Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with George Esser, June-August 1990. Interview L-0035. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The development of a bottom-up philosophy at the North Carolina Fund

Esser remembers the effort, led by Terry Sanford, to win financial support from the Ford Foundation. A week of discussion drew into relief competing strategies for community revitalization: some at the meeting believed in top-down, paternalistic strategies, but others wanted to work from the bottom up. That viewpoint eventually prevailed, and the North Carolina Fund began in an environment not yet choked with bureaucracy. Esser also describes Sanford's tenure as the chairman of the board and the values he brought to the position. Esser credits Sanford adviser John Healy for many of the innovative ideas that Sanford brought to North Carolina.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with George Esser, June-August 1990. Interview L-0035. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

And so out of that came this plan for a team of Ford Foundation staff—turned out to be seven—to come down in the middle of January and spend a week. And I believe last time I told you about the Christmas Eve meeting that later that I got involved. But none of these staff were North Carolinians or Southerners.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Ford Foundation staff?
GEORGE ESSER:
Ford Foundation staff. And yet, Terry understood precisely what they were interested in, but he was also clear with them, not in detail, but I mean, precise…. But generally the barriers that he had faced; which was one of the reasons why we were a non-profit corporation. And of course, ford's experience in other cities: in Boston and Philadelphia and Washington and New Haven and Oakland was that non-profit corporations did provide the flexibility that was needed to bring both governmental funds and private funds together to experiment with service delivery. Now I think that at that time, the Ford Foundation really…. There is a dispute as to whether the Ford Foundation staff and it's gray areas program or some of kennedy's people in the so-called Committee on Juvenile Delinquency program were clearly citizen power ideologists. Whether there was more paternalism in believing that you can do more by improving service delivery and removing barriers to people receiving services, well, that was certainly Ford's initial impulse. It was Terry's; it probably was mine. It was only as we got to know more and more about the black point of view and not only what happened in the rest of the country, but what was happening right here in North Carolina; that all of us, Terry included, understood that you had to involve people in more than making better services available. You had to involve and include them in the process.
FRANCES WEAVER:
You had to actually include them in the process?
GEORGE ESSER:
Now, Daniel Moynihan wrote that book in which he heavily criticized citizen participation. And you know, the Economic Opportunity Act was a mistake from the very word "go" in terms of Congress demanding that it be nationwide in application. It should have had another three or four years on a demonstration basis. And the problem with any government program is that—particularly one like that—as soon as you run into a problem in one agency, then the pressure of Congress, the political pressure and the bureaucratic pressure is to adopt regulations that make it impossible for that problem to arise in any agency. So, eventually, you get to the point where the non-profit community action agencies are today, where there's very little they can do because of the regulations that have been passed. But we weren't at that stage in the middle '60's, but I would say that as long as Terry was chairman of the Fund board, which was until the mid-summer of 1967, there were a couple of times that he got upset. One was when I sent an integrated team of North Carolina volunteers to Laurinburg—we had a project in Laurinburg—in 1964 and Roger Kiser called him and gave him down the road and he called me on a Saturday morning and was very upset with me because he didn't know about it. Well, then he went off for a weekend. Jack Mansfield and I had to survive that weekend somehow. Jack Mansfield was a staff member who was running the volunteer program. By the time we saw Terry at five o'clock on Sunday afternoon, he had completely around. And he said, "Of course you had to put it in at Laurinburg."
FRANCES WEAVER:
Yeah. It was his hometown stuff. [Laughter]
GEORGE ESSER:
You had to integrate everywhere that you sent a team. And he said, "I understand that." And that was the kind of support that…. I mean, sometimes, you know, it hurt him politically a little bit.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Yes. I'm sure he was very sensitive to that.
GEORGE ESSER:
And at the same time, he was very supportive of the Fund and the Fund's staff. He was not always supportive of some of the staff, particularly the local staff. But we didn't hire the local staffs. But I think that on the whole I would say that I am a great admirer of Terry's because he's been a successful politician reflecting, for the most part, the same values that I think are important; more than any political leader in North Carolina. More, I think, than Jimmy Hunt.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Yes, I think so. I think so.
GEORGE ESSER:
Plus the fact that Terry is not as plastic as Jimmy Hunt.
FRANCES WEAVER:
No, he's not. He's really not. [Laughter]
GEORGE ESSER:
And you know, I like Jim Hunt, but Jim was more like Albert in this respect. He wanted the record to show in advance that he…. He wanted to make sure that everything went smoothly. Terry was much more willing to take a risk on people and programs; which gets to Healy. Healy was without question, the most innovative mind that I've ever seen.
FRANCES WEAVER:
I've known that George, since we were college classmates.
GEORGE ESSER:
And John Healy really is much better as an idea person in the private or public sectors than he is writing books. But, look at some of the things that…. And you know, support came from the national foundations because they were great ideas. The Governor's School, sending Shakespeare around the state, the Fund, the Learning Institute, the School of the Arts and the zoo. It was John's idea. I mean, it was carried out by a later administration, but it was John's idea. And you know, John would sit there in that little office in the state capitol and he picked up the phone and the next thing you know, he's be talking to somebody in Detroit, Michigan or New York or Washington and I am sure that I was sitting there when he had his first conversation about the zoo. And I said, "John, the very idea of a zoo in North Carolina?" And he said, "You have to have these ideas before you never can tell." And you know, apparently, the Steadmans have put up the money that's necessary to make the zoo a reality; I mean, in addition to public money. But John never saw a telephone he didn't like. Once he had an idea, he moved.