The passing of Sargent Shriver brought about a satisfying outpouring of tributes. His personality was a unique combination of larger-than-life and down-to-earth. He came annually to our fund-raisers in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and I had a chance to see him in action. He clearly loved people. And they clearly loved him. His constant message was both upbeat and demanding: “What have you done today to make the world a better place?” he would ask with a gleam in his eye, conveying his confidence that you not only could do it but also would love doing it. People left with an excitement about being of service.
Shriver was a brilliant thinker and tactician. He launched many life-changing programs that are still vibrant: good ideas created to tackle real problems discerned at the community level. They were launched with tactical skill, pragmatic good sense, and that rare Shriver energy—upbeat and demanding. These ideas flowed from Shriver’s values and his big-picture strategic vision that transcended his own time and place and set of circumstances and generated staying power.
Among those transcendent values were peace and peace building. Joby Taylor, who directs the Shriver Peaceworker Program at the “other” Shriver Center, located at the University of Maryland–Baltimore County, published a beautiful tribute that highlighted Shriver’s compelling concept of practical idealism: “[B]ecause service highlights our common humanity even as it solves real and pressing problems, it is a primary pathway to peace. . . . The experience of working alongside others and solving problems … instills in us a sense of the usefulness of our idealism.” Amen. Joby’s main focus is the Peace Corps and service learning, but he was describing the best aspects of legal services work, too.
The aspect of peace building that revealed itself in Shriver’s original vision for legal services was an eyes-open realism about power. Shriver located legal services within community action agencies. The lawyers were not only to represent community members in court to assure them equal access to civil justice but also to represent community leaders and the community itself in the solution of wider problems identified locally. The lawyers were to bring their skills to bear to increase the power of community interests to be players on issues of policy and social systems that might affect them.
This was a realistic understanding about producing peace in spite of conflict. Peace will not come if people experience inevitable and constant defeat in public policy matters, and peace cannot be manufactured by eliminating all conflict. No matter how much society ameliorates the losers, they eventually become frustrated and dangerously uninterested in legitimate policy processes. The tension between haves and have-nots, and between groups with competing interests, is a constant feature of the human condition. Conceding the presence of conflict, Shriver concentrated instead on promoting a fair process to deal with conflict. Providing lawyers, with their expertise and advocacy skills, to serve low-income communities in public policy conflicts was a way to level the playing field. Low-income communities would have an improved chance to assert their interests, to win their share, to influence outcomes—to be players on issues that affect them. And, feeling empowered, they will invest in the process, tolerate setbacks, and have the confidence to resolve conflicts through compromise. Peace proceeds from arm’s-length handling of public policy conflicts, and this brings low-income communities into the flow of American life. Practical realism indeed.
Fifty years later, legal services programs are vindicating Shriver’s moral vision of building peace through service. They are also recognizing the lasting wisdom of his insight that, by building the power of communities to be players in policy debates on issues that affect them, legal services lawyers build peace in a very realistic way.
This blog post will also be published as a letter to subscribers in the January-February issue of Clearinghouse Review: Journal of Poverty Law and Policy.