a result of this marginalization of citizens, the social issues of our own communities are being framed by government agencies, the leaders of the nonprofit sector, and planners from foundations and other philanthropic organizations. After they define our problems, they announce the programs, including the targeted recipients; this is true for both state and local initiatives. And of course because the folk at the neighborhood level need services of all kinds, they conform to the program—or do their best to influence it in some way. But most of the time they’re told, look if you want to participate in this service, this is the way it’s going to be, and either you conform or we’ll find another community that will.
Some leaders in government and foundations clearly believe if people are poor or if they are of color in this society, they don’t have the intellectual ability required to engage productively in the collective work and responsibility of making our communities whole. It goes back to slavery. The rationalization about why slaves should obey their master was that they weren’t smart enough to do anything else. Just follow what the master tells you because the master is the smartest and has your interests in mind. This is a kind of brainwashing that many ascribe to: the elites, in a “noblesse oblige” kind of mentality, must tell these folk what they need. And then—what a surprise—the folk rebel against it because what they’re being told has no relationship to the reality that they live. And then we charge them with being either apathetic or hostile according to how they respond. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And what do we have to show for this? We have spent probably hundreds of millions of dollars, and in most instances, have not changed communities in fundamental ways. The substantive issues are still there: poor education; high unemployment; juvenile delinquency; single mothers working as hard as they can, but because they lack skills, earning less than they need to support their families; bad health problems—you name it.

So if there were one thing I would want to see changed in the way we approach social issues, it’s the relationship that government, big foundations and many nonprofits have with our communities. There has been, at least over the past four decades, an unproductive top-down relationship between many of those institutions and the community. All of them need to figure out how to work with people in our communities as equal partners. People who live these issues every day have a different world view, and if they’re going to be a part of the democratic equation, we must consider their circumstances with a lot more respect.

Without romanticizing the notion, community for me is a building block of society. And so you move from families to communities to cities to counties to states to larger and larger aggregates of people until you get to world society. All of these units are inter-dependant and inter-related.

I guess the major message here is to listen and be accountable to the people impacted by whatever issue you’re concerned with. They will help you come up with ideas about how to solve these issues. Then, couple that with what we know from the research and from history, and out of that synthesis will come pragmatic approaches that I believe will have positive outcomes.

About the Author

Otis Johnson is the mayor of Savannah, Georgia, and a community builder.