Op-Ed

Whatcom View: Opportunity Council celebrates 50 years of helping community

Early learning program staff and families march with the Opportunity Council in the Ski to Sea parade in Bellingham in 2014.
Early learning program staff and families march with the Opportunity Council in the Ski to Sea parade in Bellingham in 2014. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

In our fast-paced world of constant change and social or economic challenges around every corner, it is easy to overlook some of the constant pillars in our community.

For the past 50 years, Opportunity Council has been one of those pillars in Island, San Juan and Whatcom counties, providing resources and services to individuals and families in need. And in recent years, our services have been invited into additional counties.

The Opportunity Council began in November of 1965 when a group of citizens organized the agency and it was recognized by the federal government as the “community action” agency for all three counties.

The impetus behind this new agency actually started the previous year. On Jan. 9, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared unconditional “war on poverty” in America in his State of the Union address. He outlined a number of initiatives and programs that were targeted toward addressing poverty, including establishing local community action agencies.

Our success, and the success of all community action programs, is grounded in community involvement, people caring and residents willing to take action.

Soon after President Johnson declared his commitment to end poverty, Congress passed the bipartisan Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 and civil rights legislation that created the framework to expand economic opportunity through health, education and employment policies.

It’s easy to romanticize that President Johnson’s actions flipped a switch and the war on poverty was initiated here and across the county. But in reality the driving force was a groundswell of concern and caring by community leaders and activists to do right by their fellow citizens by addressing poverty and its related inequities.

So where are we after 50 years? Has the war been won?

In 1964 about 19 percent of the total population was living in poverty in the U.S.

Today, about 15 percent are living in poverty.

While that number is decreasing, it is still too high. Much too high. Especially when we consider that each of those percentage points represents millions of lives. For this reason, we remain steadfast in our work with families and individuals who are struggling to meet their basic needs on a day-to-day basis.

In addition to stabilizing families with basic resources such as housing, food, heat, we’re also focused on systemic change. We know we can make a difference through supportive early learning programs, child care resources, and working with young children and their parents to address issues of generational poverty. We also know that sometimes the long-term answers rest in changing policies and perceptions that intentionally or unintentionally maintain the painful inequities in our society.

And we know we don’t do any of this work alone.

One of the foundations of “community action” is empowering local control. Our success, and the success of all community action programs, is grounded in community involvement, people caring and residents willing to take action.

Our partnerships with state and local government, school districts, utility companies, nonprofit organizations and people in the private sector create a collective energy that drives change.

The ongoing challenge for all of us today is adapting to the changing needs in our communities and people in poverty. Families have been affected by the slow recovery of our economy, the price and availability of housing, and a changing job market. Each community and neighborhood we serve has its own specific challenges that we must consider when developing strategies to alleviate poverty.

We’re up for the challenge.

Together with community partners, funders, supporters and advocates, we’ll continue to provide people a hand up out of poverty. We will strive to help people be more self reliant and adaptable to the changes around them and we’ll continue to care for our senior neighbors and people with disabilities who need ongoing support to meet their basic needs.

With 50 years in the rear view mirror, we’d like to take this opportunity to thank you — our community partners, supporters, board members, staff and everyone who helps do this work.

We can be all proud of the progress that has been made, what we have learned and how we have helped change people’s lives and our community for the better.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dave Finet is the Opportunity Council Executive Editor. For more information online, go to oppco.org.

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