FEATURES • Fall 2002

As vice president of the Asset Building and Community Development program of the Ford Foundation, sociologist Melvin Oliver works hard to reduce poverty and social injustice around the world.

By Judy H. Watts

"'A major problem in society is that people don't think they can solve the pressing problems they face,'" says Melvin Oliver, quoting his colleague Susan V. Berresford, president of the Ford Foundation. For Oliver, Berresford, and others at the foundation, however, the opposite is true.

Since 1936, the Ford Foundation has provided more than $10 billion in grants and loans for innovative people and institutions worldwide to strengthen democratic values, reduce poverty and injustice, promote international cooperation, and advance human achievements. Oliver, vice president for Asset Building and Community Development, the largest of the foundation's three programs, has devoted his life to social change.

Oliver's father, an auto-body repairman with a seventh-grade education, who according to Oliver was "constantly working," and his mother, who completed ninth grade and cleaned houses and baby-sat for a living, instilled in Melvin the values of higher education. College was a given in his life: "The one mantra at home was that I would go—whether I wanted to or not!"

As a boy, Oliver was a perceptive observer of his all-black neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio. He became involved in the deeply principled community life of the storefront Second Bethlehem Baptist Church, where his father was associate pastor and Sunday School superintendent. When Oliver was 11, he began teaching 5- and 6-year-olds, and he found that opening minds to meaningful ideas was exhilarating. "From then on," he says, "teaching was the only thing I ever wanted to do."

His childhood discipline and curiosity, coupled with an unwavering drive to learn and acute interest in the complexities and contradictions of human society, led him first to William Penn College, in Oskaloosa, Iowa, where he majored in sociology, and then to Washington University, where he earned a master's degree and doctorate in sociology.

In 1978, the year after earning a Ph.D., Oliver moved to Los Angeles, "the quintessential multi-ethnic metropolis," where he became a professor of sociology at the University of California at Los Angeles. He stayed for 17 years. Oliver clearly loved teaching—with a wink, he says, "The only bad thing about being at the Ford Foundation is that I don't teach anymore!" At UCLA his distinguished teaching earned him university and national awards. Significantly, one citation noted that his "unique gift to the department has been the way ... he has changed the lives of his students, [who in turn] learned not only to understand the world, but to change it."

During his tenure at UCLA, Oliver helped build the interdisciplinary program in African-American studies, co-founded and directed the Center for the Study of Urban Poverty, and conducted rigorous and influential research. A notable example is his landmark book, Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality (New York: Routledge, 1995), which Oliver has called "a personal odyssey." With co-author Thomas Shapiro, another Washington University-trained sociologist, he uncovered the differences between blacks' and whites' accumulated assets—disparities greater than the divide between incomes—which public policies and key institutions' actions created and have maintained. One of only two books in the history of American sociology to win the profession's distinguished scholarship award and an award from the activist Society for the Study of Social Problems, the work proposes ways public policies might diminish the gulf in assets.

 
Melvin Oliver, M.A. '74, Ph.D. '77, works at the New York-based Ford Foundation, pursuing social justice issues on an international level.

 

When Oliver switched coasts in 1996 to join the New York-based Ford Foundation, his pursuit of social justice moved to include the international arena. He and his program staff of 50 are working with grant-supported, multiple-year projects in 12 overseas offices and the United States to help people and communities build durable assets that will be passed on to future generations. Among the Asset Building and Community Development's goals is building human, social, financial, and environmental resources that will help communities and individuals control their own lives and participate in society in meaningful and effective ways.

The Ford Foundation has embraced Oliver's asset-building approach, and this, in turn, has changed the foundation's priorities—it now promotes home ownership instead of rental housing for low-income families. In Durham, North Carolina, for example, a $52 million grant is allowing Self-Help to work with Fannie Mae (Federal National Mortgage Association) to make $2 billion in affordable mortgages available to 35,000 minority and low-wealth homebuyers nationwide.

Another critical project under Oliver's auspices involves Michael Sherraden, the Benjamin E. Youngdahl Professor of Social Development and director of WU's Center for Social Development in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work. Sherraden first made the important distinction between income and assets and came up with the idea of Individual Development Accounts (IDA)—matched savings accounts that allow the poor to buy homes, obtain higher education, and start small businesses. Oliver says, "We have been one of the main funders of the national demonstration project on saving for the American dream. IDA programs have now been adopted in every state except Arizona."

Such successes fire Oliver's innate optimism and determination, but working with "people on the ground, supported by academics and other experts," is what truly inspires him. The foundation program "Leaders for a Changing World," for which Oliver has major responsibility, annually recognizes the accomplishments of 20 relatively unknown leaders from U.S. communities. If more people knew the stories of these men and women who head organizations like the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, the Oaxaca Binational Indigenous Coalition, the Chinese Staff and Workers' Association, and the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law and Public Interest, "they would be a lot more optimistic about the possibility for social change!" he says.

As Oliver's perspective has expanded, some of his thinking has shifted. On the topic of reparations, Oliver, once concerned that any U.S. reparation payments to African-Americans would be socially divisive and tend to close out a social-justice balance sheet that is grossly unreconciled, has come up with a constructive approach based on observing other divided societies. "We have tools such as Individual Development Accounts or Children's Savings Accounts that would be perfectly legitimate for social development that has been stunted by the wrongs of the past."

Therefore, for Melvin Oliver, life is all about possibilities—finding solutions for the dispossessed, the marginalized, the struggling poor everywhere who have demonstrated through foundation programs that when they are shown a realistic way out of their difficulties, they will eagerly pursue it. His wife, Suzanne, a social worker, shares his system of values: "We are a pro-social-change family!" Oliver says.

"Every day, I pinch myself," he continues. "When I'm in the middle of China, South Africa, or the Amazon, I think, 'What's a black kid from Cleveland doing here working with people whose lives have been devastated by large historical forces?' And then I understand the connections to the way I grew up and the social issues I faced as a young child.

"What is inspiring is that I work with people who are doing wonderfully progressive things for themselves and for society, and I can be a part of that."

Judy H. Watts is a free-lance writer based in Santa Barbara, California, and a former editor of this magazine.

 

 

"What is inspiring is that I work with people who are doing wonderfully progressive things for themselves and for society, and I can be a part of that."