Anti-poverty advocate seeks solutions, not scorn

Otis Bullock of Diversified Community Services says a lack of diversity is limiting the United Way

Otis Bullock has no issues with telling it like it is if the fight is an effort to thwart intergenerational poverty in Philadelphia. | Image courtesy: Devon M. Allen

By Kerith Gabriel

Otis Bullock doesn’t necessarily see things in black and white.

But he does notice when there’s more white than black.

Earlier this fall, the anti-poverty advocate penned a letter lambasting the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and sent that letter to the Philly media at-large. Needless to say, it grew traction and for a moment cast a spotlight on the United Way, the city’s largest anti-poverty organization.

To Bullock, the lack of diversity in the United Way — which contains an executive team that is 86 percent white — is a joke for an organization trying to effectively understand, impact and ideally eradicate intergenerational poverty. It was a point apparently well taken, as when reached out to for comment, the United Way supplied a five-paragraph statement that, in part, read:

“We understand the concerns that Otis Bullock raised in his letter, and we respect the opinions of our community members and partners across the region. We are open to discussing those concerns together, just as we did recently with Mr. Bullock. We believe that a commitment to diversity and inclusion is key to serving the communities of our nine-county footprint effectively. As a regional organization, we seek to build a staff and volunteer board that not only reflect diversity of gender and ethnicity, but also represent diverse geographical locations, our donor base and partners, and those we serve….however, we also recognize that there is more work that can be done to continue to reflect the diversity of this region.”

But in a follow-up with Bullock, who runs Diversified Community Services, a Point Breeze-based nonprofit that boasts a two-part approach to fighting Philly’s poverty issue, there was plenty to say.

Otis, what sparked that letter? What did you see that made you feel compelled to pen that and send it to Philadelphia media at-large?

I’ll tell you what I told the United Way; I wrote that letter with love and with good intentions because I know how great it could be. The reason I chose the United Way was because, to be quite frank, a lack of diversity is a serious problem across the nonprofit sector. It’s not just a United Way problem, but I chose [to call out] the United Way because of the work that they do, particularly with the mission to alleviate generational poverty and the impact that they have on the nonprofit sector as a whole. I believe that as the United Way goes, the nonprofit sector of that region goes. They have the ability to not only make an impact within their organization, but act as a catalyst for greater impact within the nonprofit sector.

But wouldn’t you agree that lot of these nonprofits are largely funded by the philanthropic efforts of wealthy people or organizations of the wealthy that are predominantly white? With this wealth comes power and pull thus comprising boards that are white, leadership that is white and predominantly white staffers? How much of that do you think plays a role.

I don’t have the numbers of who gives and who doesn’t give, but I do have the numbers on who the beneficiaries of all this giving goes to. In my opinion, it’s hard to make good, sound decisions when you can’t effectively understand the problem you’re addressing. I think that a lack of diversity or voices to help you understand the other side, so to speak, doesn’t really help.

What is the state of Philly’s poverty crisis now and how can your plan stop the bleeding, so to speak?

We’re a state of two cities right now. On one hand, we are at a 26.1 percent poverty rate making [Philadelphia] the poorest big city in America, but at the same time we have this boom going on with housing going up and young families moving in. There is this big gap of people moving in making six figures moving in next to the people living in poverty. Part of what I do and what we’ve always done at Diversified Community Services is based in Point Breeze, which is a highly gentrified neighborhood and we take a two-generational approach to poverty in our area. We combine quality early childhood education and offer housing and employment opportunities. The goal is taking the long-term approach of educating Philly and get them prepared for success in school to find a way out of poverty. The short-term goal is stabilizing the parent and the family so these children are in a stable place that fosters that learning experience. Most anti-poverty organizations only focus on one or the other, but not many do it together.

But isn’t a big monkey wrench in the case of education the fact that sadly many of our schools in the Philadelphia School District are substandard when it comes to curriculum to push children forward?

We start as early as possible, we’ve worked with kids as early as 6 months. We are a part of a [grant campaign] that is designed to have kids reading on grade level by fourth grade. In order to do that in the course of a six year campaign, you’re working with 2-year-olds today and 2-year-olds today will be in third grade in six years. So the goal is to make sure they’re not behind before they even get a chance to get behind. So our goal is that our young children from six months to 5 years old are developing at a rate that they are not behind in kindergarten. If you can do that, then you are setting a kid up on a path for success going into third grade. We also work with the schools around us to create a pipeline into those schools and that we’re providing our schools with students that are ready to learn upon their arrival. That’s our approach.

How many schools does Diversified Community Services work with now?

All together about seven schools all in our catchment area.

What’s the leadership comprised of at DCS?

It’s really diverse. We have a number of teachers and educators; we also have social workers and counselors that come from a variety of different backgrounds and ethnicities … from developers we have a quite a mix of people here.

What do you hope to see from the work both you and other organizations are doing right now in Philadelphia, say five or 10 years from now?

I just want to see our children grow up and have a realistic chance of being successful. I want to see more of a divide when it comes to generational poverty. I know it can’t be done overnight, but at the same time, there’s a right and a wrong way to go about doing it, that’s all I’m trying to say.