John Stephenson recalls the waves of political resistance Community Action Agencies nationwide had faced during the late 1960s and early 1970s. When he joined Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency (NMCAA) in 1978, Community Action's future seemed anything but a sure thing.
Much of the opposition had come from urban mayors, who viewed the agencies' advocacy for the disadvantaged as a threat to their power, says Stephenson, who began at NMCAA as a Head Start administrator.
Today, Community Action is a widely accepted component of the social services system, its track record of helping those in need move toward self-sufficiency resonating with people of all political persuasions, Stephenson notes.
"It's kind of hard to argue that that type of approach doesn't make sense," he says. "Typically what you find on an individual basis is that people get it. It doesn't matter what their political leanings are."
Helping to promote widespread understanding of Community Action Agencies' mission is the inclusive composition of their boards of directors - one-third public officials, one-third members of the private sector and one-third Community Action clients.
It's a member of that last group whom Stephenson cites as a Northwest Michigan Community Agency success story.
The man was born into extreme poverty and didn't originally complete high school. He and his wife had two children in NMCAA's Head Start program, where a social worker saw the potential in him. She encouraged the man to obtain his high school diploma, which led to a factory job.
Then, wanting to reach his full potential, the man took business classes at a local college, where he learned the skills to form his own business. He now owns a string of video rental stores in rural northern Michigan communities where Internet access remains spotty.
"We have hundreds of those types of stories, although it doesn't happen over night," Stephenson says. "Helping them move along the path to self-sufficiency can take years, but when it happens there's a tremendous sense of satisfaction.
"Nobody works in this business to get rich," he adds. "People tend to stay in it because of that feeling of satisfaction."
Stephenson held a series of Head Start and agency positions until 2002, when he became executive director of NMCAA, which has 400 employees who serve 10 northern Michigan counties. Before joining NMCAA, he was a probation officer in Akron, Ohio, which at the time was part of what was considered a progressive court system that focused on psychological and family treatment.
In addition to overseeing NMCAA, Stephenson chairs Michigan Community Action's board of directors.
"I'm really proud of the association and the work that has been done in close coordination with the statewide network in the past couple of years, especially in improving our advocacy efforts," he says. A recent success was convincing state lawmakers to set aside a portion of federal Low-Income Heating & Energy Assistance Program funds for weatherization so that more Michigan households can realize reduced energy costs on an ongoing basis.
Nationally, President Obama's first-term threat to eliminate the Community Action program served as a wake-up call to agencies, Stephenson explains, adding that mismanagement at a small number of high profile agencies in a handful of states had detracted from the overall system's success.
Today, however, each agency is held to a set of strict performance standards. At the same time, agencies are striving to highlight their extensive reach into their communities by making clear that they are far more than deliverers of emergency services and that they work in a myriad of systematic ways to move people toward independence.