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"PRRAC at 25: John Charles Boger,"

by John Charles Boger September/October 2014 issue of Poverty & Race

The Poverty & Race Research Action Council was conceived by representatives of national civil rights and poverty law organizations in the waning months of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, during a time of renewed commitment to understanding and dismantling the structural foundations of American inequality. For this anniversary issue of Poverty & Race, we asked two of our founders to reflect on PRRAC’s history and its continuing relevance today. As the Civil Rights Movement evolves and adapts to new challenges in the 21st Century, we hope that PRRAC will continue to evolve alongside it.

Some 25 years ago, James O. Gibson, Director of the Equal Opportunity Program at The Rockefeller Foundation, began a conversation with some of his institutional grantees, including john powell, then National Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Alan Houseman, then Executive Director of the Center on Law & Social Policy, Florence Roisman, a leading light of the National Housing Law Project, and myself, Director of the Poverty & Justice Project initiated by the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc.’s director/counsel, Julius L. Chambers (and joined the following year by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law).

“Why aren’t you all talking more with each other?” Gibson challenged us. “I fund racial justice challenges under Title VI or Title VII at LDF and poverty-related challenges under federal HUD policies and regulations at the Housing Law Project, yet aren’t many to most of your clients both members of racial minority groups and lower-income?” “Isn’t it clear that they’re trapped both by their poverty and by racial or ethnic discrimination?” “Let me challenge you to bring together, regularly, members of all of the groups who are working on these and similar issues—including issues of gender inequality as they bear on lower-income women and families. You may find new ways to work together.”

The idea was a powerful one, echoing observations of scholars from Gunner Myrdal’s classic study, An American Dilemma (1944) to William Julius Wilson, whose insightful work, The Truly Disadvantaged (1987), was making its powerful case in the late 1980s about the insidious effects of urban poverty on African-American life. The “four founders” mentioned above took Gibson’s challenge seriously and began to conceive an organization comprised of leaders of 20 or 25 national civil rights, civil liberties and legal services groups who would gather at least twice a year to share ideas about “the intersection of race and poverty” and explore together the difficult problems that recurred in that always ill-defined intersection. The organization eventually took the name PRRAC—the Poverty & Race Research Action Council.

The commitment of the organization was always to become more than a semi-annual symposium. Instead, it saw its special role to stimulate and promulgate social scientific research aimed at exploring the “intersection of race and poverty” in ways that might be useful to ongoing advocacy efforts. It therefore early named a Social Science Advisory Board. It also aspired to circulate, in a pre-Internet era, meaningful research findings and legal/advocacy victories that bore on these issues. To give that effort some clout, Gibson granted some not-insignificant Rockefeller Foundation funds to PRRAC to be re-granted to advocacy groups throughout the nation who were pursuing important socio-economic and racially integrative ends. Those organizations could apply to PRRAC for $5,000 to $15,000 grants to commission key social scientific studies that could inform their ongoing work.

Aware that only through a permanent Executive Director might it effectively carry out these ends, PRRAC looked for a learned scholar-leader with deep social justice experience. It had the good fortune to find Chester Hartman, then a Fellow at the Washington, DC-based Institute for Policy Studies, who became PRRAC’s ED for its first fifteen years. Chester became a Washington insider on critical federal executive, legislative and administrative policy issues, a national spokesperson for PRRAC’s issues, and editor of the immensely useful Poverty & Race, the slim journal of opinion, information and bibliography about these issues that brought PRRAC to every corner of the nation.

PRRAC’s Board was a mix of continuity and change. Some of its members have never left the Board; others were replaced by other organizational successors as they moved from positions of leadership in their home organization. Efforts were made to assure that Legal Services members were regularly represented. At different times, representatives from various ethnic and racial justice groups served as members. PRRAC was one of the regular places in which African- American, Asian-American, Latino and occasionally Native-American representatives came together to share developing ideas and strategies. The pull between national-level issues and advocacy and local impact led to repeated efforts to add representatives from different geographical regions and a variety of groups concerned with poverty issues—churches, labor unions, and others.

Three continuing threads in PRRAC’s work have long been: (1) its commitment to attacking structural economic and social forces that perpetuate economic disadvantage for people of color; (2) its concentration on housing and educational policies as manifestations of those structural forces and, consequently, as arenas in which change is necessary; and (3) its belief that racial and socioeconomic integration, over time, are among the most promising strategies toward the goal of equality and justice. PRRAC has also continually pressed federal and state governmental agencies on their need to collect and disseminate data that would allow meaningful examination of the racial and socioeconomic impact of their own policies, and it has occasionally commissioned comprehensive scholarly examinations of federal policy choices that have helped to perpetuate or intensify racial and socioeconomic isolation.

Since 2004, under Philip Tegeler’s exemplary leadership, PRRAC has taken a leading role in national housing and education reform efforts, and has helped to support regional coalition efforts in Baltimore, Hartford and Philadelphia (and a series of research/advocacy grants in the greater Seattle area). More recently, PRRAC has joined colleagues working in the areas of environmental justice, transportation equity, and the housing-health intersection. As its small staff has grown, moreover, and as the digital age has made dissemination of ideas easier, PRRAC’s visibility has risen, though it operates below the radar of most Americans.

Indeed, PRRAC’s behind-the-scenes approach has more than occasionally led its Board members and friends to wonder about the effectiveness of its contributions. Rarely the lead actor in major public or legislative struggles, it has far more often served to remind its racial justice allies of the economic needs and deprivations of their client communities and vice versa, to remind poverty advocates about the racial discrimination that so often colors their clients’ circumstances. Yet in repeated studies of PRRAC’s work by outsider agents and consultants, back has come the confirming word that PRRAC plays a key role and that its “intersectional” mission is unique and highly valued by other active social justice organizations and by well-meaning federal governmental agencies.

As the recent, dismaying news from Ferguson, Missouri and the greater St. Louis region once again underscores, moreover, racial and socioeconomic subordination is a feature of American life in the second decade of the 21st Century that continues to demand far closer attention and far more systematic correction than American society wants to acknowledge. The survival of PRRAC and its relative sound health in 2014 are implicit tributes to the depth of the challenge that Jim Gibson pointed to in 1989. To paraphrase Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois’ great observation about the previous century, “The problem of the 21st century remains the problem of the color line, enforced no longer by strict legal prohibitions, but by the powerful, often invisible forces of economic inequality.” Those forces indeed still restrict where millions of families live, where their children must attend school, what limited public services they may call upon or enjoy, and what narrow trajectories are open to meaningful employment and bright futures for their children. PRRAC will always have a role until such inequalities are rooted out and overcome. It is the work of the next 25 years and beyond.

John Charles Boger is PRRAC's Board Chair, and Dean of the Univ. N. Carolina School of Law.

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