Robert Woodson, born in Philadelphia in 1937, has worked in cities throughout his lifetime. As president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, an organization he founded in 1981,Woodson has led projects that improved poor neighborhoods by tapping into the talents of entrepreneurial individuals within them. He is the author of The Triumphs of Joseph: How Community Healers Are Reviving our Streets and Neighborhoods. Here's an edited and shortened version of our interview. (To hear the complete interview, click here.)
Q: In the 1960s you became a leader in the civil rights movement. Looking back, what did the movement do right? What did it do wrong? I led demonstrations against segregation in the schools. My disappointment with the movement was that many of those who suffered and sacrificed most did not benefit from the change. The civil rights movement was essentially a middle-class movement. It benefited primarily people like myself who had a college education . . . a kind of bait-and-switch game where you use the conditions of one class of people as the bait-and when the resources arrive, the benefits go to well-educated people.
Q: In the '70s you joined a center-right organization, the American Enterprise Institute. What attracted me to AEI was that white liberals very seldom challenge blacks. If I make a stupid argument, very few of them will say it's stupid. But white conservatives would challenge me. . . . What I found refreshing as the only black in an all-white conservative think tank was going into it not knowing anybody and getting treated like a stranger.
Q: A liberal institute would be different? At a liberal institute they would have been all over me, saying "Oh, come to lunch with us, come to the senior seminar." I had not earned the right to be invited to senior seminars, so I was appropriately shunned. When I got columns published in The New York Times and in The Washington Post, more people started to speak to me. More people invited me to senior seminars.
Q: They invited you to lunch not based on the color of your skin but on the content of your resumé? Exactly. When my resumé was thin I got very few invitations. I felt for the first time I was being judged on my performance and not my color. I found that refreshing.
Q: In 1981 you started the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. The word enterprise is in our name because I believe strongly that the principles that operate in a market economy ought to operate in our social economy. Entrepreneurs invest in competition and innovation. Our social economy is just the opposite. The same institutions that were around 40 years ago continue to get funding. There is no competition. They call competition in the social economy "duplication of effort." You do not get rewarded for improving things. You get rewarded for the number of people you have served. Our market economy is very different.
Q: They get a reward for the number of people served even if there is no change in their lives? That is right. In fact, there are perverse incentives. If I am the administrator of a social welfare agency and I have 200 kids to serve and my budget is 2 million dollars, I can come back to the Congress and say, "Now I have 400 kids. I need my budget doubled." Eighty percent of all dollars spent on poor people go to those who serve poor people. They ask not which problems are solvable, but which problems are fundable.
Q: How should we handle credentialing? In our social economy, Person A can raise five children successfully and send them all to college, but she could not get certified to operate a daycare center. Person B never had children, can hate kids, can get a master's in Early Childhood Development, and be certified to run a daycare center. I am not against standards, but there should be some correlation between certification and qualification. For heart surgery I want to see Board Certification. If I want demons delivered from me, the evils of drug addictions and prostitution, I need spiritual renewal.
Q: So you're talking about transformation . . . If I'm killing myself, I do not need to be rehabilitated. I need to be transformed. I need to be another person. Therapy does not make you another person. Rehabilitation rarely removes bad stuff. Transformation replaces bad stuff with good stuff. That is the difference.
Q: What can we do about the schools themselves? Support innovation and competition. Right now the Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and others come into a community and decide that reform means taking large schools and breaking them down into smaller schools. They spend millions of dollars doing this. They came into one Baltimore inner-city school and broke it into three multiplexes. The kids on the top floor have computers and uniforms. The first month, those kids get beaten up by the kids on the other two floors because they never took into consideration the civil environment. The same with Chicago: All over; the worst schools are multiplexes. There is chaos.
Q: What's a better way to proceed? That money should have been placed in vouchers and competition. Give churches and others the seed money they need to start small schools. We need to have a thousand small schools started all over the country. Take a lot of these disaffected schoolteachers and let them work with some of these church groups to start small schools the way Marva Collins did in Chicago.
Q: What should individuals do? Become acquainted with grass-roots groups and have a servant's attitude: Be on tap, not on top. You've got to show up and say, "Use me, Lord." If you're a good writer, all of these groups need people who can edit and write and interpret what they do. Come in and make yourself available based upon what they need. The main thing is to be honest with people. Do not patronize them. Do not look at them as being pathetic. Do not come in as a liberator. Come in and say, "I have got some skills; tell me how I can make use of them in your service."
Q: And how should nonprofits function? We must operate in the social economy the way we do in the economy. Competence ought to be rewarded. In our market economy, it is not what your credentials are that determines who leads. It is what the outcomes are. In our social economy, this ought to apply also.
Q: How can conservatives win inner-city support? Concentrate on practical ways to demonstrate that conservative policies and principles create more livable circumstances. Go seek out people in troubled communities who are solving problems and find out how they can be a blessing to them. When a member of Congress sees an organization that works, why not have a fundraising reception for the group and invite some of his campaign funders to give to this organization? Why not use your position to point to others?
Q: Why do political conservatives receive so few votes from African-Americans, many of whom are socially conservative? Conservatives want to avoid government overreach because they think it will be an infringement on individual liberty. Blacks see and remember that we did not have the right to vote. It was the Supreme Court and the central government that intervened in the market place, that protected us, and that brought about desegregation. It was the federal intervention that protected kids trying to get into schools. They remember that legacy of government. If conservatives can acknowledge that central government in the '60s was useful and necessary in that way, then you can have more dialogue.
Q: What's your Center's biggest project now? Unless there is civil order there can be no activity in the city, so we have been concentrating on reducing youth violence: We are in six cities and 38 of the most dangerous schools. (For more information, see cneonline.org.)