On MLK Day, Tackling Dr. King’s Poverty Imperative One Opportunity at a Time

On December 11, 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. accepted the Nobel Peace Prize for his non-violent civil rights work. Not surprisingly, in his acceptance speech for the award, he focused on the fights for racial justice and to end wars. However, the second major focus of his speech was an admonition of efforts to fight poverty both in the U.S. and abroad.

King challenged rich people and nations to lift up those who were underdeveloped, unschooled and unfed, especially in America. At the time, the church and civil organizations were the backbone of the Black community. They were effective in organizing, educating and securing employment for Blacks during periods of great discrimination and social upheaval. Yet King believed that significant racial disparities called for a significant government response in, for example, guaranteeing incomes. Ironically, King also acknowledged large-scale public welfare programs had failed to lift tens of millions of Black Americans out of poverty.

Over the past six decades, prosperity and economic mobility have spread to Blacks, racial minorities, poor whites and immigrants as they have gained access to opportunities to work; acquired education, skills and training and managed their resources. Individual agency supported by community resources has been transformative where government welfare has been debilitating.

While King supported a government role in tackling poverty, he also rightly observed that agency and access to opportunity are key in changing lives. In his 1967 book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?,” he wrote, “The dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his life are in his own hands, when he has the assurance that his income is stable and certain, and when he know that he has the means to seek self-improvement.”

While some look to Washington to provide individuals with this economic certainty, at Philanthropy Roundtable, we look outward to the businesses, entrepreneurs, donors, nonprofits and foundations across the country that invest in helping individuals, especially those from the hardest circumstances, to build the human capital needed to rise. On this MLK Day, we can look to individual successes to tell the story.

Workforce Development Organizations Provide Pathway Out of Poverty

Rahmel Hunter was a young man who lived in a frustrating cycle of poverty. “A lot of my life has been me trying to figure out how to get up out of the hood. It’s one of those endless cycles where you need a job but you don’t have an education for it. But you don’t have the money to get an education so you don’t get a job. … I almost gave up until I found NPower.”

Hunter described how NPower, a national workforce development organization focused on closing career opportunity gaps for traditionally underserved and vulnerable populations, provided him an internship, education on technology, a social worker and a career – not just a job. Now an information security analyst at NBCUniversal, Hunter joins many other people from across the country on a trajectory out of poverty because of effective charitable organizations.

Work Works America and the Edwins Leadership & Restaurant Institute are two additional workforce programs that are closing skills and employment gaps and meeting other social service needs. Founded by the Doe Fund, Work Works provides regional programs that combine paid work with career training, transitional housing and comprehensive supportive services. By providing a holistic approach, the organization tackles two intractable problems, homelessness and recidivism, both of which may not solely be solved by a job alone.

For Johnny, a local Doe Fund program turned him into a responsible man after life on the streets encouraged him to remain a troubled teenage boy. At the age of 12, this young man started a life of crime and violence that escalated to arrests three to four times a week. By age 25, he had spent half of his life in and out of prison. After losing his younger brother to street violence and his best friend to an overdose, he turned his life around when he joined Ready, Willing & Able, a 12-month residential program that includes paid work complemented by holistic social services, career and workforce development training, continuing education and sobriety support. “I now know that I can support the people I love as a man, with a good job and a future. I never have to spend another minute in jail to be that man,” he said.

Cleveland, Ohio-based Edwins Leadership & Restaurant Institute works with about 250 people each year who, like Johnny, are held back by criminal backgrounds. Founded in 2007 by award-winning entrepreneur and chef Brandon Chrostowski, Edwins provides formerly incarcerated men and women with a foundation in the culinary arts, employment opportunities and services that prepare them for a successful transition and life after incarceration, such as access to free housing, legal services, basic medical care, clothing and job coaching.

There are many more local and national programs fighting poverty one opportunity at a time. You can read more about them in our Opportunity Playbook, a resource that connects foundations and donors with high-impact organizations promoting economic opportunity for people across the country. We can be encouraged by these private-sector models of success which, with our support, will help individuals obtain the means to tackle self improvement.

King believed economic opportunity and prosperity were not just possible but that they were a moral and biblical imperative. In his Nobel Peace Prize speech, he noted, “There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we have the resources to get rid of it.” While he may have had public resources in mind, caring people and organizations like NPower, the Doe Fund and the Edwins Leadership & Restaurant Institute are powerful examples of how the private sector is executing on this directive.

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