Magee Interviews: Bonita Grubbs, Christian Community Action

Rev. Bonita Grubbs is the Executive Director of Christian Community Action, an ecumenical social service organization that expresses faithful witness by providing help, housing and hope to those who are poor in New Haven. She has degrees from the Yale School of Public Health and Yale Divinity School. 

What led you to Christian Community Action?

A friend suggested I apply! After I got to CCA I realized that being here would allow me to use the two parts of myself – both the public health degree in thinking about systems and framework, the way in which one can view and address problems at the community level and the divinity degree in thinking about personal and social transformation.

Prior to coming to CCA I was assistant regional administrator for the CT Department of Mental Health, where I was exposed to grants administration at a time that there was a lot of conversation and planning about moving people from long term mental health hospitals towards community based settings. All those experiences of community networking, plus the administrative pieces, were one side of my own education process. I started at the Yale School of Public Health believing that was where I was to go – the Call was that specific. After I got there, I realized it was one thing to know how to make things happen and another thing to understand the philosophical, social, theological underpinnings that must be part of the change.

For example – if one looks at the issue of violence, one can conclude that is manifestation is a symptom of a much larger, and deeper societal problem. The public health side of me says ‘what are the reasons for that, what can you do to construct a framework to examine that phenomenon, how do you look at it from a solutions point of view’. What I learned during my divinity degree studies was the ‘why that’s important’ angle from the human, spiritual, community vision perspective. If you believe that all people are made in the image of God, then there are specific ways that this can be manifested, both in terms of the kind of help you provide them with, and what you envision for deeper and lasting change that really does emphasize the value of each individual. So it’s two sides of myself that came together – I’ve found my niche.

What are your current goals as an organization?

In 2017,CCA will be celebrating 50 years of ministering in New Haven. The organization was started by a group of Protestants & Catholics who were seeking to find answers to the question ‘what does my faith call me to do’. This became tangible in trying to respond to one particular emergency – filling a gap for one family. CCA has attempted to do that consistently over these 50 years.

Our constant reality is that someone has a gap and we can see if and how we can fill it. That’s been a very important aspect of the work. But there are all these people who have needs we can’t fill. Therefore, we ask the question ‘what’s the responsibility of our government, society, the decision makers and what structures are you putting in place to reduce those individual instances where people are in in crisis.’ Over the years we’ve used that mode of operation, from individual circumstance to public policy advocacy.

What are the challenges you currently face as an organization?

In the time that we’ve been in existence, there’ve been many changes socially, politically, and economically, that have resulted in a larger number of individuals that have emergencies. For example: our food pantry is really designed to meet one instance of emergency need. What’s happened over time is that it’s not just ‘one and done’ – it’s an emergency every month. In excess of ¾ of the people who come to our food pantry are regular customers. Therefore, we can continue to offer the food to the person who is hungry, but that’s only a temporary solution. The numbers have remained steady, if not increased over time. Today, we’ve come to look at how we can take a further step with people – why should we continue to accept that people are repeating customers? How can we intervene in some new and different ways to be able to reduce the reality and the frequency of repeating customers? How do we move from focusing most exclusively on the problem to focusing with additional rigor on the solution? How can we keep people from languishing in the land of low expectations – thinking that a bag of food for a couple of days is better than nothing at all? As some people say, you need to teach people how to fish, not just give them fish – but we also need to change the quality of the water so fishing and eating can happen. That’s the system change part, and we need more thinking, more consideration, more promotion of what those solutions might be.

What are the personal challenges you face?

A key component is remaining centered in the reality that human need exists, has existed, will always exist and continuing to meet human need, yet looking at creating a pathway to meeting those needs: human need lessened and crisis abated. The pathway is just as important, if not more so, than the need itself. There are a lot of organisations that report ‘we have served (insert number) people’ and that’s fine. But how do you know that people really are better off as a result of the intervention? How do you make it possible for them to have a less complicated, healthier, and hopefully lasting change in their lives and try to remain focused on the stuff we know we can do? We started with a focus on families – and we have remained consistently connected to that reality. That’s hard, because the times have changed, and we need to be as relevant today as we were in 1967 but in a different way.

How has the organization changed over that time?

We were just a small, friendly neighborhood emergency service center, and that’s still true, but we added a transitional housing program a few years ago – that’s a step toward answering the ‘how do we create a pathway out of poverty’ question. In May we started a new program because we recognised that if we have repeating customers who are in the process of being self-sufficient and seeking family security, we must offer some on-going method that prevents them from falling back into the same problems – a family gets out of the shelter and what happens on the other side is the family becomes homeless again because the family can’t remain in housing without the right certificate or training to become gainfully employed at a livable wage. Even if the family is in affordable housing, the social problems, personal problems might not have been addressed. There needs to be a program that understands this dynamic.

What do you wish you knew about social justice or public service when you were 20?

I would have liked to have known what those words meant! I was a sociology major as an undergraduate, so I studied social structures and constructs, but I did not have the depth of knowledge around ‘what’s right to do?’, ‘what’s just to do?”, and ‘what’s honorable’? – that sense of the moral challenge. But I don’t think I could have gotten that when I was 20 – because I was still trying to figure out what I was doing with my life. And I’m still not quite sure!

What do you still struggle to remember/still have to learn?

A couple of years ago at our agency staff retreat we talked about change, transition, and transformation. Change is the first step – the vision of what needs to change and understanding there is a problem that needs to be addressed. The second step is transition – you don’t just snap your finger and create a new thing – so resources have to be put in place to make this step possible. This one is fraught with difficulty, because it’s full of questions like ‘why have we done it this way?’ and ‘why don’t we do something different?’ This is challenging because it requires reflection and assessment of what is important as areas of focus – what are you making a commitment to do substantially different to open the door to transformation? If here is no commitment to doing so, then, there is no related action. I’ve heard more times than I can count someone expecting doing the same thing and expecting different results – and that’s the definition of insanity.

Then, there’s the transformation, which is radical and even revolutionary in some ways, because one can see the results of the effort put forth during the transition process. Transformation is very hard, because the things people say need to be changed are not cosmetic and opinions as to how to bring it about are conflicting and challenge people’s values and deeply felt beliefs. However, we have to ask what we’re going to make as our primary focus. Think about the start of the civil rights movement. Transformation happened that was tangible but it was challenged, opposed and resisted before and after the desired success was achieved. It’s good to be able to remember that ‘transformation’ is a word we love, but it’s hard to achieve, and we never quite get to the place where it’s complete, because there is always some thing that we don’t see, or can’t see. So within CCA, we are participants in one aspect of the community and strive for personal and social transformation, but there is so much more above and beyond what we do to which we need to pay attention because it directly affects the people we serve

What motivates you to keep going? What are you hopeful about? 

I like to see tangible result and feel as if I am making a difference. I have embraced the idea of being an agent of change – it’s both a change in people’s lives, and a change in the places I can make a difference beyond that personal and programmatic level, in the area of policy and lending my voice prophetically to that work.

I’m hopeful that at CCA we will achieve greater results because of our disciplined work to reduce the despair and depth of need we see now that is beyond our ability to address. Within CCA’s programs, we are beginning to ask the questions “If you propose a solution, how do you infuse it into various parts of the agency, so you’re not just putting Band-Aids on people? If you see that people are drowning, how do you go upstream so you can help at an early point, before people become desperate?” My hope at this point is to see that we develop a continuum of care, so that whatever point someone comes into CCA, they will get a next couple of steps worth of help, so that when they leave us, we can clearly point to ways they are concretely better off.

Interested in volunteering, internships or community placements with Christian Community Action? Get in touch!

Hannah Malcolm, M.A.R 2016 (World Christianities), Magee Fellow at Dwight Hall

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