‘For the least of God’s children’
Robert L. Woodson Sr. recalls mingling a few years ago at a glitzy Bradley Foundation reception with George Will, Grover Norquist and other conservative notables.
“They said we were there to celebrate the ‘victory of conservatism,’ ” he recalls. “I said to them, ‘Just explain to me one thing: What does a conservative victory mean for the least of God’s children?’ [. . . ] There was stunned silence.”
It was an example of how Mr. Woodson, 70, remains his own man, a black critic of black racism and of white paternalism, a candid and independent conservative voice, surviving in an atmosphere of partisan sycophancy.
Having founded the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise in the same year Ronald Reagan was elected president, Mr. Woodson made the evening news as a 1990 recipient of a $350,000 MacArthur Fellowship, popularly known as the “genius awards,” based on his track record — and expectations for more success — as an advocate of selfhelp for the poor.
“Bob is the most innovative, thoughtful neighborhood activist in this country,” says former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp. “I have been with him in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, [Washington,] D.C., among others, and he’s got his finger on the pulse not only of what people want for them- selves and their families but what they need for their community and their future.”
Having won recognition and driven home his points many times, Mr. Woodson is entitled to quietly watch the rest of the Washington show unfold.
He has found himself happily in the company of the most powerful men in Washington, including President Reagan, both Presidents Bush and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, architect of the 1994 “Republican revolution.” But Mr. Woodson has never hesitated to tell them when he thinks they are off-base.
“When liberals look at poor people, they see a sea of victims, and when conservatives look at poor people, they see an ocean of aliens,” he says, paraphrasing his friend, former Education Secretary William J. Bennett.
All the while, he promotes his understanding of civil rights, even though he says he “parted company with the civil rights movement over forced busing for integration, racebased affirmative action and the fact that low-income blacks who suffered the most in struggle benefited the least.”
Since then, he has thought of himself as a “Geiger counter that goes into the community to look for healing agents,” he says, referring to a device that measures radioactivity. He then switches to a horticultural metaphor: “Once I find them, I assist them by finding and applying Miracle-Gro in the form of training, technical assistance and access to capital. When they are successful, I write about it, advertise it, try to bring it to the attention of the public.”
Since 1998, his center has been helping neighborhood activists learn basic bookkeeping and staff management so foundations and government will have confidence in their stability and provide operational funding. The center has trained leaders for more than 2,000 faith-based and community groups in 39 states.
One of his center’s projects has been to help quell gang violence in the District’s most troubled neighborhoods and other urban hot spots.
During a murderous gang war in Benning Terrace in Southeast in 1997, Mr. Woodson and a local group brought factions together to negotiate a truce that has endured, he says. More than 100 youths traded street life for training, provided by D.C. housing director David Gilmore, in landscaping and building maintenance. The underlying ideas became the model for reducing violence in schools in Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas, Milwaukee, D.C. and suburban Prince George’s County, Md., he says.
Violence has been reduced in the 21 schools involved, and academic scores are rising, he says. In Dallas, after two years with the ViolenceFree Zone initiative, gang incidents plunged from 113 to zero in one high school and from 34 to one at another, Mr. Woodson says.
In 1986, he helped people living in public housing persuade Congress to enact a law allowing them to manage and own their public housing developments, thereby reducing crime and vandalism and increasing rental revenues, he says.
To help people move off welfare, he says, his center showed the Ohio government how to find neighborhood groups that could motivate welfare recipients to learn work skills and find child care and other services.
Mr. Woodson, who has authored five books, says he would like his three grandchildren to remember him the way one of them put it on the way home from his center’s 25th anniversary in 2005: “Pop-Pop helps people that everybody else ignores.”
Mr. Woodson beams at the recollection, saying he wants to be remembered as someone “who challenged the assumption by people who are left and right of center that the poor are without character or substance to their lives.”
Robert L. Woodson Sr.