Social service and social justice efforts collide

"We have fought for the democratic principles of equality under the law, equality of opportunity, equality at the ballot box, for the guarantees of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We have fought to preserve one nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Yes, we have fought for America with all her imperfections, not so much for what she is, but for what we know she can be." — Mary McCleod Bethune 

Our privileges can be no greater than our obligations. The protection of our rights can endure no longer than the performance of our responsibilities.” — John F. Kennedy

At a time when social injustice seems as rampant as ever, there are no two more appropriate quotes than these to remind us of the need for our society to correct institutional inequality. The “America” that Mary McCleod-Bethune describes is figurative. Her definition transcends the country’s physical boundary to speak or its ideology as well as its people. Kennedy, on the other hand, is blatantly personal and speaks to how we, as a people, are obligated to use what we have been given for good.

Amanda Gorman, the nation’s youngest poet laureate would echo the collective sentiment of McCleod-Bethune and Kennedy when she spoke these words during her 2021 inaugural poem, “We've learned that quiet isn't always peace. And the norms and notions of what justice is isn't always justice.”

Traditionally, social service organizations have been placed in the crosshairs of the aforementioned statements. They have increasingly always been asked to fill the gap created by our government’s institutions and to nurture a developmental class of those left out of the conversation of progress. 

As the executive director of the Northern Kentucky Community Action Commission (NKCAC), Catrena Bowman-Thomas knows that this is not new information and has committed her agency to improving the health and well-being of all people they serve by reinvigorating the agency’s charge against social injustices. 

“This is what our agency was founded on,” said Bowman-Thomas. “Our agency was born out of the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act which empowered the poor to fight poverty and other injustices. It is only right that we, as an organization, re-add to our service provisions the tools, for those with whom we serve, to navigate our society’s concurrent social justice, financial, and health crisis.” 

Bowman-Thomas’ path to executive director is somewhat unique. She knows first-hand the ins and outs of the agency’s services because she once used them to help make ends meet. Throughout her career Bowman-Thomas has become skilled in nonprofit organizations and operations management, youth development, early childhood education, and program evaluation, all while obtaining a Master's degree focused in administration from the University of Kentucky.

Regardless of our setting, all social service organizations, in some way, are engaged in work related to social injustice. Some of these organizations have an acute awareness of the challenges faced by children and families living in poverty, the disproportionate incarceration of men of color, and the challenges experienced by those living with disabilities. Surviving and thriving as a social service agency requires an appreciation of diversity and understanding of how social identities affect access to resources. 

The eraser of Breonna Taylor and killing of George Floyd has sparked one of the largest expressions of social justice in recent history, stamping out that old adage that suppressing the collective voice of the traditionally marginalized is standard modus operandi.

Over the past twelve months, while under the lead of Bowman-Thomas, NKCAC has taken on this charge to give voice to the voiceless, arming them with the tools to succeed, not in just life, but also in systemic reform. They have filmed over a half-dozen Conversations to Advance Equity, a series of interviews with local leaders and residents speaking to how individuals can use their own strengths and knowledge to promote change.

NKCAC also conducted a Black History Walk, both in-person and virtually, where participants were introduced to the rich African American history throughout the northern portion of Covington, through architecture and placemaking. 

In addition, efforts have been made by the agency to promote equity and inclusion by bringing regional leaders in the subject together and to host, in cooperation with The Bowles Center for Diversity, the area’s first Regional Implicit Bias Symposium, an outgrowth of conversations held with community partners on race relations that was conducted in direct response to the diversity challenges occurring across the country and throughout the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky region.

Another effort that NKCAC has taken on is an initiative to advance resources for area Black-owned business by hosting two Black Business Town Halls where resources are shared by financial institutions and African American business owners alike. The third instalment will be held on April 27, from 5:30–7 p.m. 

The new invigoration of social justice into our societal lexicon is not just a buoyant approach that gives voice to the voiceless, but it also gives opportunity for those social service organizations — who have traditionally remained tertiary to social justice efforts while still providing supportive services for those whom have been marginalized — to publicly support Black Lives Matter through public statements and donations; ratifying their commitment to taking a stance towards equity. 

Over Bowman-Thomas' career, she has worked tirelessly to improve the standards of non-profit organizations while promoting examples of good collaboration, not competition, amongst organizations providing similar services to similar individuals and hopes that this will be the same for social justice efforts.

"My hope," Bowman-Thomas says, "is that the challenges our region faces, with regard to social justice, can be addressed in an integrated way by a collaboration of organizations working towards the same goal."  

For a complete list of all of NKCAC’s social justice initiatives, please visit https://www.nkcac.org/justice.

Read more articles by Kareem A. Simpson.

Raised in the inner city of Covington, Kentucky, Kareem Simpson is an author, innovator, community enthusiast, military veteran, serial entrepreneur, foodie and lover of all things creative.
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