Fifty Years of Community Action in Gloucester: 1965-2015
On Thursday, May 28, 2015, Gloucester’s antipoverty agency, Action, Inc., celebrated its 50th anniversary with a reception and concert at The Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport. The following remembrance of my three decades of involvement in Community Action for Cape Ann is dedicated to the caring professionalism of those with whom I worked and to the extraordinary people we served, all of whom enriched my life immeasurably.
“Social work, especially as we practiced it at Action, can be seen as opposition to arbitrary power.”
When I was growing up in Gloucester during the Second World War, I experienced how some of my schoolmates lived in sprawling, rickety tenements, crowded in with parents and grandparents, as the war raged and most of the men were overseas. But it wasn’t until I went to work at Action, in 1972, that I began to understand the true extent of poverty on Cape Ann. It was then that I was forced to confront the potential consequences of this condition in terms of family violence, substance abuse, alcoholism and crime. That was the real poverty, I came to understand, not simply the fact that people didn’t have money or jobs or decent places to live.
At first the agency didn’t want to give me the job I’d applied for as “home visitor” in a new research and demonstration program called “Home Start.” The purpose of the program was to explore a home-based option for the popular and extremely effective Head Start preschool programs, which soon became the signature of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. The Home Start concept considered mothers to be the primary educators of their children. What the agency hoped to create for the group of mothers who entered the program (there would eventually be a total of 300 families enrolled) with their one- to five-year old children was a base of support that centered on the home visitor, a teacher and resource person, who would visit the family on a regular basis, providing the mother with educational materials, personal and moral support, and parenting skills enhancement. The program would also provide mental health counseling and family therapy for those who needed it, comprehensive health care, nutritional information, further education for mothers who wanted to re-enter the workforce (many were on public assistance), and a steady, helpful, friendly presence in the person of the home visitor for normally young single mothers, who had become isolated as a result of poverty, abuse and abandonment. Most of our client families lived in public housing, which, if more affordable to them, presented its own problems, not the least of which was isolation, as poverty became increasingly ghettoized in the nation.
In reviewing my application for the position of home visitor, the board of directors found me suitable for the agency; but some members had reservations about hiring a newly single man, who would be entering the homes of what they considered to be vulnerable young women. Wouldn’t it be better, they suggested, for me to be given the job of family services coordinator, along with an office of my own, where the mothers could come to me if they wished? On the surface it seemed a good compromise, though I had no experience in social work or counseling and the position paid less than that of a home visitor.
As it turned out, the job was a good fit. I loved the program and its new staff which, like me, had been recruited entirely from the community, based largely on our knowledge of Gloucester and our experiences living in the city. For several months we were trained together in the principles of child development and early childhood education by professionals from the Harvard School of Education and other institutions that offered cutting edge approaches to working with parents and children. I was also given training in basic counseling and social work skills. Later, as I took on more responsibilities in the agency, Action paid for social work courses and professional enhancement seminars at the Boston University School of Social work and at several area hospitals that offered intensive training in mental health issues.
As much as I provided referrals and direct services for the families in our program, including visits to the pediatrician for families who had no means of transportation, I also began to advocate for them if they faced eviction, residential health code problems, or issues with public housing. I learned how to deal with the welfare and Social Security systems, with health insurance providers, skills I had never previously developed but that were indispensable in helping us to educate our clients , about the services and benefits they were entitled to by law and by virtue of their poverty.
There were those in Gloucester who felt threatened by Action or who disliked the agency’s presence in the community. Some city councilors ludicrously insisted that there had been no poverty in Gloucester until the federal government declared its presence here under the guise of Community Action.
Although we received a significant portion of our funding from the federal Office of Economic Opportunity, which was established in 1964 to administer the nation’s antipoverty programs, we were a private, non-profit educational and charitable organization, with its own board of directors, consisting equally of members from the public sector, the private sector, and clients of the agency. This tripartite structure was unique to the War on Poverty, allowing maximum feasible participation of the poor in the agency’s program planning and the implementation of its policies. Local agencies were not only allowed but encouraged to set their own agendas, so long as they came under the broad mission of Community Action, which was to advocate on behalf of the poor, while addressing the root causes of poverty in each community. (Enzo Giambanco, father of Gloucester mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken, was president of Action’s board of directors during my early years in the agency, and our mayor has long been one of the agency’s staunchest supporters.)
It was a noble mission, one that has scarcely wavered in the half century of Action’s life and the life of Community Action in the nation at large, even in the face of obdurate legislators and the onslaught of an anti-government ideology under Ronald Reagan and his heirs in the Tea Party. And while it may have seemed ironic that an antiwar activist like me, who had railed against the federal government for taking our country into an illegal and unnecessary war in Vietnam, was working in an agency much of whose funding came from that same government, those of us who became soldiers in the war to liberate the poor (another irony) felt that our mission was part of what government should be doing, in its role as intervener of last resort.
I went to work each day feeling good about my job and about myself. I believed in what I was doing. I could see daily the results of working with mothers and their children, to empower the mother and help the child with learning and socialization skills. There were mothers who entered the Home Start program as high school drop-outs on welfare. Today they are teachers with master’s degrees or practicing law. Some started their own businesses. Others became social workers themselves or directors of early childhood education programs. And in almost every case, their kids finished school and went on to college. Some who were three years old when we started the program in 1972 are married today and raising their own families. None of them live in poverty.
Statistics exist to prove the value of Head Start and the Home Start option, which is still offered by many Head Start programs. It’s an option that I still feel good about having helped to create, along with fifteen other R&D programs nationwide (for several years, ABT Associates in Cambridge conducted an in-depth evaluation of Home Start, which showed the program to have been both highly beneficial educationally as well as extremely cost-effective). Our philosophy was to offer our families the broadest range of options so that they could choose freely among those which they most needed to free themselves from the privations of the welfare system. Instead of perpetuating poverty, our mission was to end it. Though we were ultimately unable to eliminate poverty, and there is a higher percentage of impoverishment in the United States today than when Lyndon Johnson declared war on it, and less money or will to impact it, those of us who spent our lives in Community Action continue to believe that the successes of the program have outweighed its failures.
From 1966 until 2002, the agency’s central offices were located in a former elementary school building on 24 Elm Street, in the heart of Gloucester’s downtown. Built in 1820, the yellow clapboarded building with Italianate windows had housed the Red Cross after it was closed as the Rogers School. For years all the agency’s program managers and staff, including the receptionists, secretaries, bookkeepers and community organizers, were crowded into tiny offices on both floors of the old schoolhouse, separated sometimes only by room dividers that were hung from the ceiling by wire. Before the advent of the Xerox machine we used fluid duplicators; and before the agency could afford electric typewriters or computers, before even the advent of the PC, we wrote our reports and composed our correspondence on antique manual typewriters. The furniture consisted of dark green military surplus desks, file cabinets and metal desk chairs of nondescript design. We liked to joke that it had come to us directly from the Philippines, though in actuality we often requisitioned what we needed from the Portsmouth Naval Base. The city of Gloucester had given us the building for one dollar a year in rent, though its upkeep was the agency’s responsibility.
A Neighborhood Youth Corps program provided after school tutoring and part-time work for teens. Jobs 70, a precursor of the CETA employment and training programs, helped out-of-work parents. Head Start was run out of the agency with classrooms in several local church basements, while Home Start was housed in the former Gloucester Daily Times building on Center Street, where we had offices on the first floor and a day care center with state-of-the art educational materials on the top floor. The agency provided legal assistance to low-income families and home care for elders. There was family day care for working parents with children and an after-school program for school-age kids. Soon after I came to work, in 1972, a volunteer program for retired elders called RSVP would begin, along with programs providing fuel assistance and weatherization to eligible individuals and families. For several years, after the demise of the Gloucester Auto Bus Company, the agency also ran the city’s public transportation system, calling into service a fleet of military buses that we painted blue.
But at the heart of the agency were the community development, community organization and advocacy programs. L. Denton Crews was executive director when I first came to work. An ordained minister with years of experience in the civil rights movement, Denton was a bright, articulate manager, who guided Action from its inception, primarily as the grantee for Head Start, to its expansion into a multi-purpose agency addressing a range of community needs. When Denton left to become an aide to Rep. Michael Harrington, community organizer Bill Rochford took over as executive director. Bill had a degree in social work from Boston College, and under his direction Action moved in two significant directions, community development and advocacy. Community Development director Dr. Carmine Gorga made a study of the fishing industry with a view to enhancing its sustainability as the city’s primary industry. He and the community organizers helped to create the United Fishermen’s Wives, a group of women who became fierce advocates for the industry. Carmine also started the first worker-owned business in Gloucester, a small company that made finger foods and other hors d’oeuvres from fresh fish that were flash frozen and distributed nation-wide. It was at this time that the agency also took over from the city the former Gloucester High School and Central Grammar building on Dale Avenue to develop, under the direction of architect Kirk Noyes, the community’s first private elderly housing complex. Many natives soon found themselves living in rooms in which they’d gone to school.
What was equally important for me and for our mission was what went on behind the doors in that little yellow schoolhouse on Elm Street. The staff met often to critique our programs and to speak about the grants we wanted to apply for. We discussed questions of poverty and how we hoped to address them. All of our program activities were driven by a rigorous planning process, the main document for which was an annual work plan, which laid out exactly what we hoped to achieve with each initiative, how we meant to reach our goals, and how much money and staff participation were required to fulfill our objectives.
After three and a half years in the Home Start program, Bill Rochford asked me to join the advocacy and housing program, which I would later come to direct. Settling into my new assignment, I began to participate in the daily excitement of an agency that had survived an attempt by the Nixon administration to destroy Community Action. Conservative Republicans, adamantly opposed to the War on Poverty, managed in 1973 to force the closing of the Office of Economic Opportunity. However, after friends of Community Action in both parties lobbied strenuously for its continuation, the opponents succeeded only in transferring the Community Action programs to a newly created Community Services Administration, thus preserving pretty much intact the nation’s flagship antipoverty programs like Head Start, along with agencies like Action that administered them.
Just when we most needed an attorney to help clients file answers to eviction complaints or to appeal welfare terminations, Marshall Williams arrived. Newly retired to Rockport and anxious to serve, Marshall was in his early sixties, a native of Maryland and a Princeton graduate with a law degree from the University of Virginia. He’d served in the military for more than thirty years, first as a fighter pilot and later as a member of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. Marshall prepared his cases so meticulously and argued them so relentlessly that he became the bane of existence of the administrative law judges in Boston, who heard disability appeals, the welfare claims adjudicators, or the magistrates, who sat on eviction cases. More than once he was commended from the bench for his preparation. He won thousands of dollars in retroactive benefits for elderly clients, who’d had their Social Security Disability applications denied or their payments terminated, or for mothers on welfare, who had wrongfully lost their benefits. Always fair and never judgmental, Marshall took on seemingly intractable cases for disabled veterans, who often addressed him as “Sir,” some even saluting when they appeared at his office door, though Marshall, who had held the rank of Colonel, was the most deferential of people and had long laid aside his military career. He represented women, who had been beaten mercilessly by drug-dealing boyfriends, and little old ladies, who were being evicted from their apartments because they had to make a choice between paying for food and rent or heating oil during severe winters.
I did the intake on all the cases before we were able to hire our intake counselor and associate advocate, Mary Adams. Those who needed legal help were directed to Marshall whose office was next to mine. The rest Mary and I worked with personally, though there were many cases we all shared. Mary and I would find families money for back rent while Marshall drafted their responses to summary complaints for eviction, defending them himself, or preparing them to mount their own defenses with the help of legal services attorneys. Part of our philosophy included a strong self-help provision. Wherever possible we encouraged and trained our clients to represent themselves, arguing their own cases. Most found the experience empowering, even exhilarating, especially if they prevailed, which they often did.
Marshall Williams retired from Action in 1988, succeeded by Ken Riaf, a young attorney, who had also been a fisherman. Ken brought a unique perspective to the agency, as we became more deeply involved with the fishing community, which was then entering the protracted crisis it still faces today, with declining stocks and restrictive federal regulations that have reduced Gloucester’s fleet to a shadow of its former greatness. We were also forced to address the deepening housing crisis in the state, as real estate prices rose and landlords were converting apartments into condos, thereby squeezing out low-income families and elders and adding to a burgeoning homeless population. In response to homelessness, the agency joined with Ron Morin, executive director of NUVA, the city’s primary substance abuse and mental health agency, and Bill Dugan, executive director of the Gloucester Housing Authority, to create the Cape Ann Coalition for Housing and the Homeless. Ron, Bill and I produced a study of the problem, “Homelessness on Cape Ann,” with recommendations for its solution. Two new homeless shelters were created, NUVA’s for women with children and Action’s for homeless men and women eighteen and over. A number of programs, including counseling, case management and substance abuse treatment, were also initiated to impact the problem, along with recommendations for the creation of more affordable housing. Of great help to us in this effort was Dr. Damon Cummings, a naval architect and former MIT professor, who had become one of Gloucester’s leading advocates for the fishing industry and a fighter to preserve the city’s working waterfront.
My last ten years at the agency were years of intense lobbying for funds to implement these housing programs. In concert with the responsibilities of managing an expanded advocacy and housing program and seeing clients on a daily basis, I also directed the Action Homeless Shelter. We spent hours at city council and planning meetings advocating for the new shelters, and for a soup kitchen and food pantry, which were independently created. New funding regulations from Congress required the adoption of more stringent and sophisticated planning and management tools and an automated information storage and retrieval system, as the agency entered the digital age and we all had to learn how to use computers.
Losses in the fishing industry and fluctuations in the economy made it clear to us that Action had to expand our employment and training programs to include those who had been downsized out of jobs or who had lost them in industrial consolidations and takeovers. With the support of Varian, a high-tech consortium whose corporate offices were located in Gloucester, the agency opened a computer training center in downtown Gloucester, at Brown’s Mall, the former site of the city’s largest department store. Expanding our client base, we trained homeless men and women at the site along with those who had once had well-paying jobs. We added training for medical secretaries and hospital workers, while offering GED and Adult Basic Education courses, including ESL classes for new Hispanic and Brazilian immigrants.
By 2001, after I had been at the agency for 29 years, the need for our services continued to increase. And the landscape of human services had been shifting for some time, confronted, as we were, with the rising animosity of conservative politicians and once compassionate voters toward service agencies and the people we were committed to helping. Constrained also by shrinking government funds and more onerous reporting requirements, agencies found themselves in competition for charitable dollars as a way of ensuring their independence.
Under Bill Rochford’s leadership, and with the experience, political savvy, and commitment of Action’s veteran program directors — Deputy Director Tim Riley in administration, Gerry Anne Brown at Homecare, Ronna Resnick in Employment and Training, and Elliott Jacobson at Energy — Action charted a cautious passage through these perilous waters, arriving not only safely to port in new headquarters in the former Woolworth building on Main Street, but winning support and funding for innovative youth programs and housing for AIDS patients, while creating public-private partnerships that offered new employment and training opportunities for local residents.
Retiring on November 15, 2002, I left Action with a sense of new expectations but also with great sadness. I knew I was bidding farewell to an important part of my life. When Bill Rochford retired in 2009, Tim Riley took over as executive director, and has continued to lead the agency in ever creative directions.
Social work, especially as we practiced it at Action, can be seen as opposition to arbitrary power. It seemed a fitting segue for me, as a former anti-war activist in the 1960s, to have become a social worker in the 1970s; indeed, natural to my temperament and my politics. Just as I had helped to organize opposition to the war in Southeast Asia, I helped to bring neighbors together to encourage local government to remedy conditions in their neighborhoods, or mothers on welfare to fight iniquities in the welfare system. Our agency empowered citizens to speak out against slum landlords, who withheld heat, or to demand that the city’s regulatory agencies enforce health code regulations that made their apartments unsafe for themselves and their children. We provided legal assistance, family counseling and one-on-one assistance to help low-income families overcome poverty. We created education and training programs for fishermen, who were driven from the sea by onerous government regulations; and we helped displaced workers retrain in digital technologies.
Our work was motivated by the need for social change and for self-determination on the part of those who felt powerless — to help the disenfranchised find good jobs and obtain affordable housing, and to make government accountable to those whom it was designated to serve; indeed to change repressive legislation where we could. We didn’t win every battle, and not everyone we tried to help overcame poverty; but we forged partnerships between citizens and interest groups and we brought the public and private sectors together in many instances to build new housing or rehabilitate older stock. We helped formerly homeless men and women create their own businesses and we provided services to elders that allowed them to remain in their own homes with dignity rather than entering nursing homes. Perhaps our greatest success was in helping those we worked with to understand the systems in which their lives were enmeshed — how those systems operated, what their internal dynamics were, and how to overcome the enmeshment. And in the process, we ourselves felt a greater liberation.
Peter Anastas is the editorial director of Enduring Gloucester.