I’ve been on the job at the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity (CVOEO) for just over eight weeks. CVOEO is part of a national network of community action agencies that were created during Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.

The term “war” is sometimes used to muster resources toward a deeply entrenched social ill. There is the War on Drugs for example and now we are told we are waging a war against the coronavirus.

War even as a metaphor is grossly misplaced because there is no enemy outside of us that we must confront but rather we must confront the enemy within and this is ourselves. We should be using the language of self-reflection and healing in order to face what we have brought upon ourselves. Rather than doing battle with something “out there” let’s rightly consider our behavior individually and as a society as out of balance and deeply flawed.

The ideals that lead community action are embedded in social and racial justice. Justice is an act of empathy and love. It might feel good to build programs as if they were tanks prepared to defend us, but instead we should build insight and understanding and shine a light on the dark places. Poverty is of our own making and is due to our focus on the individual over community.

Coronavirus, foot and mouth disease, Ebola and HIV are just a few examples of zoonotic diseases brought on by our destruction of the environment and cruelty to animals. Drugs fill the emptiness in us and in our communities and provide a destructive longing for something better. This is not a war but a self-affliction. The proverb in Luke 4:23, “Physician heal thyself,” comes to mind.

Community action agencies are well positioned to listen, reflect and bring our communities together to heal. We need to renew our commitment to each other and to our communities. We need to reflect on where we have been and where we are going. We need to search not for an enemy but for the better part of ourselves.

Paul Dragon is the executive director of Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity.

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