George Esser built bridges

By Todd Cohen

As North Carolinians wrestle both with the legacy of the 1898 Wilmington race riot and with the barriers that keep our newest Hispanic residents from enjoying society’s full benefits, we can learn a lot from the life of George Esser.

Esser, who died Nov. 5 at age 85, was a champion of social justice and human dignity.

A visionary who understood power and used it to enlist powerful people and organizations in building social change from the bottom up, Esser in the mid-1960s directed the North Carolina Fund, a landmark effort to address the interlocking problems of racism and poverty.

The Fund, the brainchild of the administration of Gov. Terry Sanford, was the first statewide anti-poverty initiative modeled on the urban anti-poverty work funded by the Ford Foundation.

Supported by Ford, the Fund operated for only a few years, but its impact has been broad, deep and lasting.

It was launched at a time when fighting poverty took the courage, smarts and vigilance to break through deep-seeded racial prejudice, and Esser was the right person for the job.

A patriot, a veteran and a man of faith, he was a committed, skilled and effective warrior in the civil-rights movement who helped provided “cover” for moderates reluctant to join the battle on their own, according to David Dodson, president of MDC Inc., a Chapel Hill think-tank spawned by the Fund.

Esser “believed in people’s capacity for goodness,” and in justice and the need to rejuvenate America’s social structures to achieve our nation’s ideals, Dodson said in an interview.

Envisioning the need for organizations to develop the state’s labor force and supply of affordable housing, and to build a network of community organizers, Esser helped create the infrastructure critical to fighting poverty and racism, and helped create or shape institutions critical to social progress.

The Fund, also supported by North Carolina’s Z. Smith Reynolds and Mary Reynolds Babcock foundations, greatly influenced both funders’ focus of on race, poverty and social change, for example, while MDC continues to provide pioneering research and leadership on workforce and economic development.

In his “retirement” in the early 1980s, after working as executive director of the Southern Regional Council in Atlanta, Esser returned to North Carolina and helped persuade the New York City-based Local Initiatives Support Corp. to invest in rural development here.

That investment supported organizations and projects that were the advance guard for what later became the strongest network of local community-development corporations in the South.

After LISC’s initial investment, Legal Services of North Carolina launched an effort to train community organizers and leaders in community-development work throughout the state.

Leading that effort were Abdul Rasheed and Debby Warren, who now head, respectively, the North Carolina Community Development Initiative and the Southern Rural Development Initiative, two groups dedicated to spurring growth and leadership in low-wealth communities.

Esser’s work also inspired leaders like Martin Eakes, who in 1980 created Self-Help, a Durham-based community-development bank that has grown to $1 billion in assets and invests in low-income and minority people and businesses.

And a broad range of other initiatives in the state carry on the job of bridging the gaps of income, race, ethnicity and culture.

The Duke Endowment, in an effort designed and managed by MDC, recently completed an investment of over $10 million to boost the economies of rural communities by helping local leaders grow and work together.

Erskine Bowles, president of the University of North Carolina system, has launched an effort to support its 16 campuses as they work to become more effective partners in spurring economic development in the communities they serve.

And NCGives, a $6 million donor-advised fund created at the North Carolina Community Foundation by the Michigan-based W.K. Kellogg Foundation, is working to support and strengthen giving by African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, women and young people throughout the state.

America today is divided by race, class and ethnicity. We are intolerant of those who do not share our values and faith, or are new to our shores. We do not want to spend a penny more in taxes to help people in need help themselves. And our politicians lack the vision and courage to ask us to change.

Still, thanks to George Esser’s leadership in investing in the human and community assets needed for social progress, our state is home to a corps of leaders and organizations with a passionate commitment to bridging the gaps that divide us.

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