Leading for the Left Behind

Leading for the Left Behind


Gregory Scott’s experience growing up in poverty in the Paterson, New Jersey housing projects, left an indelible mark that shaped his professional life. A graduate of Eastside High School, Scott was a student at the institution when Joe Clark, subject of the movie, “Lean On Me,” was Principal. Scott ultimately earned a sociology degree from William Paterson University and a master’s degree in community economic development from Southern New Hampshire University.

Today, as President and Chief Executive Officer of Community Action Partnership of Orange County (CAP OC), Scott leads the organization with the mission to enhance the quality of life in Orange by preventing the causes and effects of poverty in directing resources to programs that promote self-sufficiency. CAP OC serves persons at or below the federal poverty level.

The organization has over 100 employees and a budget of over $21 Million dollars. CAP OC mobilizes resources to help people help themselves, provide safety-net services for those in need, and work with community leaders.

Scott discussed his career odyssey during a recent interview at the CAP-OC headquarters in Garden Grove.

LAW: Please summarize early highlights of your career.

GS: I started out my career as a substitute teacher in the Paterson, New Jersey school system – the students were smart and curious and reminded me of myself. When I was younger, I developed a rapport with them as the “cool young teacher.” Ironically, it was the same school system I grew up in myself and I hope I had half as much of an impact on them as they had on me. They inspired me to continue my work with young people and before long I found myself in Boston Massachusetts, leading as the national program director at YouthBuild. An International program, YouthBuild, helps low-income youth with leadership and educational opportunities. The program teaches them construction skills through building affordable housing for the homeless, schools, playgrounds, and community centers in low-income neighborhoods. I established myself as a leader and gained proficiency in speaking at regional and national conferences. This experience led me to my next opportunity with Sylvan Learning Systems in California. Here I served as the regional vice-president and with no regrets, I have been a west coast resident ever since.  From there I served as President & CEO of the Weingart Center for the Homeless, and New Directions for Veterans, both in Los Angeles, before coming to Community Action Partnership of Orange County. 

LAW: How many years of senior-level nonprofit or for-profit experience have you achieved?

GS: I have over 20 years of experience at the senior level in the independent and private sectors, providing strategic leadership and as a change agent. I have served on numerous boards, but also currently serve on the following boards: Southern California Counseling Center, Holman Community Development Corporation, and the Anaheim Workforce Development Board.

LAW: Is this your first experience in Community Action?

GS: Yes, prior to joining the agency, I knew little of Community Action and it's deep history of civil rights and the war on poverty. When I got the phone call, I began to research the organization and fell in love with the mission. Community Action is a product of the civil rights movement.  The War on Poverty, and the lives the organization has touched over the last 50-55 years really attracted me. Poverty hits on so many different social justice issues and all of the Community Action organizations work each day to help eliminate this plague. My passions and beliefs in this cause are ignited when I think of the impact I am making in utilizing my leadership in this capacity, as well as my own story of growing up in an impoverished condition.

LAW: Are social action movements still relevant in today's world?

GS: Social justice and social action are more relevant than ever. We stand at a critical time in history, racial and gender equity, economic justice, immigration, health reform, and climate change are more topics on all social and political fronts. All of these factors, among many others, are affecting families and threaten to leave people behind. Our programs must continue to provide a pathway out of poverty, innovation, and advocacy that anchor long-term solutions. We have to help people so that they don't just come for services day in and day out, month in and month out, year in and year out. We need to eliminate poverty and increase self-sufficiency.

LAW: What types of programs do you anticipate continuing and what types do you think you will restructure or even eliminate?

GS: We are creating a culture of evaluation and assessment in all of our programs to appraise the return on investment. We have an environment of continuous improvement and must disrupt the status quo to increase our collective impact and focus on our strengths as an agency. We are asking the question - which programs can we take to scale to move the needle? In each program model, we are evaluating how we can take the evolution of what we have done, and build on our capacity that will lead to more training, economic empowerment, and upward mobility. 

LAW: What new initiatives are you planning?

GS: Our biggest advancement will be in the area of training and economic empowerment. We have a long history of providing amazing safety net programs and services. Our real impact will come from our ability to stay cutting edge with new initiatives, deliver world-class services, and be effective advocates for the things that affect the neighbors we serve.  We're in the middle of creating a 10-year strategic plan building off of our most recent needs, assessment and market research, and Community Action Plan. As a part of that plan, we want to develop the right system to eliminate poverty in a family within three generations. We're calling it Pathways to Prosperity.

LAW: Why a 10-year plan?

GS: We chose a long-term plan because poverty is a long-term problem. We understand our strategies may change due to environmental changes, but the issues of poverty continue to be prevalent. The plan encompasses: Economic empowerment and training, Strengthening Families, ending hunger and food insecurity, youth education, mental health, access to affordable housing and ending homelessness, environmental justice and public health.

LAW: Orange County is in a moment of political transition. How do you see the impact of this change on potential funding opportunities coming your way?

GS: Orange County is one of the most progressive and wealthiest counties in the country, but yet it also has a reputation of being conservative. However, it is also a county that has a rising homeless population, and many pockets of communities dealing with poverty. Most people outside of the County assume there is no poverty or people in need. They also assume people in Orange County don't care about their neighbors and all members of the community.  From my experience that is a false narrative.  I have found people to be very caring, and want to make a difference in people's lives.  We have over 18,000 volunteers from families to students, to major corporations, who care about the work we do and I strongly believe there is more opportunity for advancement in funding opportunities. We are embarking upon the new O.C., that will be a model of collaboration, partnership, and social change around the country. 

LAW: In developing your most recent Community Action Plan, what priority needs were established?

GS: We have identified six priority needs: 1. The high cost of living was at the top of everybody's list; 2. Orange County has a low unemployment rate but a high underemployment rate; 3. Affordable housing was next – in many cases, people are paying 50% of their monthly income just for housing; 4. Homelessness - we have a growing homeless population of as many as 8,000 people countywide; 5. Drug and alcohol abuse - opioids are a major phenomenon, at epidemic proportions; and 6. Access to health care - immigration, which impacts health care, education, and many areas related to people receiving services.

LAW: What advice or insight would you offer to people who see you as a role model?

GS: Probably the number one thing I would advise the younger generation is not to fear failure. I've learned more from my failures than I have from my successes. Our society is in need of effective leaders if we are ever going to make real change. My advice is to study the phenomenon of leadership, focus on your strengths, and implement the type of kindness and care that will transform their generation. Lastly, I would advise this generation to know their history, but be innovators and entrepreneurial. The best leaders are the best thinkers and dreamers. This next generation of leaders has a real chance to make a difference. I was able to lead at this level because someone told me I mattered. I want our young people to know that they matter, that they belong, and don't be afraid. It takes focus, determination, and hope to be great. They must lead by example without fear, and use the innovation of the latest technology to create their future. That's my advice.