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60 years of impact: Step Forward celebrates Community Action Month

May is a month of celebration and reflection for many, but for Community Action Agencies across the nation, May holds a particularly special significance.


May is Community Action Month, a time to honor the dedication and impact of Community Action Agencies (CAAs) and the positive changes they bring to communities. This year, we commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Community Action Network, marking six decades of fighting poverty and promoting economic self-sufficiency.


The birth of Community Action

President Lyndon B. Johnson delivers his State of the Union address in 1964.

The origins of Community Action Agencies trace back to 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a “War on Poverty” during his State of the Union address. The bold initiative aimed to reduce poverty and create opportunities for all Americans.


As part of this effort, the Economic Opportunity Act was passed, leading to the establishment of Community Action Agencies. These agencies were designed to provide resources, support, and advocacy to individuals and families struggling with poverty, empowering them to achieve self-sufficiency and a better quality of life.


The role of Community Action Agencies


Community Action Agencies are the frontline in the ongoing battle against poverty. They offer a wide range of services tailored to meet the needs of their communities. CAAs provide key services such as early childhood education through Early Head Start and Head Start, energy assistance, job training and employment services, counseling, workshops, and more.


Step Forward: A legacy of impact


Step Forward, formerly known as the Council for Economic Opportunity in Greater Cleveland

A photo of the Council for Economic Opportunities door.

(CEOGC), has been a cornerstone in the fight against poverty since its inception. Incorporated as a private nonprofit corporation on September 1, 1964, Step Forward has a rich history of leadership and innovation. On January 8, 1965, Ralph S. Locher, former Mayor of Cleveland, was elected as President of CEOGC’s Board of Trustees. Just a few months later, on April 9, 1965, Ralph Findley was appointed Executive Director of CEOGC. In June 1965, Project Head Start was announced as an eight-week summer program, with the first two Head Start centers in Cleveland receiving funding on June 9, 1965. The following year, in 1966, the agency received a $1.1 million federal letter of credit for adult education, reading improvement, and work-study programs in Cleveland, significantly boosting its capacity to serve the community.


For decades, Step Forward has continued to evolve so that it could best meet the needs of Cuyahoga County. Today, it directly operates 12 locations, including seven Head Start centers, a Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) office, and four Neighborhood Opportunity Centers. The agency serves more than 29,000 Cuyahoga County residents per year, demonstrating its commitment to providing essential services and support to those in need.


A nationwide network


Today, there are more than 1,000 Community Action Agencies serving almost every county in the United States. In Ohio alone, there are 47 CAAs working tirelessly to support their communities. These agencies form a robust network that share resources, best practices, and a common goal of reducing poverty and improving lives.


The impact of Community Action


Two men hang a Head Start banner on a school bus.

Over the past 60 years, Community Action Agencies have made a profound impact on communities across the nation. They have lifted millions of individuals and families out of poverty, providing them with the tools and support needed to achieve self-sufficiency. Head Start programs have helped millions of children enter school ready to learn and succeed. The Home Energy Assistance Program has helped reduce or eliminate utility costs for low-income families. Additionally, by offering job training and employment services, CAAs have helped countless individuals secure stable employment, boosting local economies and fostering community development.


Celebrating 60 years of Community Action


This year’s Community Action Month is special as it marks the 60th anniversary of the Community Action Network. For six decades, CAAs have been at the forefront of the fight against poverty, adapting and evolving to meet the changing needs of their communities. This milestone is a testament to the resilience, dedication, and effectiveness of the Community Action Network.


As we celebrate this significant anniversary, it is important to acknowledge the tireless efforts of the staff, volunteers, and supporters who make the work of CAAs possible. Their commitment and passion have been instrumental in driving positive change and empowering individuals and families to achieve their full potential.


A photo of the Step Forward staff at their 2023 All Staff Day

Looking ahead


While we celebrate the accomplishments of the past 60 years, Step Forward also recognizes that the fight against poverty is far from over. Despite 60 years of progress, the need for assistance remains critical in many communities, including Cuyahoga County. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, the poverty rate in Cuyahoga County was 16.3 percent in 2020, higher than the national average of 10.5 percent. Additionally, the Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies (OACAA) reports that more than 400,000 Ohio households continue to face energy insecurity, struggling to afford their utility bills. These statistics highlight the ongoing challenges faced by low-income individuals and families. They underscore the continued importance of organizations like Step Forward.


In light of these persistent challenges, Step Forward remains dedicated to its mission of empowering individuals and families to achieve self-sufficiency. Through its comprehensive programs and services, Step Forward continues to make a tangible difference in the lives of thousands of Cuyahoga County residents. By addressing the root causes of poverty and providing pathways to economic stability, Step Forward is not just offering assistance but also fostering long-term change and empowerment within our community.


Community Action Agencies like Step Forward will continue to innovate, adapt, and expand their services to meet the evolving needs of their communities. With continued support from local, state, and federal partners, as well as the dedication of staff and volunteers, CAAs will remain a vital force in promoting economic self-sufficiency and improving the lives of those they serve.



 

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