Alan Jennings’ 2015 Annual Meeting Speech

I was raised going to church. I thought I heard Pope Francis saying the same things in Philadelphia the other day that I was hearing in that church. As a nation of believers, whether Protestant or Catholic or Jewish or Muslim, we are all called to take what we need and leave the rest; that we should sacrifice in order to make room for those left behind; that we should treat others the way we hope to be treated.

So, when I see a small, virulent extreme element of our Congress or state legislature proving that government doesn’t work by cutting funding so much that it ensures that it can’t work, I wonder how many actually heard what Francis said. I wonder if they just block that out when it comes to a vote to cut taxes on the lucky few while cutting food assistance or housing subsidies for those on the margins.

Several years ago the youngest of my three daughters asked me this at the dinner table: “Dad, why do you always focus on the problems?” I stuttered for a moment, wondering how much therapy this kid would have to pay for having been raised by me. Then I recovered and said, “Well, how can I be effective trying to make the world a better place if I am not focused on the problems that need to be corrected?”

I am, despite being a grouchy, angry, impatient, pugnacious old goat, hopelessly optimistic and idealistic. And, I think many of you are, too (not grouchy, angry, impatient, pugnacious old goats, but hopelessly optimistic and idealistic). I am guessing that each of us can spare a little bit more time, a little bit more money and a little bit more energy to join us in making our world, our neighborhoods, our homes a little more hospitable to those who need us.

There are storm clouds gathering. Few of us can really predict any more accurately than a 69 News weather forecaster can predict the weather where our world is taking us.  But understanding how those clouds gather is key to figuring how to make them dissipate.

Racial conflict is so much more volatile than most people understand. Both sides believe the other side doesn’t get it. One side will say, “Why are you pressing me? I don’t own any slaves! ”  They don’t understand the subtleties of racism, like land use plans that require minimum lot sizes, or school funding formulas that do more than anything else to lock inequity into our society, or having a board of directors that is all white.

People of color see racism everywhere. We must find a way to coexist, using each other’s gifts as a buffer against the push in the wrong direction.

Stagnant wages mean more and more of us are falling behind. Between 1947 and 1973, workers’ productivity improvements resulted in higher wages. Since then there is little evidence of any gains of any significance despite considerable improvements in productivity. We must find a way to give some kind of advantage to the labor force.

The last several years have brought major change to the housing market: the millennials, who have little expectation of spending their entire career with one employer like many of their parents did, have minimal interest in being tied down to a home they own; incredible numbers of foreclosures have tossed lots of former homeowners into the rental market. Then there are those who never had any hope of owning a home and who won’t. All of this combines to put enormous pressure on the rental market while risking the equity people have in their homes.

The primary institutional workforce development mechanism is our public school system. Few believe that we are preparing our children as effectively as we once did. Far too many of our urban schools have a toxic climate where the peer pressure is to fail, not to succeed. Our secondary schools are increasingly failing our kids, leaving too many behind.

Finally, while women are appropriately making significant gains in the workforce and the broader marketplace, this doesn’t mean that the rising tide is, indeed, raising all boats. I would argue that most of today’s poverty is the result of women making bad decisions about men in their lives. Today’s inner-city girls lack the self-esteem to stand up to the boys and tell them to drop dead. Instead, they are allowing themselves to be judged by the babies they bear at far too young an age.  We need to change the power dynamic between men and women, between boys and girls.

So, here is what you can expect from your Community Action Agency in the year or more ahead:

  • We will continue to push a minimum wage increase whether our friends in the private sector agree or not; and, in my opinion, that minimum wage should be 30% to 50% higher than the measly $10.10 an hour we have been seeking and failing to pass
  • We are going to continue to expand our intervention in the housing market with emphasis on rehabilitating or razing homes where the conditions are worse than substandard and might not even belong in the Developing World, much less the greatest country on Earth
  • We hope that formal discussions will begin soon with some allied non-profits that develop affordable housing on the idea of strengthening our collective capacity by merging
  • The Water Fountain Project, formed to reduce wealth disparity, will develop campaigns to widen the wealth-building expertise of middle-class people of color and begin to narrow the college admissions gap between white and minority young adults
  • We will broaden the reach of our small business lending subsidiary known as The Rising Tide Community Loan Fund by adding a line of credit to our product line; we have already expanded our service territory into Monroe, Carbon, Wayne and Pike counties
  • We will use neighborhood partnership tax credits to invest at least $1 million in our urban neighborhoods.
  • We will try to find the funding to begin to intercept young urban teens from making the kinds of terrible decisions that can lead to a lifetime of problems.

I truly believe, and you may say I’m a dreamer, that the solutions to most of our problems are within our reach. We can find resources; but we lack the will.

The consequences of our failure to find real solutions have the potential to be disastrous. There are too many among us who are too quick to criticize, too slow to raise their hand to volunteer, too many among us who turn their backs rather than open their minds.  We can love our neighbors or we can fend for ourselves. We can see the world getting smaller every day and try to find common ground or we can blow each other to smithereens. We can pursue justice or we can crank up charity.

Fortunately, CACLV’s Second Harvest Food Bank will be poised to make sure that no one will go hungry because of our failure as a society to bring economic justice to our communities.

In November we acquired a building in East Allen Township that is three times the size of the building we expect to sell in the next few weeks. We were able to acquire the building thanks to a loan from National Penn Bank. All we have to do is pay the loan back. With selfless leadership from Anne Baum at Capital BlueCross and David Shaffer at Just Born and thanks to a lot of generous people, we have raised almost $1.9 million toward our fundraising goal of a little more than $3 million. Lately, David and Anne and I have been frustrated by the slow pace of the response to our appeals.

Enter Mike Gausling. For those of you who don’t know Mike, Mike is a super achiever driven by personal goals that few mortals can match. Along with his brilliant partners, who are here with Mike today, they created Orasure and located it in south Bethlehem. Mike has been a key leader on the board of CACLV as Treasurer, making sure that we succeed in all we do. I love that guy. When you are around him you know that mediocrity isn’t an option, much less failure.

Last week he lost the love of his life. Sharon was the kind of person who made you humble. She was gentle but resolved. She loved but held you accountable. She was smart but never made you feel dumb. Mike met her in Ohio and, together, they came to the Lehigh Valley where she practiced pediatrics, raised their son and made any of us who ever got to know her well better people. She honored us by being among us. Her passing leaves a gaping void.

To honor Sharon, Mike and their son, Andrei, a sophomore at Miami University of Ohio, have pledged $500,000 dollars to the capital fundraising campaign to pay for the warehouse. He has invited anyone who has not yet made a gift or pledge to join him, collectively, in matching his gift. This contribution is the largest contribution from a private citizen we have ever received. I can say without hesitation that this gift will ensure that no one, especially the precious little children who motivated Sharon the most, will go to bed hungry at night for lack of food in the emergency assistance system in the Lehigh Valley. The building that will enable us to increase the amount of food we distribute for years to come will now be called Sharon’s Pantry. Yes, giving it such a humble name when 8,000,000 pounds of food moving through a 65,000 ft.² facility to 200 non-profits in six counties that collectively feed over 65,000 people a month, epitomizes Sharon Gausling.

I have a pair of the best binoculars on the planet because Sharon wanted me to have them. I saw my first-ever Bachman’s Warbler in their backyard in Asheville, NC, thanks to Sharon.  In helping me see clearly what might have been a blur is a metaphor for the work I do. Ironically, I will never get to show Sharon the wood ducks that kept eluding her when we went looking for them. I will never again hear her espousing the dignity and virtue of the lowly turkey vulture.  I will never lose another game of Scrabble to her.  I will never give up on another argument with her.  My bluster and arrogance will never again be disarmed by her.

But I will think about her every day as we make sure that, indeed, nobody – nobody – will go to bed hungry again in the Lehigh Valley.

2 Comments

  1. Chris

    I’m just going to say it. The sales tax is already regressive. Now 1.5% more so. Meanwhile, the NIZ prints money for people who are already rich. JB Rielly and my homeless friends or the single parent working two jobs are all paying the same sales tax on goods…7.5 cents on the dollar for Mr. Rielly is not the same as 7.5 cents on the dollar for others. Add the fact that he is making buckets of cash on projects that are subsidized by PA tax payers at 80 cents on the dollar, not to mention the cigarette loophole. Add to that the $2.3 million the NIZ took from Allentown taxes in 2014, the $330,000 the NIZ took from Allentown School District taxes in 2014, the coming water rate hike, capital improvements, and, now, a possibly illegal EIT hike. Damn.

    Ed Pawlowski bought land we didn’t need and can’t use any time soon and paid for it with money from the lease of our water and sewers to the Lehigh County Authority. $1.5 million. Allentown residents will start paying for LCA’s capital improvements this year, in addition to a 2.5 percent raise in rates.

    The Allentown School District has no money.

    There’s no comprehensive affordable housing plan in Allentown, even as we read all about how great the Strata flats are.

    Allentown’s EIT hike, even if legal, is also regressive. It’s basically a way to engineer the first half of gentrification (getting poor people to move).

    The fact that the GOP in the State legislature are on board with a sales tax hike doesn’t do wonders for the charge that they don’t care about overtaxing the middle class.

    Won’t all of these new increases put even more people, ahem, on “poverty’s edge?” And what will it do to the ones already there? We know there aren’t enough rooms at the inn as it is.

    What am I missing? Please tell me.

  2. ajennings

    I’m not sure how the writer’s comments fit as a response to my speech, nor do I understand why he is asking us to justify the situation he decries. But I will respond to those comments, even though I have no expectation that he will agree with or even accept my response. So, as a blogger’s courtesy, here goes.

    I agree that the sales tax is regressive. Poor people spend all of their money just trying to survive, so paying more for what they do spend is unfair, especially since all of the revenue generated by the increased sales tax will be used to finance the property tax relief in the budget. So, those who own almost nothing will finance tax reductions for those who own something and, in some cases, plenty. That’s not right.

    Attacking JB Reilly, OK, I guess that’s easy for someone who doesn’t understand how to solve real-world problems. I’m a liberal (maybe you might even call me a radical) but folks on the left need to understand that we can’t have a functional community if the market is dysfunctional. We need investment. We need income diversity. In fact, we can’t have a functional market if everyone is poor. We’ll have lots of check-cashers, pawn shops and heroin merchants, but not a functional market. JB and the NIZ are delivering that. There are jobs where there weren’t any before. There is tax base where there was a dead economy. There is new development where there was blight. Is the writer really suggesting that the Allentown of 2013 is preferable to the Allentown of 2015 and its future?

    Mr. Cocca, not all wealthy people are evil. One can’t raise money from people who don’t have any.

    “Allentown School District has no money.” Actually, it has a ton, just not enough. But studies show that how much one spends is not nearly as much of a factor in determining the success of a school as is concentrating all the poor kids in one school district.

    “There’s no comprehensive affordable housing plan.” Actually, just about the entire city is more affordable than almost any suburban municipality. Also, I’m not aware of any city, at least in Pennsylvania, that has such a plan.

    Then there’s the water deal. Fact: pensions are killing all but those lucky few who have them these days. The mayor’s deal preserved those pensions AND saved the city from bankruptcy.

    Mr. Cocca, you can attack, you can complain, you can be a demagogue. But what the world needs is practical solutions because your ideology is useless without its practical application. What, exactly, is your ideology? No commerce, all poor people? No wonder the left is so ineffective in this country.

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