This year, as we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, we also recognize the 50 Year Anniversary of the "War on Poverty” which established federal programs designed to directly address poverty and racial injustice and replace despair with opportunity. The War on Poverty would not have been possible without Dr. King’s vision, leadership, work and organizing, along with thousands of civil rights leaders and workers throughout the country.
Dr. King wrote, "There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will."
Dr. King’s work, coupled with President Johnson’s political expertise led to a $3 billion federal investment in War on Poverty programs in the first three years of the Johnson administration. The programs included Head Start, Community Action Programs, Medicaid, Health Centers, Job Corps, VISTA, The ESEA and Project Follow Through, to name a few. Many of these programs still exist today, and have helped millions of people improve outcomes and access opportunities they could not have accessed without them.
Tom Jeffers, YAP's Founder and President and CEO from 1975-2003, and now Board Chair Emeritus, and Advisor to our Policy and Advocacy Center, has his roots in the War on Poverty programs and the Civil Rights movement of the mid 60's.
Dr. Jerome Miller, Tom's mentor, worked with Tom and colleague Paul DeMuro to create New Careers, an important War on Poverty program at Ohio State University (OSU). Here's what Dr. Miller wrote in his book, Last One Over the Wall, about Tom, Paul and the New Careers program;
"Along with some young administrators with an inner-city poverty program and a group of OSU graduate students, we used federal Comprehensive Employment Training Assistance (CETA) funds to get a couple of hundred inner city youths and adults admitted to OSU. Using a general letter of support from the University's Vice Chancellor, we talked a number of department heads into admitting our clients (most of whom lacked high school degrees) into their programs, allowing each to catch-up time at the beginning (one quarter's credit for two quarter's work). Most eventually got bachelor's degrees, and a few went on to graduate school. Many of those involved in setting up the program -- Tom Jeffers, Paul DeMuro, Manus Lewis, and Rudy Adams - later joined the reform effort in Massachusetts."
This program no doubt saved a lot of lives and enabled people with hidden strengths and capabilities to attend school, get jobs and build careers. Many went on to become leaders in the Civil Rights Movement and in their communities.
In the spirit of Dr. King, Tom, Paul and Jerry went on to Massachusetts where they shut down the oppressive, ineffective and expensive state juvenile correctional prisons that housed mostly poor kids and youth of color, and replaced the prisons with community-based, strength based, family focused programs and forever changed the way our country looked at juvenile justice. YAP was founded a few years later in 1975, when Tom, with funding secured by Paul, successfully took a few hundred youth out of the infamous Camp Hill Adult Prison and reunited them with families, schools and jobs back in their own communities.
Tom had the right vision almost 40 years ago: that the next civil rights challenge will be to address the injustice of the juvenile and criminal justice system
So, as we honor Dr. King today for his vision and his unrelenting advocacy for justice, peace, non-violence and the poor, we can also honor leaders like Tom, Paul and Jerry, visionaries committed to the well-being of the most vulnerable youth and families and the deinstitutionalization of youth.
In her recent classic, The New Jim Crow, Michele Alexander writes:
"We could choose to be a nation that extends care, compassion, and concern to those who are locked up and locked out or headed for prison before they are old enough to vote. We could seek for them the same opportunities we seek for our own children; we could treat them like one of “us.” We could do that. Or we can choose to be a nation that shames and blames its most vulnerable, affixes badges of dishonor upon them at young ages, and then relegates them to a permanent second-class status for life."
At YAP, we will honor Dr. King and social justice pioneers like our founder, Tom Jeffers, by having the will to combat poverty and advocate for justice. We must continue to work to redirect our nation's resources to create youth- and family- centered supports and services that keep young people in the community as contributors and productive citizens, not as inmates, patients and clients housed away from their families, schools and neighborhoods.
We will keep YAP smack in the center of the civil rights and human rights struggles in our country and abroad today. We will continue to treat our YAP kids and families as if they were our own, empower each young person and family in our care to be leaders and to give back to their communities, and continue to work to change our human service systems so they rely less on prison and far away treatment centers.
While we celebrate Dr. King’s legacy fighting for justice, racial equality and the poor, and Tom Jeffers’ legacy to deinstitutionalize youth and build communities, we also recognize that 50 million people living in poverty today and the over 70,000 youth incarcerated on any given night is too many. We are ready to do whatever it takes to keep their legacies alive.
Dr. King put it like this: "What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love."
Jeff Fleischer, MSW
Chief Executive Officer
Youth Advocate Programs (YAP)