Today would have been Sargent Shriver’s 100th birthday. Shriver was the right leader, the right man, for a moment in time that was a confluence of several historical trends. The trends included a thirst for economic and social justice, as well as a confidence in the country and in an active role for government in solving difficult problems. These trends met the unique talents of Shriver himself, who was able to inspire and harness the energy, youth, idealism, confidence, and pragmatic know-how of a whole generation as perhaps nobody else could have. Together they produced ideas and methods with true staying power.
Recently, I was privileged to attend a small dinner that included people who worked with and for Shriver in the 1960s. They all told fascinating stories of how Shriver-led initiatives, including the Peace Corps, Community Action Programs, and legal services, morphed from the most general of ideas and ideals into the long-lasting programs still with us today. They told delightful tales about frantic seat-of-the-pants improvisations, strokes of genius, round-the-clock work, hardball politics, low (or no) pay, and frequent moments of comedy that characterized that time in their lives. Each of these individuals is now extremely successful; all said their years working alongside Shriver were among the best of their lives.
Shriver’s ideas and methods have staying power because he understood that building peace and fighting poverty are not separate problems. Peace-building is an essential part of creating the conditions needed for upward mobility for people in poverty. And people in poverty who perceive that they have a fair chance for upward mobility will value and maintain peace.
In today’s America, many kinds of external conflict block upward mobility, including the open violence that plagues our neighborhoods, keeps people from working or succeeding in school, and prematurely ends lives. Building peace in neighborhoods is an essential ingredient to fighting poverty in those neighborhoods. But another kind of conflict is internal—the frustration of knowing one does not have a fair chance or the power needed to obtain a fair chance for upward mobility. That inner conflict can perpetuate poverty.
In the face of that kind of conflict, peace-building requires the enforcement of civil rights, so that there is both the reality and the perception of a fair chance. And peace-building requires that people in poverty have a voice in policy debates—a seat at the table where decisions are made. Will there even be civil rights laws? Will there be good schools? Child care to enable work? Decent wages and working conditions? Effective policing? Whether people in poverty get their way on these issues or not, did they have enough of a voice to balance the power in the decision-making?
Sargent Shriver and his colleagues thought these peace-building and poverty-fighting issues through. They made sure that Peace Corps volunteers were sent to help countries and localities address issues the countries had identified themselves, not U.S. interests. Here in America, Shriver and his colleagues anchored the domestic War on Poverty in community action agencies, expressly placing them at the service of local leaders in the communities. They created a legal services program to help empower the voice of those communities in policy debates. Peace was seen not necessarily as the absence of policy disagreements, but in the fair balance of power as communities contended in the policy arena for a fair chance for upward mobility.
Sargent Shriver would have been 100 today. He would have seen a time in which his ideas are as smart and needed as ever. As money tilts the balance in policy debates, the elements of a fair chance for upward mobility seem eroded or challenged, and communities face increasing issues of violence, there is a need for peace-building through power-building. Shriver and his colleagues showed that an active government, that provides resources to challenged communities to address their own problems and contend fairly in policy debates, and enforces the reality and the perception of a fair chance for upward mobility, not only effectively fights poverty but effectively builds peace.