Calvin Wright has been a stalwart supporter of the poor and disenfranchised for more than four decades, making it his mission to not just serve them, but empower them.
The 71-year-old has dedicated his life to human service, perhaps most prominently through the Orangeburg-Calhoun-Allendale-Bamberg Community Action Agency Inc., where he has served as executive director since 1983.
‘We serve and empower’
President Lyndon Johnson launched a set of domestic programs from 1964 to 1965 called The Great Society. As part of his effort to defeat poverty, more than 1,000 community action agencies were established at the local level to implement Great Society programs.
OCAB started in August 1966 as the private, nonprofit Orangeburg Area Committee for Economic Progress.
The committee received a $66,000 planning grant from the federal Office of Economic Opportunity. Programs that were sponsored initially included neighborhood service centers, Operation Mainstream, Neighborhood Youth Corps and Summer Head Start.
Wright began serving on the OACEP’s board of directors in 1972. He became deputy director of the agency in 1977 and was named its executive director six years later upon the retirement of its previous chief executive.
OCAB has helped shape its community by helping residents with affordable housing, workforce development, health care access, energy assistance, economic development, youth development, and emergency and natural disaster relief.
Wright is pleased to have had a hand in it.
“We serve and empower those who are underserved, the forgotten and the poverty-level individuals in our service area. Each community action agency has its mission, and that’s articulated and defined by the board of directors,” Wright said.
“We believe that the people who are closest to the problems are the best ones to articulate and define those problems and find strategies to combat whatever problems there are out there. So the board of directors – and this is a national mandate – is made up of one third public officials or their representatives, one third organizations that do similar kinds of work as the community action agency, and at least one third who must be the poor themselves,” he added.
He said the poor help to “actually design programs, run the programs and hire the staff.”
“That’s been a combination that has worked very well since ’64, when Johnson created the war on poverty and anti-poverty agencies.” Wright said.
The executive director has said that the agency serves approximately 19,000 annually and that its 12-member board has made the agency successful over the years.
He is proud of several programs which have blossomed under OCAB’s growing service umbrella, including its Senior Companion Program and Head Start program.
While workforce development programs such as those created under the Comprehensive and Employment Training Act and Job Training and Partnership Act have “sort of been pushed to the back burner by the powers that be,” he has been equally proud of those, too.
Wright said, “There are quite a number of youngsters who came through programs we operated. Not only did we have the Summer Youth Employment programs, but we had the programs that extended when they went back to school and worked year-round.
“Those folks learned work habits, how to participate in the workforce and what it meant to bring home a paycheck. For some reason, those programs are no longer in place. In my humble estimation, what has happened is that a lot of dollars that went to the poor themselves to stimulate them and show them what it meant to be involved in the work place were shifted to employers instead of employees.”
Nonetheless, Wright said it is rewarding when youngsters come up to him today and say how their participation in workforce development programs impacted them.
“A very successful entrepreneur in our community approached me and said, ‘You gave me my first job.’ He started out with our youth employment program,” he said.
Head Start is a particularly outstanding example of how something which was predominantly considered a summer program evolved into a largely year-round operation.
“When Head Start was first envisioned, there was not a degree in early childhood education in the country. We were of the opinion that children had to be 6 years old before they could start learning, but Head Start debunked all of that,” he said.
OCAB dedicated a new $6.5 million, 31,000-square-foot Head Start Center in 2015 to provide learning opportunities and security for 290 children ages 3 and 4 from the Orangeburg area.
There are six Head Start Centers located in the service area, including an Early Head Start Center for children up to age 3.
‘We’ve become an economic engine’
Wright said he is pleased with how the agency has helped shape its community.
“OCAB has been involved in many things in the community, whether it be national youth sports programs, or health programs that have come through OCAB such as with HIV prevention and initiatives dealing with immunizations,” he said.
“The other thing we’ve looked at is the resources that we bring into the community, the millions of dollars we’ve brought into these communities over the past 52 years. We have a staff of approximately 150 full-time employees and 65 part-time employees. Those dollars stay in the community and they turn over. So we’ve become an economic engine over the years.”
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The agency has won national recognition for its HIV Prevention Peer Education Project, which has used teens and young adults in the battle to stem HIV.
It also constructed a state-of-the-art technology center on its Willington Road property in 2007.
The development of a Community Development Corporation in 1993 has also helped to spur economic development in the service region. The corporation was the driving force in acquiring federal funds for construction projects, including Ujima Village, a housing development for 36 low-income elderly and disabled individuals in Bamberg.
Wright has seen how ideas become reality, including how the agency has served as an incubator for family service and teen pregnancy prevention programs.
The Youth Development Day Camp Program began in 1971. The Summer Job Bank for Youth Development was established the following year, along with a garden project, the Medicaid Transportation Services Program, an alcohol and drug abuse program and consumer and adult education programs.
All of those programs were initially incubated in OCAB and were then spun off, he said.
By 1976, the agency had also established the Orangeburg Elementary School Children’s Program, a Youth Employment Demonstration Project, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act and its Senior Companion Program.
“OCAB was the first to have dental units, and we spun them off to the Family Health Center. We are more of an incubator, and then turn things over to the community to run. We then look at something else we might be able to do that’s going to impact poverty, quality of life and standards of living,” Wright said.
“That’s basically what we’re supposed to do. We don’t want to get in the habit of giving a person a fish. We want to teach them how to fish. And once they’ve been taught how to fish, they can do it for themselves. That’s what we basically do in community action,” he said.
The longtime director said OCAB has also spawned a number of home-grown leaders whose histories can be traced back to their participation with the agency.
“If you look back on their history, they started out on the board of directors, they worked at OCAB and then they blossomed into community leaders. They were leaders all the time, but you kind of took them and made them believe in themselves,” Wright said.
"We’re talking about the ‘60s. Things were really not good in the ‘60s. So they had an opportunity to grow and say, ‘Hey, I can do the same thing,’ and they did.”
“Many people blossomed with a little help from community action,” he said. U.S. Congresswoman Maxine Waters once served as a Head Start teacher, while NFL player Mike Williams, a native of the Lake Marion region, attended Head Start.
“I have staff members who were Head Start students. Now they’re education coordinators or whatever back in Head Start,” he said.
‘I knew what I wanted to do’
Wright is an Orangeburg native and the son of the late James and Jessie Wright. The Wilkinson High School graduate went on to earn a degree in sociology from then-South Carolina State College, where he also received a Distinguished Alumni award.
He attributes his love of public service to his parents’ training. But there was also training he received through his community.
“I did a lot of work during the civil rights era and was active in Orangeburg during that time when I was in high school. It was nothing to be having a conversation with the Rev. I. DeQuincey Newman, who was state president of the NAACP, or Judge Matthew Perry, Attorney Zack Townsend. … It was nothing to just hang out with those folks. You learn from them. So that was part of it,” Wright said.
He was then drafted into the military and served in Vietnam as a military police officer from 1967 to 1968.
“After going to Vietnam and seeing all of that and coming back home, I knew that this is what I wanted to do,” he said, referring to his work in public service.
“I got back and I had to check in at the Veterans Administration (building) because they wanted to interview soldiers and that kind of stuff. I remember the guy who interviewed me said, ‘Now that you’re out, what do you want to do?’ I told him I wanted to run a human service agency. And I’ll never forget that he said, ‘Is that all you want to do?’ And I said, ‘Yes, that’s what I want to do,’” Wright said. “I knew what I wanted to do.”
Among the things that have made his job worthwhile was the construction of a new, state-of-the-art Head Start building.
“We had some really rough conditions, and then I wanted to have a place where staff could work and feel good about themselves. I wanted to have a place where those folks who unfortunately needed our services didn’t feel like they had to go to some place that was less than to receive those services,” he said.
“You also see the growth in people, people that you hire. You see them move and grow up and believe in themselves and do things you may have had a hand in. To have some of them come back to you and say, ‘You know, I want to thank you for doing so and so,’ is always good,” Wright said.
He and his wife, Tonya S. Wright, are the parents of three children and one grandchild.
Wright said retirement is not on the horizon for him right now.
“When I say, ‘Oh, man, I’ll let some younger folk do this,’ it doesn’t work that way. You do what you have to do and you serve where you have to serve. So that’s what I do. It’s been rewarding,” he said.