As a community action agency, Blueprints always looks forward to the future. We envision prosperous, engaged communities with no poverty. We work hard to help our clients and the communities we serve to build that future.
However, our society changes, sometimes in ways that we do not expect and our path to that vision changes, too.
We sat down with our CEO, Darlene Bigler, to discuss the changes she had seen as a community action professional for over 36 years in southwestern Pennsylvania and across the nation.
1. Volunteering in your community will open your eyes.
“I volunteered a lot at various human service agencies in college,” said Bigler. “I was very fortunate to be on the original steering board for the Alice Paul House, the first and only domestic violence shelter in Indiana County, while I was a student. The Indiana County Community Action Program (ICCAP) spearheaded that effort, so we were writing the grant and finding the resources for it under their tutelage.”
After graduating from IUP, she worked for ICCAP as a community worker.
“We had a federal research grant to study if long term comprehensive case management helped families get out of poverty. I worked on it for three years as part of the control group. I also transported low-income board members to and from meetings, so I had a lot of opportunities for conversations about how the issues they discussed there impacted them and their recommendations.”
When she became the Executive Director of ICCAP in 1985, the community was seeing a lot of homelessness, domestic violence and women in transition with nowhere to go.
“It was a coal mining community, so there was a lot of job loss and family dysfunction,” Bigler said. “Women were realizing that, for the first time, they had options outside of abusive relationships.”
In her eight-year tenure as Executive Director, Bigler created Pathways, the first and only homeless shelter in Indiana County. She also created the Bridge Housing program, which provides transitional housing to homeless individuals and families in Indiana County while they obtained the knowledge and opportunities to be able to move out of subsidized housing.
“I saw the community action agency as being the people’s agency, where people who needed those services had a voice and impacted how those services were provided. People at the local level can have a huge impact on helping their neighbors get ahead, whether they do that through us or in their own communities.”
2. Their approach has changed, along with the technology.
“When I left Indiana to start my position as the CEO of Blueprints, 2 out of 40 staff members had a computer,” Bigler recalled. “When I came into work on my first day here, someone else was using mine.” She laughed. “I had to get them to give it up.”
In addition to technological advances, there have been advances in the approach that community action agencies take. There is more support for using evidence-based scientific research to support important interventions on a state and federal level.
“We use evidence-based, scientifically proven practices for everything – from nutrition education to adult education to providing foster care services,” said Bigler.
In particular, she is most excited about the 2GEN program, which builds services around entire families to help them succeed.
“We’ve always tried to integrate the whole family approach into our programs, but we’re much more cognizant of its long-term impact now,” said Bigler. ”In the past, when a child went to public school after Head Start, the parent was no longer involved with our agency. You don’t get out of poverty in two years, and we’ve worked really hard over the past 10 years to break down those silos. We want to make sure that there’s no wrong door when someone comes in the room.”
Another change encouraged on a state and federal level has been consolidation and regionalization of human services, as there are fewer funds allocated for them. Bigler considered this in her second strategic plan as the CEO of Blueprints.
“We began to look at how we could best use our resources to move people out of poverty and chose to reserve resources for higher impact programs that help move the needle. There are agencies that run food banks and homeless shelters already and it made sense to refer our clients to them. It was a process moving away from resolving emergency needs, but it made more sense for us to help people move past their crises.”
3. Your relationship with local legislators makes a huge difference.
Community action agencies used to be directly funded by the federal government via grants. In 1981, Congress consolidated those grants into what we know now as the Community Service Block Grant. That money is allocated to individual states who use a formula to allocate the funds to community action agencies.
“It was a big shift to no longer have that relationship with the federal government and for states to be giving that scrutiny and guidance,” Bigler recalled. “Up to that point, there wasn’t as much of an emphasis on having relationships with state elected officials. There was definitely a need, but we had a bit of a head start because of our tripartite board. Blueprints has always had good representation of county commissioners, state representatives and even federal representatives on the board.”
Bigler feels that community action programs have a broad appeal.
“The programs are created at the local level and address local needs,” she said. “Giving people the resources they need to move themselves forward appeals to officials across the political spectrum. It’s easy to make a case for it at the state level.”
However, at the federal level, things were more difficult.
“I was so excited when President Obama mentioned community action programs in his State of the Union speech in 2011,” Bigler recalled. “Then, in his next breath, he said that he had proposed cuts and I was devastated.” She laughed. “So that was a bit of a ride.”
“All throughout the Reagan and both Bush administrations, the Community Service Block Grant was zeroed out in the presidential budgets,” Bigler recalled. “During the Clinton years, one of the hallmarks of his legislation was welfare reform, so there was a lot of scrutiny there. It was a real struggle to ensure that we received funding. We’re definitely zeroed out in the Trump budget. However, we are always able to get back in the federal budget, because of bipartisan congressional support for the programs.”
4. The landscape may have changed, but the issues are still the same.
When people think of their basic needs, they do not usually include transportation on the list. However, transportation is still the largest barrier for people moving forward, especially in rural areas. “There have been incremental improvements in services for the elderly and disabled individuals, but no real progress. It’s not a surprise so much as it is an enormous frustration,” said Bigler.
When we think of food deserts, we think of urban neighborhoods, but there are areas in Greene and Washington counties that have no access to fresh or non-processed foods.
“You see a problem with obesity in low-income people because they’re buying inexpensive carbs. Folks living in rural areas aren’t necessarily able to grow their food or have access to the farm down the road,” said Bigler. “Small businesses have been pushed out by larger retail and wholesale markets and agricultural industry here has decreased.”
Bigler feels that providing knowledge is the most important aspect of Blueprints’ mission.
“A lot of what we do is providing hope. We teach our clients to understand how to cope with barriers and drawbacks and find the fortitude to overcome serious obstacles. In particular, parenting skills are huge and as our society has changed, the need for increased parenting skills is enormous. There’s so much more information readily available, but there’s a lot of misinformation and it’s a big distraction to parents.”
Bigler noted that more and more of the families Blueprints serves work outside the economy, whether they’re bartering services, reselling items from yard sales or getting involved in multilevel marketing schemes.
“The myth that poor people are lazy always blows my mind because if you were actually able to see what a poor parent does in a day or a month to provide for their kids, you would be amazed. It takes an enormous amount of energy and activity to be housed and fed and provide for your children’s basic needs.”
5. The stereotypes have stayed the same, too.
“Here’s a huge myth,” said Bigler. “During the Clinton administration, there were some substantial changes to welfare. For the most part, adults are only eligible for cash assistance benefits for a maximum of five years throughout their lives. Therefore, this idea of people making a living off their welfare checks is not only incorrect; it’s never been true.”
Unfortunately, many people still think it’s true. The stereotypes we hear about poor people are not new and persist despite efforts to debunk them.
“I’ve been immersed in it for years,” said Bigler. “From ‘Let’s drug test welfare recipients’ to the myth that immigrants are sucking up all the benefits when they’re mostly ineligible for services, there’s so much misinformation out there and that’s what these stereotypes feed on.”
This lack of understanding can lead to steps backward in legislative progress to eradicate poverty, such as the language in the 2018 Farm Bill that would have imposed harsher work and reporting requirements on SNAP recipients, on top of pre-existing requirements to report their hours every six months. SNAP recipients, many of whom are already working and reporting their hours, could lose their benefits for up to four years if they miss the reporting deadline more than once.
We’ve all heard the stereotype of people on welfare buying steaks and lobster for dinner, but the reality doesn’t match that picture.
“The food stamp benefit is calculated on an outdated formula called the Thrifty Food Plan, which is designed to get someone through three days and multiplied for a month,” said Bigler. “The SNAP benefit level is designed to provide a bare subsistence diet. The idea that people on SNAP are able to go to the grocery store and eat better than most Americans is so inaccurate.”
Thus, restricting access to SNAP means that recipients cannot meet their basic needs to be healthy, which affects their ability to work.
“It might play well as a sound bite, but it’s not effective,” said Bigler. “It is patently unfair to remove something as basic as food benefits if a person can’t get to a program requirement because they have no access to transportation. How can you refuse to feed someone because they can’t travel the distance they need to go?”
Though Bigler has passionately advocated for the communities Blueprints serves and debunked these stereotypes repeatedly, she does think that the rhetoric has become uglier and more damaging.
“I think that in the supercharged political environment that we’re in right now, stereotypes are really amplified. I think social media makes it easier to spread misinformation. If you see a fact from a source you trust, you’re not inclined to verify that information yourself. That amplifies the knowledge gap between those stereotypes and the daily reality of someone who lives in poverty.”
6. We’re still figuring out what community action looks like.
In addition to her duties as the CEO of Blueprints, Darlene Bigler is also a board member of CAPLAW. CAPLAW is a national membership organization that serves over 1,000 community action agencies around the nation by providing legal services and information on programs, services, and finances for community action agencies. CAPLAW focuses on program administration and hosts a national conference.
“We also provide webinars, toolkits and resources for community action agencies to use as well as a legal network of attorneys who are familiar with the kinds of issues community action agencies face,” said Bigler.
“There is a united effort to gain identity as a national movement because we’re all so different and we address our local issues differently,” said Bigler. “When I came to Blueprints from ICCAP, I had no experience with Head Start or WIC. I hadn’t worked with young children before. I had a lot of experience with the weatherization program that ICCAP offers, but Blueprints does not have that program. The structure of the two organizations is similar and we have similar programs, but there are key differences in our communities’ needs that shape what we offer and how we serve them.”
As indicated by Blueprints and Indiana County Community Action Program, often community action agencies do not share the same names such as different United Way or Goodwill organizations would.
“There is an Office of Community Services that funds our work, but it falls under Health and Human Services on the federal level and it’s very small,” said Bigler. “The national fund for community action agencies is $680 million. When you’re serving over 1,000 agencies in rural and urban areas with different populations and different needs, that isn’t a lot to go around. Knowing who we are and what we stand for is critically important for us to be able to make a difference in the communities we serve.”
Despite these struggles, Bigler remains optimistic for the future.
“Community action really works. It’s one of the few things that will have a lasting impact. I think it’s happening a lot more than we see or give credit to as a growing movement. I think activism is extremely important and the only way that things are going to be changed.”