Fifty years of war on poverty


 Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties marks a half-century of active service

From August 6 through August 8, Minnesota Community Action Partnership held its annual conference in Duluth, celebrating 50 years of the Community Action movement in Minnesota and the nation. Each year the conference brings together the 26 Community Action agencies that collectively serve all 87 counties in the State of Minnesota. This year’s conference featured Governor Mark Dayton and Minnesota Commissioner of Human Rights Kevin Lindsey as keynote speakers.

During the conference, I thought frequently about the history of the Community Action Movement and, in particular, the history of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties, the agency that I have had the tremendous honor and privilege to help steward since August of 2008. I would like to share some of that history in this column.

In January 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson stood before the nation to deliver his first State of the Union. During his address, he proclaimed that “This administration declares unconditional war on poverty in America. The richest nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it. For the war against poverty will not be won here in Washington. It must be won in the field, in every private home, in every public office, from the courthouse to the White House.”

This bold pronouncement affirmed many elements of President John F. Kennedy’s blueprint for a “New Frontier.” Likewise, it supported the vision and aspirations of the late president’s brother-in-law, the American statesman and anti-poverty crusader Robert Sargent Shriver. Consequently, the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) was established and the Community Action movement was born in America.

That summer, St. Paul Mayor George Vavoulis and United Way Planner Bill Hoffman traveled to Washington, D.C. to request OEO funds to launch a new poverty program in the greater St. Paul area. Their efforts resulted in the establishment of the Ramsey County Citizens Committee on Economic Opportunity (RCCCEO), which became one of the first Community Action agencies in the State of Minnesota.

As “a voice for the poor in the community,” the RCCCEO set out to help low-income and minority communities “reach their full potential,” while making sure Head Start and other vital programs in the areas of education and employment got off the ground.

In November 1968, the RCCCEO was cited as “one of the best organized and most efficiently run local OEO offices” by regional standards and was recommended to administer manpower programs in Washington and Dakota Counties. By 1970, the agency had changed its name to Ramsey Action Programs (RAP) and significantly expanded its services to include several year-round Head Start Centers, multiple programs for seniors, legal assistance, emergency support, and community-based health services.

In 2004, RAP changed its name to Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties (CAPRW) to “signify a refocused strategy as a catalyst for change” as well as to better reflect the agency’s entire service area and its four-decade history as part of the Community Action movement.

Since its inception 50 years ago, CAPRW has been a forerunner in providing critical services to low-income and historically underserved populations, including the African American, Native American, Asian American and Hispanic American communities. The mission of the agency is to reduce poverty and its impacts on people in Ramsey and Washington counties.

CAPRW has been recognized for both its innovation and best practices and has previously spearheaded or partnered on a number of other anti-poverty initiatives and studies, including: Opportunity St. Paul, the Community Blueprint to End Poverty, the Legislative Commission to End Poverty in Minnesota by 2020, and the Northwest Area Foundation’s Community Perspectives on Poverty.

Today, Community Action provides direct services to almost 25,000 low-income households each year. Agency programs include Head Start, Early Head Start, Energy Assistance, Energy Conservation, and multiple self-sufficiency strategies designed to meet the social, cultural, educational, economic and employment needs of low-income citizens.

CAPRW’s self-sufficiency programs include Family Assets for Independence in Minnesota (FAIM), Project Success, Car Ownership, and Food Support. Other agency initiatives such as You Be the Change are designed to increase civic engagement, develop community leaders, and foster new and innovative partnerships to fight poverty.

As the demographics have changed over the years, CAPRW continues to evolve in order to provide responsive and accessible programming to an increasingly diverse service area that now includes new Americans from East Africa, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe. In 2014, both program participants and agency staff are fundamentally every bit as diverse as is the agency’s service area. Currently, CAPRW employees collectively speak more than 20 separate languages, most of which are required to perform specific job duties and further reflect the diverse populations that we serve.


To learn more about CAPRW’s programs and services, visit us at

Clarence Hightower is executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street, St. Paul, MN 55104.