No soaring without listening to the poor

Eastern Kentucky's future will be built from the bottom up

June 28, 2014 

Robert Shaffer of New Jersey chose a post in Eastern Kentucky over one in Washington.

TOM EBLEN — Herald-Leader Buy Photo

SOAR: 1. To rise, fly, or glide high and with little apparent effort. 2. To climb swiftly or powerfully.

When I read the word "soar" I picture an eagle taking off from a mountain ridge and, with the thrust of powerful wings, surging upward, higher and higher.

When I read the word "soar" in regard to improving the economy of Eastern Kentucky, I see an eagle preparing to take off, but not leaving the ground. The reason is evident: only one wing is working.

The original Economic Opportunity Act, which enabled the War on Poverty, required the "maximum feasible participation of the poor" in the decision-making process. Officials who resented this tried to neutralize it.

In 1967, Sargent Shriver's office hired me as a special technical assistant and assigned me to reorganize the Cumberland Valley into single or multicounty Community Action Agencies that took seriously the crucial part to be played by the poor.

The poor people began to realize that a new day was dawning in the mountains.

Their enthusiasm was contagious. The newly-formed 10-county Community Development Corporation received a federal grant to develop new businesses and expand existing ones. Before long products from some of the poorest counties in the nation were being sold in fine stores in New York, Dallas, Chicago and elsewhere. Today this corporation manages over $275 million in more than 625 companies with 18,000-plus employees.

Unemployed men were trained to construct industrial buildings, repair roads and manufacture upholstered furniture.

The Cumberland Valley agencies enlisted statewide support to form the Kentucky Poor People's Coalition, which held rallies in Lexington, Covington and Barbourville and pressed the Nunn Administration to include representation of the poor in the boards of the Area Development Districts throughout the state.

Harry Caudill, in Night Comes to the Cumberlands, a sad history of the exploitation of Eastern Kentucky, comments on "what is probably the most depressed region of the country...an economic depression to be sure...but a deeper tragedy lies in the depression of the spirit which has fallen upon so many of the people..."

In the late 1960s, we witnessed the hint of New Day coming to the Cumberlands. Depression of spirit was overcome by reality-based hope.

My hope in telling this story is that the good people who are leading the SOAR initiative understand that success depends on the meaningful participation of the poor in the decision-making process.

Robert W. Shaffer is retired and lives in Berea

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