‘For the least of God’s chil­dren’

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Ralph Z. Hallow

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.”

J.M. Eddins Jr. / The Wash­ing­ton Times

Robert L. Wood­son Sr.

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