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THE LVEDC INTERVIEW: ALAN JENNINGS

By LVEDC Staff on November 26, 2013

Editor’s Note: This week’s LVEDC interview subject needs no introduction. Alan Jennings is the executive diretor of the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley and his responses to our questions are frank and succinct.

LVEDC: What is the primary mission of the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley, Inc. and how does your organization work with Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation? 

Alan Jennings: Simply put, our mission is to fight poverty. The formal mission statement is a bit more wordy:  “… to improve the quality of life in the Lehigh Valley by building a community in which all people have access to economic opportunity, the ability to pursue that opportunity and a voice in the decisions that affect their lives.” We believe that the anti-poverty agenda is everybody’s obligation and, further, that everyone’s quality of life will be improved by uplifting those left behind.

In my eyes charity is something you do when you don’t have justice. We pursue justice. Justice is a fair marketplace that works for everyone. And, so, we see our role as pushing the marketplace and all who have a part in it to make decisions that benefit everyone, not just a lucky few. If you believe in the marketplace you should believe in it being fair. Toward that end we want to make sure that disinvestment is minimized, that credit is available, that we not discriminate, that our educational system is not a sophisticated form of apartheid, that jobs are available, housing is affordable, healthcare is a right and racism is confronted head-on.

LVEDC is critical to the tide rising. We see our role as helping to ensure all boats rise with it.

LVEDC: What are your thoughts on the downtown “vitalizations” going on in Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton?

AJ: The difference between how decision-makers and investors look at our cities in the broader regional marketplace today versus 10 or 20 years ago is phenomenal. We have a very progressive business community that supports urban revitalization, smart growth and efficient local governance (which, not coincidentally, is the agenda of RENEWLV). We have extraordinarily gifted, creative and bold mayors who have done remarkable work. What we need is for regular folks to understand that how they spend their money is more important than how they give it away or even pay their taxes. Folks, spend it on local businesses, preferably in our cities and boroughs.  Better yet, move into those cities and boroughs. Do that and the need for donations and tax subsidies will diminish significantly.

LVEDC: How has CACLV’s mission to address the causes and conditions of poverty been going — and can you name a few “victories” in the noble fight? 

AJ: Well, the fact is, the poverty rate has been increasing for years. The forces of the marketplace overwhelm far too many, including those of us doing everything we can to fight back. One of those forces is the cost of living in New York and New Jersey, which make Pennsylvania awfully attractive. In fact, New York and New Jersey’s affordable housing program is called “Pennsylvania.” We have far too few resources to win that fight.

So, I guess I have to say that I have failed.

That doesn’t mean that this agency hasn’t pulled off some extraordinary wins. We have built this community’s capacity to solve some of its problems by convincing the counties to create affordable housing trust funds that have generated millions of dollars, leveraging much more than that to create housing opportunities. We have worked with banks to generate well in excess of $500 million in community reinvestment commitments. We have helped hundreds of entrepreneurs start their own businesses, literally thousands of prospective homebuyers become happy homeowners and have protected hundreds of homeowners from foreclosure. We have saved more than 20,000 households millions of dollars in home heating costs. We led the campaign to generate $60 million in open space preservation and public parks funding. We have distributed more than 100,000,000 pounds of food assistance to fight hunger, and provided shelter to thousands of homeless people.

But the poverty rate has risen.

Some would say, then, what good are we? Maybe even blame us. That would be like blaming hospitals because we still have sick people or blaming churches because there are still sinners.

While most of the people of the Lehigh Valley genuinely care about their neighbors, we all know that there is still plenty of meanness in this world. I prefer to work with the former and thumb my nose at the latter.

LVEDC: Finally, what frustrates you the most in your work – and what does the future hold for Lehigh Valley communities and residents?

AJ: The meanness.

The future? That depends on whether folks do as God admonishes, regardless of our faith: that we, indeed, side with the poor.

Of course, my friends who are theologians will tell you that God can’t make us do right, that God gave us the ability to reason, and that the rest is up to us. I hate that explanation. I wish He (She?) would make it clear that those are his expectations and not let us off the hook.

Beyond all of that, I fear for the future. Our generation has been too self-indulgent. Our BMWs, big houses, destruction of the environment and excessive public debt are crimes against our children and grandchildren. I don’t see enough people being willing to sacrifice on behalf of others.

On the other hand, folks might surprise me and realize, as I said above, that we are all in this together. If that happens, we can all sing the “Hallelujah” chorus.

FULL PENNSYLVANIA LEGISLATOR INTERVIEWS ON TRANSPORTATION BILL

Editor's Note: The following are the full questions and answers involving the Lehigh Valley legislators who voted to approve the Transportation Bill. Senator Mensch's response[...]

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