Social service agency expands its traditional role to champion social justice

"We have fought for the democratic principles of equality under the law, equality of opportunity, equality at the ballot box, for the guarantees of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We have fought to preserve one nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Yes, we have fought for America with all her imperfections, not so much for what she is, but for what we know she can be." — Mary McCleod Bethune 

Our privileges can be no greater than our obligations. The protection of our rights can endure no longer than the performance of our responsibilities.John F. Kennedy

At a time when social injustice seems rampant, these quotes remind us of the need to correct institutional inequality. The “America” that educator and civil rights activist Mary McCleod-Bethune describes transcends the country’s physical boundaries to speak of its ideology and its people.

Kennedy's speaks to how we are obligated to use what we have been given for good.

Amanda Gorman, the nation’s youngest poet laureate, echoed these sentiments in her 2021 inaugural poem: “We've learned that quiet isn't always peace. And the norms and notions of what justice is isn't always justice.”

Traditionally, social service organizations have been placed in the crosshairs of the aforementioned statements. They are asked to fill the gap created by our government’s institutions and to nurture a developmental class of those left out of the conversation of progress. 

Catrena Bowman-Thomas, executive director of the Northern Kentucky Community Action Commission (NKCAC), says she has reinvigorated the agency’s charge to advocate for social justice. 

“This is what our agency was founded on,” says Bowman-Thomas. “Our agency was born out of the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act, which empowered the poor to fight poverty and other injustices. It is only right that we, as an organization, re-add to our service provisions the tools, for those with whom we serve, to navigate our society’s concurrent social justice, financial, and health crisis.” 

Bowman-Thomas’ path to executive director is somewhat unique. She knows first-hand the ins and outs of the agency’s services because she once used them to help make ends meet.

Throughout her career, Bowman-Thomas has become skilled in nonprofit organizations and operations management, youth development, early childhood education, and program evaluation, after obtaining a master's degree focused on administration from the University of Kentucky.

All social service organizations, in some way, are engaged in work related to social injustice. Some of these organizations have an acute awareness of the challenges faced by children and families living in poverty, the disproportionate incarceration of men of color, and the challenges experienced by those living with disabilities. Surviving and thriving as a social service agency requires an appreciation of diversity and understanding of how social identities affect access to resources. 

The deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd have sparked one of the largest expressions of social justice in recent history, amplifying the collective voice of the traditionally marginalized.

Over the past twelve months, while under the lead of Bowman-Thomas, NKCAC has taken on the charge to give voice to the voiceless, arming them with the tools to succeed, not in just life, but also in systemic reform. They have filmed over a half-dozen "Conversations to Advance Equity," a series of interviews with local leaders and residents speaking to how individuals can use their own strengths and knowledge to promote change.

NKCAC also conducted a Black History Walk, both in-person and virtually, where participants were introduced through architecture and placemaking to the rich African American history throughout the northern portion of Covington,\.

Efforts have been made by the agency to promote equity and inclusion by bringing regional leaders in the subject together and to host, in cooperation with The Bowles Center for Diversity, the area’s first Regional Implicit Bias Symposium, an outgrowth of conversations held with community partners on race relations conducted in direct response to the diversity challenges occurring across the country and throughout the region.

Another effort that NKCAC has taken on is an initiative to advance resources for area Black-owned business by hosting two Black Business Town Halls, where informatioal resources are shared by financial institutions and African American business owners alike. The third installment will be held on April 27, from 5:30–7 p.m. 

The new focus on social justice is an opportunity for social service organizations — who have traditionally remained in the background of social justice efforts, to ratify their commitments to equity. 

Bowman-Thomas has worked to improve the standards of non-profit organizations while promoting examples of collaboration, not competition, among organizations providing similar services. She hopes this will be the same for social justice efforts.

"My hope," she says, "is that the challenges our region faces, with regard to social justice, can be addressed in an integrated way by a collaboration of organizations working towards the same goal."  

For a complete list of all of NKCAC’s social justice initiatives, please visit
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