The concept I am about to describe—the concept of the Assembly, which is a means of encouraging the low-income people of entire counties and cities to deal with their own individual and community problems—is one I proposed in 1956. After searching for financial aid for ten years I received my initial funding from another dreamer, then gradually from churches and major foundations.
In 1966 I became General Counsel of the U. S. House of Representatives Anti-Poverty Subcommittee, which had created the anti-poverty legislation. Prior to its passage the subcommittee’s staff had extensive conversations with the staff of Sargent Shriver (then the prospective head of the Office of Economic Opportunity, which was to administer the legislation). Good programs such as Headstart and the Job Corps resulted from that legislation; however, I was dissatisfied with the community action concept that was in the Act.
My main objection was its emphasis on creating programs prior to organizing the impoverished community. This is the approach of most anti-poverty initiatives, and it results in programs that are designed and controlled by persons outside the community. Under the community action programs, only a fraction of the community was organized, perhaps less than a fifth or even a tenth. That meant the programs put forward were in response to the needs of only a small part of the community. I believed that an entire impoverished community could be efficiently organized, and the poor themselves could then express their priorities, but my point of view did not get into the legislation or its implementation.
Destiny dictated that I was not to be on the subcommittee staff for long. The powerful chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, Adam Clayton Powell, who had created the subcommittee, was ejected from the House, and as a consequence I was given twenty-four hours to clear my desk. I worked for another House committee for a few months after that, but then I was finally able to find funding for my idea, and in 1968 I went into the field to implement it.
The idea of the Assembly is very logical, perhaps too logical to be immediately comprehended. I sometimes have difficulty communicating it completely. For instance, about six months ago I met with the vice-president of a major foundation to which I had submitted a grant proposal. We talked for three hours, at the end of which time she asked me, “And by the way, what is an Assembly?”
I’ll try to explain the concept to you comprehensively and clearly. The purpose of the Assembly is to strengthen neighborhood institutions and leadership at the grassroots level. One of the great problems facing us in the United States today is that communities do not exist. People are not connected with one another. Not only are social services making little or no impact, but there also has been a notable decline in the efficacy of institutions such as public schools. Remedies do not appear to be readily available.
To arrive at a solution, one must begin with an understanding of the cause of the problem. What, for instance, is responsible for the decline in quality public education?
An article written by William Raspberry that appeared in The Washington Post on May 24 of this year addresses this question. He discusses a booklet written by David Mathews, the former president of the University of Alabama and President Ford’s Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, who states that the problem with the schools in a city like the District of Columbia has to do with “the disengagement between the schools and their public.”
Raspberry comments: “The public he is talking about is more than a collection of people such as you might find in a shopping mall, more than members of the same audience, more even than people who live near one another. He has in mind people who have a particular sort of relationship: who are committed to common purposes, who know they need one another even when they might not particularly like one another.”
He continues, “These relationships lead to a distinctive kind of action, to cooperative civic action that is complementary and mutually reinforcing.” And, Raspberry says, Mathews is right—“right as well when he says that ‘fundamental change [in public education] has to start with the public and within the community. . . . It is unlikely that schools will change unless communities change, unless citizens increase their capacity to band together and act together.’”
The article ends by asking: “But is that an important insight, or merely the interposition of another, equally vexing question: How do you change—or build—community? Maybe the thoughtful David Mathews will tell us in another book.”
To answer Mathews’s question, the National Association of the Southern Poor (NASP), which I founded in 1968, introduced the idea of the Assembly.
What is an Assembly? It is a structure that brings the people of an entire community into a systematic relationship with one another for the purpose of solving individual and community problems. It is the organization of a community in such a manner that if a great many people wanted to do a particular thing, they could do it. It is a means—through its formal structure and logical, systematic organization—of connecting masses of people; a means, through such systematic organization, of establishing a channel of communication between the Assembly’s elected leadership and every last man and woman in the community; a means by which large numbers of people may engage in a common effort.
The Assembly follows certain rules of logic: in order for masses of people to enter into collective decision-making they must be organized prior to any decisions having been made. This means that for an anti-poverty effort to succeed, structure must be established prior to the creation of any program; otherwise it is likely that programs will be designed and controlled by persons outside the community.
We go into a community, and we divide it into Conferences of manageable size. Each Conference meets on a regular basis, and each sends a Representative to a central decision-making body called the Assembly. Within the Assembly, each county or city is organized like a country, but instead of unwieldy Congressional districts there are districts of fifty people—or in cities, fifty households. These districts are called Conferences.
The representational dimension of the Assembly enables it to function community-wide. Each Conference elects one Representative to the Assembly. Thus, if there are five thousand adults (in cities, five thousand households) in a given community, there will be one hundred Representatives for one hundred groups of fifty people (in cities, fifty households). If there are ten thousand adults (or households), there will be two hundred Representatives, and so forth. Representatives meet at a community-wide Assembly to discuss problems.
Communication is the key to success. Each Representative is in touch with fifty members through seven committee-persons, each of whom in turn communicates with six other members (see diagram). And it works! What we’ve done is transform entire communities.
The Conference provides a setting in which citizens can bring problems to the group for discussion and creative problem-solving. Problems range from disparities in government services to the need for job training to how to file for Social Security benefits to school problems confronted by a member’s children. Community members can fill out a problem sheet to address individual concerns. The sheet is given to their Representative. If the Representative cannot solve the problem, it is passed on to the Executive Council, which is made up of a dozen chairpersons assigned to areas such as employment, social services, housing, etc.
The Assembly is the heart of the NASP approach to community transformation. It grapples with issues affecting the county as a whole. Its actions often result in new and expanded educational programs, low-income housing projects, improved county facilities such as all-weather roads and modern sanitation systems, and enhanced health, welfare, and recreational services.
Committees are organized into Conferences of 50 people each. Each Conference elects one representative who stays in touch with the Conference through seven committee members—each of whom stays in contact with six other members. Representatives meet at a community-wide Assembly to discuss problems.
Now you’ll see a brief film we produced in 1989. Afterwards I’ll bring the statistics up to date.
[Excerpts from the film “The Assembly: An Organization That Works”]
Commentator: The federal government has been fighting poverty with bureaucratic programs. After a multi-billion dollar effort, millions of Americans still live at a level of poverty commonly associated with Third-World countries. One of the worst areas is the region known as the Black Belt. Stretching across the nine southern states from Virginia to Louisiana, the Black Belt includes 259 rural and urban counties with large black populations. Small farmers are disappearing and industry is bypassing the area for foreign sites. As a result, 44 percent of the South’s black population remains desperately poor, still suffering the legacy of slavery.
Conventional anti-poverty efforts have failed for two reasons. First, these programs have not created the structures for the poor to help themselves. Second, they are designed and controlled by people outside of the affected communities.
The critical question is how to engage entire communities in the fight against poverty. And this is possible only if the people who live in the communities build their own structure and leadership for providing assistance.
To promote this idea the National Association for the Southern Poor has created the Assembly. Working at the county level, the concept of the Assembly is based on an idea of Thomas Jefferson’s:
Among other improvements, I hope [the Virginia Legislature] will adopt the subdivision of our counties into wards. Each ward would thus become a small republic within itself and every man in the state would thus become an acting member of the common government, transacting in person a great portion of his rights and duties, subordinate indeed, but important, and entirely within his competence. The wit of man cannot devise a more solid base for a free, durable, and well administered republic.
Cliff Somerville, NASP Field Director: What we found is that the Assembly helped develop and bring out new leadership by giving a voice to people who normally don’t get up in front of groups or normally don’t get involved in, say, the local government. Through the Assembly they are able to come to meetings and participate. And not only participate in the Assembly; then they start to participate in other community organization meetings. And later on it carries them to local government.
Lloyd Hamlin, Principal, Surry County High School: I remember the black leaders in the county talking about the Assembly and attending Assembly meetings. And I think the basic thing they got from the meetings, as I remember my mama and other people going, was a sense of focus, a setting of priorities and goals.
Gammiell Poindexter, Commonwealth Attorney, Surry County, Virginia: The Assemblies built up a network of local manpower, local interest in county government. It was an organization that existed throughout the county it served. And with that network you got people registered to vote. Those voters then made a difference in local elections.
Commentator: The idea of the Assembly is simple. Similar to Jefferson’s wards, each county or city is organized like a country. But instead of being divided into Congressional districts it’s divided into districts of fifty people. These districts are called Conferences [see diagram]. This arrangement is to assure an easy channel of communication without placing too much of a burden on one person. No one need be in touch with more than seven others. Every Representative is in contact with his or her seven committeemen, and each committeeman is in contact with the six other members.
Representative in Assembly meeting: Our concerns at the moment are for the handicapped, the elderly, and people of very low income. Now, I went to the Housing Assistance Office to get an assessment of the program and to see if it was able to take care of the needs of the county. The information I got from Mrs. Wade was that it’s not even able to take care of a third of the requests coming in.
Commentator: The Assembly is designed to be a body that can solve problems directly and develop programs that address the needs of the poor. It can do this because, first, it offers a structure of organization . Second, it provides a problem-solving mechanism for individual problems. And third, the Assembly gets directly involved in developing programs that meet the needs of the people. Let’s look at each.
First, the basic structure permits the communication of problems by individuals who may not know where to go for help. Thus, a channel of communication is established which permits the leadership, who cannot be in touch with masses of people directly, to reach them through their Representatives.
T. C. Lane, Treasurer, Surry County, Virginia: That was the main problem we had: we couldn’t get our news out. But after the Assembly came, we were able, through the community leaders, to reach all the people on every road.
Sadie L. Bland: Anything that’s going on in the county that they have discussed in their Conference meetings, they bring back to us in our church services or our Sunday schools or any other organizations in the county, and then we discuss them.
Commentator: Second, the Assembly’s problem-solving mechanism begins with the use of a “Problem Sheet.” A person having a problem fills out the sheet and lists the needs.
Representative in Assembly meeting: The Problem Sheet is the only sure way we have of getting to you. The Assembly tries to reach everybody it can. I don’t think there is anybody who ever filled out a Problem Sheet and sent it to this Assembly without the problem being solved.
L. Essex Moseley, President, Assembly of Charlotte County, Virginia: We react to the Problem Sheet. Now, we have had child abuse cases occurring in our school system. There was one in particular where a principal slapped a Special Ed child. We felt that was pretty bad. So the mother filled out a Problem Sheet and we took on the case. We went as far as we could to the point where the Superintendent came and apologized to us for what happened in his system.
Commentator: The third part of the Assembly is the development of programs fitted to the needs of the people. These are decided upon by the Assemblies themselves. These programs may be for repairing roads or setting up a better education system.
Representative in Assembly meeting: At this time there is no housing for the handicapped in the county. There is very little for senior citizens. And the cost is so high for the housing that is available that they can’t afford to live there.
Commentator: After Assembly meeting, the Representatives report back to their Conferences. Through the Assembly a community is created where none previously existed, and collective decision-making can take place.
Thirty-three counties [the figure has since risen to forty-one] and two cities in Virginia and North Carolina have organized Assemblies. These are at various levels of maturity and strength. Surry County, Virginia, is the home of one of the oldest Assemblies. Twenty years ago Surry was like many other Black Belt counties: segregated, no jobs for blacks, and no hope.
Lloyd Hamlin, Principal, Surry County High School: Most of the blacks were farmers. Some were fortunate enough to own land and farm for themselves. Many, though, were tenant farmers for either other blacks or for white farmers. And if you were a tenant for a white farmer, he attempted to control the extent to which you were educated, because it meant that he would always have a labor supply.
Commentator: Through the work of the Assembly, Surry County of today is a model county with opportunity for all its citizens. The Assembly’s black leadership sits on every governing board, working side by side with whites for programs that benefit all the citizens.
Gerald Poindexter, Surry County Attorney: The Assembly knew where to go to get help. Knowing where to go may sound very basic; why don’t these people know where to go? But it wasn’t basic fifteen or sixteen years ago.
Walter Hardy, Chairman, Surry County Board of Supervisors: The Assembly has given us a feeling that we can actually solve our own problems. It gives us a feeling of independence.
Commentator: The Assembly in Surry recognized that the future of the children depended upon the quality of their education. Following desegregation, all but six white children fled to private schools. The public school buildings were allowed to deteriorate. For years the Assembly labored to improve the schools.
Dr. C. P. Penn, Superintendent, Surry County Schools: It’s helped me because the members of the Assembly have elected a board of supervisors that is sensitive to the needs of the students.
Commentator: The result of this hard work is the construction of a new $4.6 million high school and a $3 million elementary school. The superintendent and the principal are black. And the students have a brighter future.
Dr. C. P. Penn, Superintendent, Surry County Schools: The level of education today in comparison to the situation when the Assembly was first organized here is vastly improved. The students on the elementary level tested from the seventeenth to the twenty-seventh percentile on the SRA test. On the high school level they tested from the tenth to the seventeenth percentile, which was one of the lowest scores in the state of Virginia. Today our students test on the elementary level from the forty-fifth to the seventy-fifth percentile and on the secondary level from the thirty-eighth to somewhere near the fiftieth percentile. So we have come a long way. We were sending approximately 25 percent of our students to some form of higher education in 1977; today we are sending between 60 and 75 percent.
Commentator: In Surry, poverty is becoming a relic of the Old South. There is so little crime that the jail has been closed. And an aggressive health-care program is working to bring good health care to all county residents. While the statistics of Surry’s transformation are impressive, the best indicator of change is the new spirit of the communities’ young people.
In other southern counties, citizens are also hard at work using the Assembly’s structure to tackle their problems.
L. Essex Moseley, President, Assembly of Charlotte County, Virginia: We selected the senior citizens as a priority when we started out because we didn’t have anything going for them here in Charlotte County. And being newly retired, I was, you might say, a senior citizen myself. One of the first things we worked on was to bring a nutrition program to the elderly. We also bought a forty-passenger bus and equipped it with camper toilets so that they could ride around over the countryside, and we took them to such places as the Coliseum in Richmond, the Ice Capades, Old Williamsburg—most anywhere they’d like to go. It was something they needed because a lot of them were what you might call housebound; they had no way of going anywhere.
Isaac Long, President, Assembly of Caswell County, North Carolina: Well, here in Caswell County we do have a housing problem. We have a lot of people who are living in houses with no toilet facilities, not even indoor running water. In the school system we have a problem about hiring for racial balance and things of that nature. And I feel the Assembly can really help us get that solved.
Thomas A. Chilton, Sr., President, Assembly of Appomattox County, Virginia: We set up a county-wide voter registration drive. And we conducted that for two years until we got every eligible person in the county registered, or almost everybody. That was terrific. I’ve never seen volunteers work so dedicated at a job. Among other things, we’re going to build a community center. It will be a place primarily for recreation, for training, for teaching. It will house a lot of the social services. We’ll have workshops, primarily for the elderly and the youth. We raised the money by having raffles, picnics, singings, and by individual contributions.
Commentator: The Black Belt is still an area of desperate poverty, an area many of the residents have left in search of greater opportunity in the North. But many remain trapped. All of these Black Belt counties are potential locations for the Assembly structure. Mr. C. C. Pedaway explains what can happen when people understand the power of the Assembly: “It works. Then they have faith in themselves. Then they will tell their friends, it caught afire; it caught afire and went across our county.”
Henry Elly, President, Assembly of Parson County, North Carolina: My advice to the people of the county would be to come together and get involved in an Assembly. That will give them an opportunity to have input and an opportunity to know where to go to get answers to some of their questions. For years and years they have not known where to go; they have gone to individual people. For example, here in Roxboro, so many of them come to me with Social Security questions and questions about sidewalks and water and things like that. They don’t have the expertise themselves, and they don’t know who to go to, so they go to an individual. My experience is that individuals cannot, by themselves, solve their problems. They have to be solved through a strong organization, where you know that you have someone supporting you and you’re asking the question in the right way and you’re going to the proper source to get the answers.
Commentator: More important than the programs and the statistics are the individual lives that have been changed. Debbie Hardy’s dreams had been crushed . She told the Surry Assembly she could not qualify for college admission because her school did not have a math teacher. With the help of the Central Office of the Assemblies, Debbie was the first black to enter Chatham Hall, a prestigious Virginia prep school. Now she has completed her medical residency in obstetrics and gynecology.
Michael Forest was working in the tobacco fields when he won the Assembly music competition. The prize for that victory was a scholarship to the Shenandoah Conservatory of Music. He made his debut at the Kennedy Center in 1986 and placed second in the Metropolitan Opera’s Mid-Atlantic Competition. His career has blossomed, and his performances have received rave reviews in Europe. [Since 1989 he has been performing on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York.]
Through scholarship programs, the Assemblies have sent many other students to prep schools and colleges. The Assembly is a proven idea that works. It is an idea that offers real hope for ending the vicious cycle of poverty that has strangled countless aspirations. Through the Assembly, communities have become unified to focus on goals that can make a real difference. And the result is a more equitable sharing of power, enabling the poor to take the last steps away from slavery.
[end of film]
There are a lot of people who want urgently and earnestly to deal with the problem of poverty in this country, and they believe that to do so they must first come up with a program. That is the conventional way of doing things. But sometimes progress comes about when an unconventional course is taken instead. Take the example of Mr. Singer, who wanted to invent a sewing machine. He had the conventional idea, handed down over many centuries, of a needle with the point on one end and the hole on the other, and he worked on his invention for many years without success. Then—and this is a true story—he had a dream that he was captured by cannibals, who were going to kill him. As he looked up at their spears, he saw a hole right next to the point. He woke up the next morning and invented the sewing machine, so important to the Industrial Revolution in this country.
Like Mr. Singer, we have addressed a problem the opposite way from the conventional approach.
Surry County, Virginia, was the first place I went with my idea in 1968 after leaving Congress. Surry County was a mess. It was wracked by racial disharmony. There were no medical facilities, no recreational facilities. The schools had been integrated, and all but six white students had left the school system. Most employment was on the farms or on the janitorial level.
When I presented my idea, people asked me why I didn’t address the problem in a straightforward manner. Why did I have to talk about such a complicated structure, which most people in Surry County wouldn’t even understand? I told them that, in general, people get what they want if they organize first, like the labor unions when they are well organized, and then ask what needs to be done.
Things got so bad, people finally said, “All right, let’s give this thing a try.” Today, of course, the community has been completely transformed, and Surry has our model Assembly. Per capita income rose—and these are the poor people who made it happen—from $2,200 to $19,000, which is above the national average. They raised millions for recreational facilities and medical facilities. Since 1985 they’ve led all school districts in Virginia in the percentage going on to college. It was 65 percent then; it’s 95 percent today, with the dropout rate at 1.7 percent There has been so little crime—six robberies in twelve years, two drug arrests in fourteen years—that they closed the jail. What these people have done is create a “dream society.” Surry County is a microcosm of what the rest of the country could be. If you want inspiration, just go to Surry County and see for yourself.
The first question you might ask is, How do you get the poorest and most unsophisticated people in the United States to create and engage in such an intricate organization? And they are engaged. If you go to an area where there is an Assembly, you will see a large turnout of people. (Assembly meetings are better attended, I might say, than prayer meetings, which of course are a very important feature of the black culture.) Poor people in forty-one counties and two cities have brought into their communities millions of dollars in resources to change their lives.
The Assembly technique does not begin with program but with structure. The structure encourages self-help initiatives, which in turn create programs that are fitted to the community’s needs and deal with common problems. Such an approach assures that the initiatives undertaken by the leadership of the poor reflect the judgment of the entire low-income community and are concurred in by a majority. It provides a method by which the poor may judge the policies of their leaders and give assent to those policies.
The arrangement known as the Assembly is not intended as a temporary expedient but as a permanent institution. It is not organized around issues but according to an abstract structure. Nor is it organized around any fixed objectives but adheres to a rigid pattern meant to deal with whatever problems emerge. As a result, the community’s capacity for dealing with problems and needs increases over time.
Assemblies are non-political, although they can have political consequences. Virginia provides an example of this. It was the existence of the Assembly that brought Charles Robb into office, first as Lieutenant Governor and then as Governor. The black vote was essential to those races, as it was to the election of the first black governor in the United States, Doug Wilder. When I was talking with him about six months ago, I said, “You know, it was the votes of blacks and women that decided the contest between Robb and Oliver North.” And Wilder said, “It was the black vote. Robb got only 37 percent of the white vote.”
Before we established Assemblies, people just weren’t voting They were discouraged. One of their leaders said, “You know, we lost the election of one of our people by just thirty-six votes. I sat down and cried.” But when the people finally said, “Let’s give it a try,” they gained a majority in the county government within five months. The same thing happened throughout the Assembly areas; blacks were elected to county governments and city governments for the first time since Reconstruction.
I took people from the Ford Foundation to Surry County for a site visit about three years ago. A little old woman standing at the first site we visited saw me, came up to me, and asked, “Aren’t you Donald Anderson?” I said I was. She said, “Let me tell you, I never dreamed there could be such change during my lifetime as that which has occurred here.”
The problem of poverty is one of the most critical issues for the richest country the world has ever known. It hangs over America like a heavy burden. Yet there are solutions, and I believe the concept of the Assembly is one of them.