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Nathaniel Branson

TALKING WITH NATHANIEL BRANSON

Nathaniel Branson was born and bred in the southern city of Chattanooga, Tennessee the youngest of eleven children.Born during the Depression into a poor family, Dr. Branson is no stranger to poverty and the experience of the downtrodden.He was accepted and began his higher education in 1957 at Hampton University quite by accident.One day before entrance exams to Hampton were to be given, he was asked whether he had planned to take the exam, to which he replied that he had no knowledge of an exam being given.Nevertheless, out of over one hundred students, only 12 took the exam, including him.He passed the exam, received a scholarship, and was off to Hampton to continue his education.   Dr. Branson subsequently received a Masters’ in Social Work Degree from Howard University in 1961, an MA in Public Administration in 1970 and a PhD in American Government and Public Administration from the University of Maryland, College Park in 1979.

Dr. Branson began his social work career in Baltimore.

“I was at Hampton Institute at that time and I came directly from Hampton to Baltimore to work at the Baltimore City Department of Social Services [DSS].I took the exam for a social worker for Baltimore City at Hampton, and I got a call later for an interview. So, I said, ‘Well I’ll go for the interview’ and ended up coming to Baltimore thinking that I would be here for one year.I have been here ever since.Now part of that is due to the fact that as an employee of the Baltimore City Department of Welfare at that time, I had an opportunity to do a Masters in Social Work while I worked.And this had been a crucial development for many, particularly black social workers at that time.We’re talking about a segregated city in 1958.There were few black social workers, mainly in the public sector.Very few black social workers worked in private agencies.

Baltimore is a southern city.When I came here Baltimore was as southern, if not more so, as my hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee.Let me give you an example…This is probably 1959, I’m working in a unit – an integrated unit – at Baltimore City DSS, and a white worker was leaving to work at Social Security.So, the unit wanted to take her out for lunch, not for dinner.The only place we could go at that time that would take an integrated group was the dining room in the Pennsylvania Station.”

In 1965 Dr. Branson left Baltimore City DSS to go to a new agency, the Community Action Program (CAP), or as it is known today, Community Action Agencies (CAA).CAP was part of the Economic Opportunity Act (EOA) of 1964.

“I began as the Neighborhood Development supervisor.The structure of the agency at that time was that there was a director, two associate directors, and the neighborhood development supervisor, the third level staff…About four or five months after I came to the agency Parren Mitchell came on board as the Executive Director.Parren Mitchell was the first black Congressman for the State of Maryland.” 

Dr. Branson soon became Chief of Neighborhood Operations.In CAP poverty was dealt with from a totally new approach.

“The Community Action Program really took a different view of poverty.The approach prior to that time had been really ‘blaming the victim’ for being poor.It was acceptable if you were a ‘good poor person,’ meaning that you were a widow, or even, to some extent, if you were divorced, or if you were disabled.But being in poverty was sort of looked at as a pathology – the person was responsible for being poor.The EOA program really began to look at the macro-system – those things in society, the community that made people poor, and how to correct some of those.Part of the EOA – and it became very controversial – was the ‘maximum feasible participation’ of the poor.It meant that for the first time poor people were going to be involved in trying to solve some of the problems and to really be in on the policy and decision-making role. They would be able to participate in those decisions that affected the community.Now a big part of the poverty program was that the first line staff was composed of people from the neighborhood. ” 

Many poor people came off of the welfare rolls as a result of the training and schooling they received through CAP.

“By their being involved and being able to get an education, they were able to buy homes, and for them life was going to be better for their children than it was for them.Many of their children went to college and became lawyers and doctors…You could really see people change.” 

The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, and more specifically the Community Action Programs, helped to bring to the poor a sense of power within a society that sought to disenfranchise them.

“The EOA program was about acquiring power; trying to help the poor gain power.We really worked with people in poverty – neighborhoods for the most part – in terms of working with them on things like getting a traffic light at a corner, getting them on the board with certain organizations; really beginning to be organized in terms of demonstrations and picketing.For example, in the role of Chief of Operations I can remember an incident when we wanted to have a demonstration at City Hall.We needed to get people down there.So we used money from the program to rent buses to take them down to City Hall to demonstrate.You couldn’t do that now.”

There was much negative reaction to CAP.

“CAP did not receive good evaluation in terms of what the program did.It was assumed that money was wasted, that no one benefited except social workers and businesses and so forth.A lot of poor people benefited as a result of that particular program.I see this really as the start of empowerment.”

 In looking at how this nation’s government was able to enact the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, it should be noted that while President John F. Kennedy created the idea of a war on poverty, President Lyndon Baines Johnson got it moving.

“He [Johnson] was able, because of his legislative skills, to push the Great Society programs through.My guess is that Kennedy would not have been able to get many of these things through Congress.Johnson pushed them through.I think looking at the number of people in poverty in the light of all the affluence we had in this country really made us start to take another look at poverty, and how we could really change institutions to be more responsive and more receptive to the poor.”

Involvement with residents of neighborhoods and communities was the most gratifying part of Dr. Branson’s career.

“To be able to work with people and not have all the status barriers coming up in terms of education, position, and all of that; to really see residents progress and to actually see things happen in terms of people getting services – getting help to better their lives…I have had a very fulfilling experience in social work.I think they’re going to put on my tombstone ‘He was a social worker.’I have a lot of feelings for dealing with people who are oppressed.I am very concerned with institutional change.And there you get into politics.”

 This interview was conducted by Ms. Maria Luisa Tyree