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Mark Battle

Talking with Mark G. Battle

Mark G. Battle, former CEO of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) received his undergraduate degree from the University of Rochester, in Rochester, New York and his Masters in Social Work degree from  Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. He is originally from Bridgeton, New Jersey. After receiving his MSW degree, he began his social work career in Cleveland, Ohio first at the Urban League, where he was involved in community organization and then at the Friendly Inn Settlement House. Mr. Battle states that the Friendly Inn “was an old settlement house down in the heart of what we now call the ghetto.”   Following his work at the Friendly Inn, Mr. Battle went to work for the Lower North Center, another settlement house in Chicago. He eventually began what he called, “an early private practice and served as a consultant to the United States Department of Labor.”   It was during his position as consultant for the Department of Labor that Mr. Battle became involved in issues related to President Lyndon Johnson’s vision of “The Great Society” and the development of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964.

They Needed To Have People…Who Know How to Help People”

During Mr. Battle’s tenure with the Department of Labor, he worked with Willard Wirtz, who was then the Secretary of Labor.
So, Mr. Battle set out on his recruitment search in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Omaha, and Washington, D.C. for individuals who could help with the new federal projects bringing a different set of skills than the existing staff.

After President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and Lyndon Johnson became President, the Economic Opportunity Act was signed into law. At the time I was working for the Department of Labor.I started as a consultant and then took the plunge into a full-time position. In that position I became Assistant to the Deputy of Manpower, Sam Merrick.  They had no social workers on that staff, so I convinced Sam that they needed to have people who understood and knew how to help people…they needed to have people helping them design programs who knew how to help people improve their own environments and themselves.  He said,’ okay, you pick out some people for us.“ 

“…people they called Employment Counselors who had been trained like school counselors. I recruited about ten people who became the team that designed the Neighborhood Youth Corp and the Job Corp.

The Neighborhood Youth Program was the first substantial program under the Economic Opportunity Act.
“The fact is Willard Wirtz and his team designed those programs as a part of a total effort.  President Johnson had asked Sargeant Shriver to head up the Office of Economic Opportunity; [however] he realized that there were several units of people who were developing program initiatives and he wanted them to be part of a total thrust under the Economic Opportunity Act.  When they were all together, Shriver decided that he wanted to make the Job Corp his flagship operation and Wirtz didn’t like it, so they had a big fight. That’s not part of official history…The Neighborhood Youth Corp [Wirtz’s project] was the first substantial program that any community action organization had to offer the community that really had money to put into the community.” )professionals knowing something and then being in the position to tell the federal government and demand respect for what they were doing. That was a challenge.”

Mr. Battle was responsible for converting paper policies, objectives and goals into functioningnational programs.

“The federal government had not, prior to the [establishment of the] Economic Opportunity Act, operated direct federal [social] programs, except in the Veteran’s Administration… I guess you could call the Social Security activity a program, but it wasn’t really, because all you were doing was transferring money in the social security program, and then the VA was a hospital operation. So, this was the first substantive federal-to-community-to-people program design and activity. Its design and operation had facilitated it to have a flow of money from the federal government to the man on the street. The second assignment was to implement the Neighborhood Youth Corp.

In these years trained social workers were not always eager to “own” their professional identification.

“There was the business of introducing social work as an accepted profession…. You had some social workers in that operation (the Office of Economic Opportunity) largely associated with the Community Action Programs (CAP), but they didn’t regard themselves as social workers.It is one of the criminal realities of the environment [of the federal agency].There were people who were ashamed to call themselves social workers because they were regarded [by those other staff around them] as ‘do-gooders.’Well, we changed some of that. The crew of people I brought in had black and white professionals, one Puerto Rican, and two women.  (These were

“The White Man Can’t Help The Black Ghetto”

“One example of how much of a challenge it was, at that time I got a little disturbed with some of the people and I wrote an article for the Saturday Evening Post called “The White Man Can’ t Help The Black Ghetto” (January 29, 1966).

As Mr. Battle explained this was not his original title to the article, but one that the Post tagged onto it. He states that when Secretary Wirtz became aware of the article, he and some of his people became upset. The reason was that Mr. Battle had not cleared it with him.  However, he had cleared it with his immediate boss, Sam Merrick.   The Secretary and his people were also upset because the article “flew in the face of their own understanding.”
“When he read it, he called me in and he said, ‘I don’ t believe this.’  I said, ‘well you can validate it.’One of the things I talked about (in the article) was the difference between the numbers of unemployment they were reporting and reality in the inner cities. So he said,’ okay, I’ m going to validate it, because this is important.’ So, he authorized the organization of a ten-city research activity on unemployment and they discovered underemployment, as well as unemployment at a much higher level in the inner cities than in any of the reports they had before. Everybody thought I was going to get fired when that article came out. Not only did I not, I got promoted [after Secretary Wirtz gathered the data] from Consultant to the Assistant to the Deputy of Manpower, to Director of Youth Operations, then to the Director of Neighborhood Youth Planning Programs for Youth and Adults. ”

As a social work professional at the time of Economic Opportunity Act of 1964,  Mr. Battle saw the enactment of this policy as “an opportunity to both influence policy at a national level, and to shape its implementation. It was a rare opportunity.”  He also saw a need for the policy. There was high unemployment and higher underemployment. Mr. Battle was a first-hand witness to the effects of the EOA on clients.

“I would say that the Economic Opportunity Act initiative gave everybody the chance to and the right to be employed, or be prepared to undertake their own work. When I was
(teaching) at Howard University, I saw numbers of students come through who were saved by the Neighborhood Youth Corp, whose lives were enhanced enough for them to finish school and to go on to college, and now go on to graduate school. Not just kids, but also some people who worked in the Neighborhood Youth Corp program as a part of the agency. “

The War on Poverty enriched Democracy

“I’m going to make a generalization about the primary value of the War on Poverty. I would say it enriched democracy.  What the Community Action Agencies contributed to local communities was participation in self-government. That was a major change and on the heels of that came the Voting Rights Act and all the participation in the voting rights activity. So, it was a major change fueled to a significant degree by the War on Poverty.   It gave worth in the larger public mind to poor people. Even though people sneered at it, some people made jokes about poverty warriors, it still gave a sense of worth to the poor in the public mind. There were beneficiaries of federal government and we could talk then about comparing what the poor part of population got from the federal government in contrast with what the wealthy part of the population got.”

He had fond memories of working in the Department of Labor and pursuing methods that were not “status quo,” along with working with people who were “of the same mind.

“It was a hell of a team, but I got a lot of satisfaction out of helping explain and interpret what social work was and watch the light bulb go on for those who had no idea what social work was.”

With regard to whether or not he would do it all over again, Mr. Battle states,

“Yes ,  yes, I would.   I can’ t imagine which part I wouldn’t do similarly. “

This interview was conducted by Ms. Maria Luisa Tyree