Jews United for Justice

2009 Heschel-King Award
Sam Bernstein and Georgia Rusan


American Story

President Lyndon Johnson introduced the War On Poverty
In his State of the Union address on
January 8, 1964
At that time national poverty rate
Was estimated at 19% --

Next was the passing of the Economic Opportunity Act
Establishing the Office of Economic Opportunity OEC

Johnson called it the War on Poverty
An idea that rose and lifted again in mid Sixties
Declining in the Eighties and Nineties.
.
We honor today Sam Bernstein
And Georgia Rusan
Of the Human Development Corporation (HDC)
Noble embodiment of President Johnson’s War on Poverty
The goal – self sufficiency.


Sam Bernstein:

I was a protégé of Bill Kahn’s father
There was a group of us in Pittsburgh
I went first to Chicago then I came here
To the Jewish Employment and Vocational Service
1961.

The JVES had moved into secular community
We had to establish businesses
We had to get jobs
Mayor Cervantes grabbed me for HDC
Human Development Corporation
He had a thing about social workers.
I didn’t know what HDC was –
When he sat me down
I knew nothing about it.
I think the main thing for the poverty program
It had that community background.

I’ll tell you how it really happened
The Mayor’s brother was speaking
I asked him a question
Later I got a call from this priest
He came looking for me.
The right place
The right time.

I fell into this –
You think I knew what I was doing?

My role was to simplify so we could get this thing started
It was controversial
Not everybody got the idea that it was about --
Helping people help themselves.

I was a controversial appointment
I was Jewish and white.
It was a turbulent period
The Sixties
But we had good people.

When you said poverty program

That was a turn-off for some people
Some of the established agencies were threatened
If they don’t do the job
We’re going in there
We’re going to do the job.

The county and city later split
The county was not as aggressive as the city on community involvement.

We were lucky too.
We created Gateway Centers
We brought outreach workers to establish services in neighborhoods
Head Start
This was in 1965
I was General Manager ‘til ‘69

It was a turbulent time
Remember -- when the other cities were burning
St. Louis wasn’t burning.


Georgia Rusan

I worked with Sam at HDC
I was County Coordinator – one of the people coordinating programs
In St. Louis County
There were scattered areas of poverty in the unincorporated areas
Webster Groves, Kirkwood
Wellston, Kinloch
Areas both Black and White
Valley Park
Meacham Park
For years the County had been left to struggle alone
Largely rural areas
Some of the municipalities had grown strong
But many people had been left out.

My husband grew up in Richmond Heights
And he became the physician for the people in Richmond Heights
There were many individual initiatives
I had the physical knowledge of the area
I would lead the officials to the communities.

There was a little Black community in Ladue, for example
Most of these people would find their way to the doctor.

You see—the unincorporated areas
The County had a hard time getting support systems there
These were called the hidden areas by the US census --

Meacham Park didn’t have water, for example, they had to buy water,
Didn’t have sewers
They were smart –
They knew if they were annexed
Their land became vulnerable and they would become a shopping center
They may not have had great homes
But they had homes.

You could connect these areas
The streets wouldn’t be paved
But there were churches
There was community
People helped each other,

Like Meacham Park, I’d go there after hours,
Somebody had a hose snaked down the street
They figured out a way to share water.

I have a Masters in Social Work from Columbia University
I had worked at Family and Children’s Service
Then stopped when my daughter went to school
You never really left the field even when you weren’t getting paid.

Social work -- as we conceived it -- was one-on-one
But there are other dimensions
At Columbia I had to write a thesis on community mental health and hygiene
We were the first social workers to record on the medical charts.

At Columbia they founded the profession –
It was a very exciting time.
They trained me for the future.

Columbia was grinding out the text books for this new profession
For the new society.

There was a great feeling in America
We don’t want to see happen here --
What happened in Europe.
Our approach was strictly American
We exported it all over the world.

My husband played in this area as a child
Graduated Meharry Medical School
Medicine you know is 24/7 such a compelling life
My husband always saw the glass more than half full
He saw fifty glasses half full.

It was a struggle here
We still have the mud scrapers by the front door
We were building in the mud
We had to park up on Laclede Station road

We met on Sunday afternoons
We talked to people
We tried to stay away from publicity

The Bennett Avenue Historic district
I asked that the plaque be hung at the Richmond Heights Library.

The story of America
You start out to solve a problem.


Bless these Words:

The story of America
Fifty glasses half full
The new society
Community mental health and hygiene.

One-on-one
Social work
Outreach
Gateway.

Poverty program
Good people
Controversial.

The right place
The right time
Community
Self sufficiency.

Human development
Economic Opportunity
War on Poverty --

The future
The story of America.

jsg, usa