Some advice to SOAR from the War on Poverty

banner-011The second Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) summit is almost a week away. Much has been speculated about what SOAR will produce, about what SOAR lacks, and about the many possibilities and opportunities SOAR can create. In preparation for the second summit, it’s worth looking back to other initiatives that were created with the express intent of drawing eastern Kentucky out of poverty and pushing it into prosperity.

WMMT’s Making Connections News recently spoke with two veterans of the War on Poverty about lessons that set of programs and initiatives can teach the SOAR movement. Hollis West grew up in a coal mining family in southern Illinois and was the head of the Knox County Community Action Agency in the 1960s. Robert Shaffer worked at the federal Office of Economic Opportunity, which sent him to the region in the 1960s to better implement the office’s mission: “maximum feasible participation of the poor in the decision making process.”

“I went to the people and asked them what they wanted instead of what we wanted them to do,” Shaffer said. He and West worked with the community, including and most explicitly with people who were poor, to create jobs and improve infrastructure. The community started a furniture and craft-making company. “This is what is hard for people to understand today: what it meant to the poor people to see that building and see that this belonged to the poor.”

His advice for the SOAR process:

In Night Comes to the Cumberlands, [Harry Caudill] talks about the economic depression of eastern Kentucky, but he said more tragic is the depression of spirit which left the people listless, hopeless and without ambition. That spirit was exactly what came alive in this experience we had together [during the 1960s War on Poverty]. And to me, that’s what’s lacking in the whole SOAR business. [The people running it are] the same people who are used to determining how things are done, and they’ve got to have the people who make up the majority of the population of eastern Kentucky to be there and feel ownership and be active and be in the decision making.