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Brendan Smialowski for WORLD

Beyond therapy

Q&A | Our social economy, says Robert Woodson, discourages what it should promote: innovation and transformation

Issue: "Cities of God and Man," March 27, 2010

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.

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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.

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