MY CONTRIBUTION TO FINDING CONSENSUS IN A WORLD GONE MAD

I run a nonprofit organization. It is called the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley. As anti-poverty organizations go, it is pretty significant in size (95 employees and a $24 million budget). I have been here for 37 years. It isn’t a job; it is my life.

I feel like I spend most of my time trying to convince people that as a society we should care more about those we leave behind. Consequently, messaging may be the most important thing I do. Like a candidate on the campaign trail who has a “stump speech,” I have stump phrases that I have used and reused over the years. For lack of a better word, I called them “Jenningsisms.”

“Our ideology is only as useful as its practical application.” That’s one of them. The traditional line in the sand over which no politician is apparently allowed to step anymore should be a lot more blurred than the chasm into which moderates seem to get tossed these days.

I would be willing to bet that most of us, on both the right and the left, would agree with the following points:

If we believe in the marketplace, we ought to be able to agree that it should be fair.

There are plenty of ways that intervention in the marketplace is appropriate, especially if we can lift up those left behind without squelching the competitiveness of those who lead the way.

Random acts of kindness are nice. But they are random, meaning they are not systematic, planned, deliberate in reasoning through the consequences. It is difficult to lay claim to being a responsible steward of the resources entrusted to us when we act randomly. Systemic adjustments need to be based on common values, perhaps the most important of which is this: everyone must assume responsibility for their own behavior and nearly everything we do, especially when it comes to systems, should be designed to affect change in a way that brings those left behind into the mainstream. That doesn’t mean we should squelch individuality but it does mean that everyone should embrace behavior that contributes to civil society.

Competition is a good thing. It drives you to excel. Even “greed” can be a positive thing if it means expanding the pie and everyone gets a piece. The best community development program is called “profit.” The best anti-poverty program is a job that pays adequate wages. Public schools should work for everyone. Burning the planet is a bad idea. No civilian should own a semi-automatic weapon. The Bill of Rights is a brilliant document. Democracy is good.

My guess is that only a tiny sliver of the population would disagree with those points.

So here is my list of “Jenningsisms.” Some sound liberal, some sound conservative. I’d welcome push-back from any ideologue, regardless of whether your ideology has practical application.

Charity is what society does when it doesn’t have justice. We should pursue justice.

You can’t have a functioning community without a functioning marketplace. And you can’t have a functioning marketplace if everyone is poor.

Our country’s approach to poverty is barely an approach; it is, rather, a retreat, a full-blown, yellow-bellied, spineless denial of what a civilized society’s role in uplifting its most vulnerable should be.

When society turns its back on the children, let’s not be surprised when the children grow up to turn their backs on society.

Society is far more threatened when poverty and despair lead to apathy and dependence than when it leads to anger and activism.

You really can’t help someone who doesn’t want to help himself.

The highest form of self-sufficiency is civic participation.

The old strategy of fighting poverty by helping people escape the ghetto was a mistake. If we help the winners escape and leave the so-called losers behind, we concede the permanent ghetto. Rather, we should strengthen the neighborhood so that those who succeed choose to stay and there are no losers.

How can you think about your long-term career goals when you’re not sure where your next meal is coming from?

How we govern and fund public education has become the most effective way we lock inequality into our system.

If God is love, isn’t everything else pretty simple?

I’d like to be judged at least as much by who my enemies are as by who my friends are.

Patience is not a virtue; it is the luxury of the powerful, the comfortable, and the lucky. Don’t ask me to be patient on behalf of folks who are none of those.

Anger is simply passion with an edge.

I think I’m cynical enough to understand what I’m up against but optimistic enough to pick the fight anyway.

And, finally, what are you doing with all that money you’re making?

So, friends, let’s have at it. The sun is setting, the clock is ticking. Eternity isn’t looking so infinite.

4 Comments

  1. Jeffrey Fox

    Alan, I appreciate your passion and your well documented ability to do your “job” very well. You are well compensated, and perhaps rightly so, for doing such excellent work in your long-held position.
    “If we believe in the marketplace, we ought to be able to agree that it should be fair.”
    I share your belief the marketplace. I just do not know who gets to define what is “fair”. What you imagine to be fair would differ from others, depending on their unique and valid perspective. The concept of who gets to define what is “fair” applies not only to the marketplace, but, also to wealth, wages, rules, etc… There are two sides to every coin. I also believe that too few people participate in the things which affect them; from local to federal. The economy is not a zero-sum pursuit in which some can, and some cannot. All can benefit from a growing economy.
    “Patience is not a virtue; it is the luxury of the powerful, the comfortable, and the lucky. Don’t ask me to be patient on behalf of folks who are none of those.”
    IMHO, Patience is a virtue, it is learned, it is a choice. One must grow into a patient person. I would consider myself patient. At least more patient than some, not as patient as others. I would consider those more patient than I as wiser than I, at least in that regard. I do not have what you describe as the luxury of wealth or power. I do have a complex and unique set of influences which shape my perspective. Each of us has a unique perspective which shapes how they see the world. My perspective and view of the world has been honed through a set of circumstances which I would not wish upon anyone. It has helped to mold me into who I am at this moment. This includes learning to be more patient and more tolerant of others.
    “…and there are no losers.”
    I believe that in life there will always be “winners” and “losers”. The goal of having everyone “equal” will be doomed to fail. There will always be those who come in first, those who come in second and those who finish in last place. It doesn’t matter what label we give it or put on the trophy. The answer is to teach young people to learn from the “race”, to continually improve. To teach young people that things will be “fair” or “equal” is to set them up for failure. The world is not fair. The world does not see all as equal. That’s reality.
    “Anger is simply passion with an edge.”
    Although I do get your point, I believe anger and passion are two separate and distinct emotions. One can control their anger. Some easier than others. Anger is an outward expression of what is in your heart. Passion is different. One can be passionate about “hate”, which can be fueled by anger toward another person or group of people.
    IMHO, the main issue is a “heart” issue. We must change hearts to fully accomplish the goals which with we would agree. According to the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, …” First, we must change hearts and the government we desire will come from the governed.
    I think we diverge in the purpose, size and scope of government. A civil society cannot be gained by instituting government programs. We all want the same things. We may differ in our approach to the solution. Political rhetoric should not be infused into the institutions which provide help and hope to so many. Some of the comments under the section Federal Budget, on page five of the 2017 CACLV annual report, can be construed as political rhetoric in which your dislike of our current President, and his political philosophy, comes through. There are other statements on issues with which I do not agree. Those issues can be discussed. There are many who concur with much of the current federal philosophy and implementation. Those people should not be alienated or offended by the statements of CACLV. The official annual publication of CACLV should not reflect the personal views of the head of the CACLV. It is not only you’re organization. You remain an employee of CACLV.
    There are those who participate in CACLV outreaches whose do not agree with you regarding certain issues. There is a world other than yours. Those who believe, or approach issues differently are not wrong. Their unique perspective is different from the unique perspective you may have. There should be no “us” versus “them”. The current political climate and civil discourse is not, nor will ever be, productive. The political anger and rhetoric must stop if we are to have a true discussion of the issues. Decisions regarding the future should not be based solely on emotion. They must be based on facts.
    The problem(s) will not be eliminated or impacted by more money. There is a lot of waste and unnecessary spending at both the federal and state levels. More government(taxpayer) money isn’t the solution, at least long term. It may keep you employed. It may allow you to continue programming in the short term. But if the elimination of the problems is the goal, there must be a long-term solution. That long- term solution will not come from government or increased government (taxpayer) funding. Money will not solve the problems that exist within our society.

  2. Alan Jennings

    Mr. Fox –

    Thanks for the thoughtful commentary. It’s apparent, though, that your perspective on the agency is a little misinformed. So, for the record, I will offer a response to your comments in order to clarify the record.

    First, the reference to being “well-compensated” is designed, I’m guessing, to suggest that the cause isn’t as important as the salary. I am paid $105,000 per year to run this $24 million operation with nearly 100 employees. I have deliberately kept my salary low and article after article in the news, on the blogs, has used me as the comparison for others in the field, many, many nonprofit CEO’s whose pay is well above mine while running organizations a fraction of the size or impact.

    Your comments regarding our policy advocacy work suggest that we should stay out of that realm. CACLV is first and foremost an advocacy organization, identifying problems, bringing them to the attention of the wider community and trying to bring various stakeholders together to tackle those problems. We have a pretty good record of doing that.

    But we could run the best food bank in the country and Congress set us back to zero in just five minutes by cutting the federal nutrition programs. We have an obligation to do all we can to not let that happen.

    With respect to my opinions not representing the agency, you are flat wrong. I do speak for the agency. I don’t purport to represent every volunteer or donor and am proud that so many people, regardless of their politics, are actively involved with us. They number, literally, in the thousands.

    I agree on the quality of discourse today. I think our views and approach are well within the mainstream. But count me as angry when we take more from those who have so little and give to those who have plenty. I learned that in church, getting it from a guy named Jesus.

    Finally, we, too, are fiscally conservative. People say, “There’s cheap, then there’s CACLV cheap.” We are damn good stewards of the limited resources entrusted to us, with less than 9% going to administrative costs.

    We are glad you are part of our effort and appreciate your thoughtful engagement on the issues. Let’s do the good work that comes from consensus-building while having fruitful discussion on those issues on which we do not agree.

    Alan

  3. Jeffrey Fox

    ” what are you doing with all that money you’re making?”

    One could ask you the same question. Empathy. Even toward those whom you may not like. Easy? No. Better? Yes.

  4. Jeffrey Fox

    “I feel like I spend most of my time trying to convince people that as a society we should care more about those we leave behind. ”

    Some believe in doing good for others and believe in leaving a better place for future generations. They just do not believe government needs to or should provide for such. It is up to individuals to build a responsible society and be good stewards of that which with they have been entrusted. People should not be forced or coerced by government to do so.

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