Robert Woodson — Localism vs. the Poverty Industry

Urban Poverty Pioneer, USA

The big challenge we face is how to make common sense commonplace again.

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Robert Woodson — Founder of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise

Robert L. Woodson, Sr. is Founder and President of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. Often referred to as the “godfather” of the movement to empower neighborhood-based organizations, Bob Woodson’s social activism dates back to the 1960s, when as a young civil rights activist, he developed and coordinated national and local community development programs. During the 1970’s he directed the National Urban League’s Administration of Justice division. Later he served as a Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. For more than four decades, he has promoted the principles of self-help and neighborhood empowerment and the importance of the institutions of civil society.

Robert Woodson — Success through struggle

A Philadelphia native, Robert Woodson, Sr. was born in 1937 and raised by a single mother after his father died at a young age. Woodson led a troubled youth and eventually dropped out of high school. At the age of 17, however, he joined the Air Force and began to get his life back on track. After returning to school to earn his GED and a college degree, he began working with juvenile delinquents and eventually earned his masters in Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania.

Dedicating his life to helping low-income people address the problems of their communities, in 1981 Woodson founded the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise (known then as the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise) for the purpose of strengthening and advocating for those neighborhood-based organizations struggling to serve their communities. The Center has provided training and capacity-building technical assistance to more than 2,600 leaders of community-based groups in 39 states. He was instrumental in paving the way for resident management and ownership of public housing, and brought together task forces of grassroots groups to advise the 104th Congress on welfare reform. The youth violence reduction program he created, called the Violence-Free Zone, is effectively reducing violence in many of the nation’s most troubled schools, with sites in Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Richmond, Virginia. Woodson also serves on the boards of the American Association of Enterprise Zones, the Commission on National and Community Service, and the Commonwealth Foundation.

Robert Woodson — Pioneering new ways of thinking

He has profoundly influenced the way people think about the strengths of low-income people. But more than just philosophy, he has promoted measurable results and living examples that provide proof of his principles in reclaimed lives and restored communities.

Woodson is the only person ever to have received both the liberal and conservative world’s most prestigious awards – the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation Prize, as well as the Presidential Citizens Medal. Among numerous other awards, Woodson also holds an honorary doctorate from Colorado Christian University and the University of Cincinnati.

He is the author of Youth Crime and Urban Policy, A View From the Inner City (1981), On the Road to Economic Freedom: An Agenda for Black Progress (1987), A Summons to Life, Mediating Structures and the Prevention of Youth Crime (1988), and The Triumphs of Joseph: How Today’s Community Healers are Reviving Our Streets and Neighborhoods (1998, reissued in paperback in 2008). He has also appeared on major network television talk shows including: Meet the Press, Nightline, and the Oprah Winfrey Show.

  • Local leaders as "antibodies" fighting urban poverty

    When you go into a doctor’s office, a credible, intelligent physician will first of all attempt to do that which is least intrusive to your body.
    But what we do traditionally in our neighborhoods is we apply the moral equivalent of a transplant. What government does when there is a problem - if there is a pregnancy problem, let’s parachute in a program. If someone is unemployed there’s a program - instead of saying let’s look at the remedy that’s closest to the problem.

    At the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise we go in to low-income, crime-infested neighborhoods and we ask questions that professional service industry and scholars never ask of poor people. We ask them not how many children are dropping out of school or in jail or on drugs; we want to know how many people are raising children that have not succumb to the lure of drug addiction, have not become predators.

    And once we find them we apply miracle grow in the form of training and technical assistance and then introduce them to sources of financial support.  And so we are able to grow remedies that are indigenous to these low-income, high crime neighborhoods by reaching out to grassroots leaders that are in poverty but not of poverty.  They are in drug addiction neighborhoods but they are not of those neighborhoods.

    In one city in New Jersey, pizza companies couldn’t deliver in low-in, high crime, black neighborhoods because of the crime. Well, a neighborhood group got together and got some 18 and 20 year old kids who set up a pizza delivery business. They say “It’s warm, it’s good, it’s from the hood.”  And they partnered with one of the pizza companies who taught them how to sell pizzas, and they delivered those pizzas inside as their business. And it prospered.  Because no one would stick ‘em up because they were from the community.
    The reason that AIDS is so devastating is because it destroys the body’s ability to heal itself.  Well, we look at our grassroots leaders as the last antibodies. They are indigenous to the body.  They are closest to the source of disease. So therefore if you strengthen the body’s immune system the body will heal itself.

  • Mischaracterizing the Poor

    The idea of empowering neighborhood people is a radical idea because it’s not something that’s understood on either the left or the right of the political center. I think Bill Bennet, the former secretary of education, summarized it beautifully. He said “When liberals look at poor people they see a sea of victims and when conservatives look at poor people they see a sea of aliens.

  • The Poverty Industrial Complex

    There is a poverty industrial complex. You’ve got huge numbers of people who profit off our differences. You see, if you are problem oriented, you can write about the problem, you can lecture about the problem, you can consult on the problem. You can do everything but solve the problem.

  • Accountability

    The reason that there is such a kick back or resistance to learning is because the interests of the providers of service to poor people are inconsistent with the interests of poor people, but the only way they can be prevented from changing it is to make us believe that this fact is not true.

    There will always be a resistance to measuring results as long as the people who are in power to serve poor people have perverse incentives to maintain people in poverty. To me, corrupt leadership is when you don’t have to suffer the consequences of your own decisions.

  • Creating Win-Win Partnerships

    The race grievance industry believes in zero-sum solutions – in order for blacks to gain whites must lose; in order for poor people to prosper business must lose. But if you look at it from a positive sum solution to say, “How can we all benefit?” the way most faith-based groups operate, then you look for opportunities to think and act outside of the box where you say “How can we partner?

  • American Welfare

    Prior to the 1960s, the black community, even though we had no political rights, didn’t have voting rights, were not represented in local government and some of us being lynched everyday. Even in the presence of all those economic and social injustices, the black marriage rate in 1930 to 1940 was higher than in the white community. That 82 percent of all black families had a man and a woman raising children. The out-of-wedlock birth was something like 12 or 15 percent and that was considered a scandal. So, but what happened in 1960 when government intervened with the poverty programs a major paradigm shift occurred. And that is: government began to intervene and 80 percent of the money that it invested went not to institutions and communities but to a service industry. And so 82 percent or 80 percent of the money that government spent on helping poor people does not go to poor people but to professional service providers. They ask not which problems are solvable, but which problems are fundable this year, and as a consequence of this we had the poverty programs. We provided perverse incentives for maintaining people in poverty. So that if you are running an agency to serve poor people, you get paid for the number of people you purportedly serve not how many problems you solve. Also welfare policy made a major shift and contributed to the decimation of the family, as well, because welfare policy said if you drop out of school, don’t work, have babies the government will pay you. And the more children you have the more we’ll pay you. Even the public housing policies mitigated against healthy families. For instance, if you and I had an increase in salary our rent or mortgage payment doesn’t go up, but if you are a resident in public housing your income is, your rent is indexed to your income so that’s a disincentive for families to form. So there, it was a perfect storm of government policies, as well as welfare policies. Where now 30 percent of black families have a man and a woman raising children and it is true not only for the black community but for other groups as well. So obviously government has injured with the helping hand.

  • The backwards rules of the social economy

    It’s interesting that the rules that apply in our market economy don’t apply to our social economy. In our market economy we know that 80 percent of all the new jobs are generated by less than 3 percent of the people who are entrepreneurs. And entrepreneurs tend to be ‘C’ students.  They’re not ‘A’ students.  Someone once remarked that “A students come back to universities and teach and C students come back and endow.” In our in our market economy we don’t care what a person’s credentials are. No one is going to ask Bill Gates if he has as a degree in computer science, or has a degree at all. Because in our market economy we are more impressed with outcomes. In our social economy we don’t care what you produce as long as you’ve got the requisite credentials. As if certification is synonymous with qualifications. 

    A lot of professionals on both the left and the right tend to look down their noses at the people that I celebrate - the social entrepreneurs. When they speak they make dangle participles or break infinitives but their wisdom is unquestioned and their ability to produce is is well-documented.

    And the qualities that causes grassroots leaders to be effective also renders them invisible because they’re not whining, they’re not complaining, they don’t have book contracts, they don’t have lecture fees.