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Is Your Organization a Band-Aid Agency?

The Alliance for Children and Families yearlong centennial celebration, which kicks off at the 2010 Alliance National Conference Oct. 20-22 in Milwaukee, is reason for the Alliance to reflect upon the 100 years of history it shares with its members.

While sifting through a century’s worth of memories, resources, and materials, Alliance for Children and Families staff were particularly moved by the article reprinted here. More than 40 years after it was written, the piece continues to strike chords with those who read it because of its unwavering voice, sense of purpose, and request for action.

Originally published in the Family Service Highlights newsletter during the midst of America’s civil rights movement, “Is Yours a Band-Aid Agency?” calls members to advocacy, community organizing, and civic engagement. It is reprinted in its entirety, and preceded by an introduction written by Irma Rodriguez, a member of the Alliance Civic Engagement Steering Committee, who provides her personal perspective about why the piece rings true today.

Introduction by Irma Rodriguez

The following reprint of “Is Yours A Band-Aid Agency?” may seem like just an extreme rant, fueled by a tumultuous time in American history. Yet, a re-read and some current context make many of the questions raised particularly relevant today.

Today, nonprofit human service organizations struggle to better the lives of children and families in an economic and political environment that often questions the value of our services, the appropriate role of government in funding these programs, and even our clients’ abilities to ultimately overcome challenges that seem insurmountable.

Some, myself included, believe the nature and effectiveness of our democracy, which was established on the principle that political power is vested in the people, also is at stake.

At the time this article was written, Americans felt empowered. They had reason to believe that if they spoke with one authentic, collective voice, they would be heard. It’s dramatically different today. Community residents increasingly distrust our political system and continue to distance themselves from traditional institutions.

Community-based organizations are in a unique position to help mend this breakdown. We can support residents who want to address issues of concern in their neighborhoods.

Yet, many organizations will have to make some evolutionary changes in order to be both relevant and impactful. We’ll have to address the central question from “Is Yours a Band-Aid Agency?” We’ll have to re-examine our missions and our methods for achieving our goals, all the while asking ourselves, “What are we doing to advocate for a better future, not just a better present?”

Can we use our programs and services, as well as the trust our clients and communities have in our organizations, to do more than place a Band-Aid? I think we can. We can engage our communities on a continuum of involvement, from creating space for community conversation to engaging in community organizing around issues of concern.

We can bring people together, encourage the civic engagement of residents, train community leaders, host candidate forums, raise social concerns, educate political leaders about issues, and mobilize residents who are hungry for change. We can sign on to coalitions, and we can form them as well. We can hire staff with experience in community organizing, and we can train staff to view their work through the community organizing lens.

We won’t all do everything, but I encourage organizations to consider what they currently do and ask themselves if they can do more.

My own organization is a settlement house. We are the product of a rich history and tradition of social justice activity. Yet, we struggle every day to get the balance of services and community action right. It isn’t easy. It takes staff and board commitment, creativity, and some conscious internal community building. It also takes a willingness to challenge authority and the status quo.

This isn’t safe activity; engaging in it always makes enemies. On the other hand, it also makes friends and supporters. As one of our Queens Community House staff members once said at a meeting, “You never know who you anger or push away by doing nothing.”

Article Reprint by Joseph A. Steinberg

How many agencies enjoy vibrant, active, productive social action committees?

The temptation is to busy ourselves putting Band-Aids on all the pimples. It’s strenuous work, but comfortable.

No one objects to Band-Aids.

People do object to public housing in the suburbs, support of aggressive minority leaders, and abortion reform.

That’s real surgery, not Band-Aids.

If your Family Service Society hasn’t yet made a choice between the establishment that supplies your money and the ragged, scruffy problem people who beat your doors—and chosen the misfits—YOU’RE A BAND-AID AGENCY.

If you haven’t locked horns with the local police, if you haven’t rewritten local legislation, if no one on your staff has been in police court lately, YOU’RE A BAND-AID AGENCY.

If your staff members haven’t read the Report of the President’s Commission on Civil Disorder, if your board members do not see that report as an article of faith, if you haven’t had the courage to hire black revolutionaries for your staff, YOU’RE A BAND-AID AGENCY.

If you think Family Service Society means only casework, if you don’t understand that the more you support revolt the less your community will riot, if you haven’t even thought about putting clients on your board, YOU’RE A BAND-AID AGENCY.

If your board meetings are comfortable, if everyone understands one another, if there’s a warm feeling of satisfaction, you’re not doing your job.

If there are no beards, no blacks, no angry youths—particularly black, bearded, angry, youths—you can’t do your job.

If you hide behind a “no political activity” rule, you’ll never do your job.

I welcome the day any Family Service Society, anywhere, is so dynamic and so effective it is challenged by the Internal Revenue Service.

Would you like an impartial evaluation? A self-test?

  1. Has your local newspaper found your activities relevant enough to report them during the past year?
  2. Do your local or state officials wince—just one little wince—when you call?
  3. Do your clients refer to your agency as “we” instead of “you?”

If the answer is “no” to any of these, YOU’RE A BAND-AID AGENCY.

It is our responsibility to be both relevant and revolutionary.

Keep in mind that wonderful insight of Mahatma Ghandhi, who excused himself from an interview by saying, “There go my people. I must hurry up and catch them for I am their leader.”

What techniques can be used to awaken your agency to the urgent need for social action?

  1. Have a public issues committee established as a standing committee in your agency. This is a simple, but necessary beginning
  2. Use the entire board to examine the facts of a social action issue by interviewing the people concerned
  3. Have your public issues committee examine the facts on behalf of the board by interviewing leading members of the community who are involved. Report back to the board at length, at a special meeting convened for that purpose
  4. Encourage your staff, whose insight is unique, to recommend social action areas warranting agency attention
  5. Work though existing community action organizations, encouraging them to undertake the necessary actions. You act as a catalyst, being more concerned with the results than with credit for the results
  6. Orient incoming board members about the need for social action
  7. Orient staff about the need for social action
  8. Increase board-staff communication
  9. If all else fails, work thought the board nominating committee. It may take two, four, or even six years, but properly handled, the nominating committee will eventually create a social action-oriented board

Those agencies that have concerned themselves with social action reported the following projects:

  1. Making eligible members of the community aware of the public welfare benefits available to them
  2. Lowering the annual fee for the use of the community’s swimming pool
  3. Employment programs
  4. Tutoring
  5. Organizing clients into a self-help social action group with staff support
  6. Assisting indigents in the establishment of ghetto co-ops

As you become involved, you become exposed—and many other projects meriting your efforts will be brought to your attention:

  1. A minimal activity, and one I hope you have all initiated, hiring black social workers and electing black board members
  2. Rebuilding a dam threatening a ghetto
  3. Building sidewalks in the ghetto
  4. Correcting inconvenient ghetto bus stops
  5. Enforcing traffic safety in the ghetto
  6. Attacking the cause of ghetto school absenteeism
  7. Supplying social workers to the board of education and the visiting nurse association to work with unwed mothers
  8. Creating a training program, manned with professional personnel, for local police in intergroup relations


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