By Rachel del Guidice
Elitism, not racism, is the biggest obstacle in overcoming poverty, says Robert Woodson, today’s guest on “The Daily Signal Podcast.” Woodson is founder and president of Woodson Center, a D.C. nonprofit that operated as the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise before a name change in late 2016.
Woodson’s new book “Lessons From the Least of These: The Woodson Principles,” examines what this veteran civil rights leader and locally focused activist describes as the wisdom of “healing agents” who are transforming lives in some of America’s poorest, most toxic neighborhoods. From such leaders, he says, he distilled 10 principles to guide others who wish to help intervene to change the “worst circumstances” of low-income communities.
What kind of strategies have contributed to rehabilitating such neighborhoods? Can some of those strategies or reforms also be applied to healing the nation’s divisions? Woodson fields these and other questions.
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Rachel del Guidice: I’m joined today on “The Daily Signal Podcast” by Bob Woodson, who’s the founder and president of the Woodson Center.
You’re releasing a new book called “Lessons From the Least of These: The Woodson Principles.” Bob, can you start off by telling us about the book and what inspired you to write it?
Robert Woodson: Well, I’ve been involved in neighborhood development all of my professional life, and I’ve interacted with and learned a lot from Indigenous grassroots leaders. They’re our fount of wisdom and knowledge about how to prevail under the worst of circumstances.
So this book really is a collection of pieces of wisdom, knowledge that I’ve gained from them in their quest to not only survive, but to thrive.
I distilled all of those experiences into 10 basic principles that should guide anyone who wished to know how to support intervention into low-income communities.
And so I’ve distilled them into 10 chapters, each chapter represents a principle, and it’s augmented with examples from the grassroots leaders. I describe the actions that exemplify the principles.
Del Guidice: Well, I actually was going to ask you about those 10 principles, but since you mentioned them, can we talk about those now? Can you walk us through what those 10 principles are?
Woodson: Yeah. Well, first of all, what I describe as the first challenge that anyone confronts in trying to address poverty is how to identify healing agents. The biggest barrier that I found in addressing poverty is elitism.
It isn’t racism, it’s elitism. This notion that poverty makes you not only dispirited, but stupid, and that also, there’s this notion that in our social economy, we celebrate professional certification as if it’s the same as qualification. But in our market economy, we celebrate outcomes.
And so what we try to do is identify what are the core principles? The first one is that when you’re going into a low-income community is to look for assets.
A lot of times when people come into a low-income community and they see broken sidewalks, they see abandoned homes, they assume that there’s a cesspool of pathology with few redeeming qualities. And therefore if change is to come, it must be imported from outside in.
So what we do traditionally is professional providers design solutions for the poor that are parachuted into those communities with the expectation that change will occur.
So the first principle of “Woodson Principles” is to assume that there is capacity, assume that there are healing agents within their communities. And so the first principle is to identify who are those healing agents? And then you have to understand what makes them unique.
A, they have resilience. They are never defined by the problems that they’ve endured, that they triumph. They have perseverance in the presence of challenges. …
The other one they have is trust and confidence. [That’s] another principle, perseverance, resilience, trust, and confidence. And faith is central to the uplift of grassroots leaders that are healing agents.
The other very important quality, of course, is humility. And also, they don’t succumb to bitterness. Humility and transparency, that’s one of the most important qualities, that when you meet grassroots leaders who have struggled against great adversities, they’re willing to share their struggles with you. They’re willing to describe their brokenness, their pathway out of brokenness.
When we have had an assembly of grassroots leaders, 500 of them, they’re black, white, Native American, Hispanic, but they don’t define themselves through the lens of ethnicity or race. Because what they all share in common is their flight from brokenness to sobriety to a life of responsibility. And so transparency is one of the key principles, Woodsonian Principles, that you see in the groups.
And so those are some other of the principles that I have outlined in the book and described with laborious details, and then give you an example of how these principles, once they are applied, result in the uplift of people from their environment.
Del Guidice: It’s so interesting, Bob, that you mentioned how those who are becoming involved aren’t talking about race, aren’t using those labels in such a society, where the left, that’s all they talk about most of the time.
Woodson: It really is. And this is why recent surveys, for instance, to show you how out of sync the left is, recent surveys of the black community, 82% are opposed to defunding the police—82%. They don’t define life through the lens of race or ethnicity because their greater challenge has been drug addiction, many of them.
I say 80% of my closest friends are ex-something. They have letters in front of their names, not behind them. And when they have come from this environment, their greatest struggle and barrier was never racial.
And so, when they come together, they don’t talk about their racial differences. They talk about their pathways from brokenness to fulfillment, and that’s what they celebrate and they share with one another.
Del Guidice: Well, as we’ve been talking about, the book is about the least among us. And it highlights the stories of, as you mentioned, those forgotten men and women in some of the most toxic neighborhoods.
So, Bob, I wanted to ask you, are there any personal stories from the book or even from your own personal experience of people you know who have really leveraged this and who are examples that you see today?
Woodson: Yeah. I’ll tell you, the most celebrated one probably is my good friend who’s deceased now, Kimi Gray.
When I first met Jack Kemp, I was with Kimi Gray, and she was a woman who was abandoned by her husband through divorce at age 23 with five children, welfare, and in public housing. She got off welfare in three years and sent all five of her children to college.
And she inspired others in her public housing community of Kenilworth Parkside over a 10-year period. She became the resident manager of that dwelling, and just the power of her personality and her commitment to moral excellence.
She recruited other leaders in that community, and they came together to form the core and they drove the drug dealers out. They sent 650 children over 10 years to college, and they welcomed fathers to come back into the community.
So Kimi Gray has now been a celebrated grassroots leader, and she has two streets named for her in New Orleans, and there’s Kimi Gray Place here. But she is a stellar example of a grassroots leader who started with the worst barriers that you can ever imagine, and yet she became a national leader.
With the help of Jack Kemp and others, we were able to pass seven amendments to the Housing Act that rewarded people for achieving against the odds the way Kimi did.
But there are all kinds of stories like this. One of my favorites is a woman who three years ago was homeless with three daughters. And these girls during three years of high school actually slept in the car and also slept in the homeless shelters. And the girls studied by the light of their cellphone, and yet they graduated valedictorian and salutatorian. And they started college as sophomores because they took so many Advanced Placement classes.
I really think examples of resilience of achievement against the odds like this really [exemplify] the finest of the American spirit. But we need to hold these up, these achievers against the odds.
And there are hundreds of examples like this that I have encountered over the years where people who are using the values and virtues of our Founders as the foundation upon which they reclaim their lives, restore their communities, and help rebuild this nation. I’m excited to even know them and be blessed to be able to talk about them and describe them in my book “Lessons From the Least of These.”
Del Guidice: As we talk about Kimi Gray and other people’s stories, Bob, can you talk a little bit about some of the biggest challenges that people face in these communities that people who aren’t in them, they might not know about?
Woodson: The biggest challenges that people face: constant[ly] being bombarded by social justice, racial exploiters.
It’s a constant drum beat in the nation that, particularly with poor blacks, that because they’re exploited, the fact that they are told that they’re not responsible for their own uplift, that somehow because of our racial past—the cost of slavery and discrimination—that they’re not responsible for it.
There’s nothing more lethal than providing someone with a good excuse for failing. So every day, our grassroots leaders have to struggle against these powerful forces that are well-funded that are sending this message of despair. … They are using the very virtues that enabled black Americans who survived slavery and Jim Crow—and those virtues were the family, faith, and education, and work. That was the foundation of our history.
And so, the biggest challenge is acquainting people with their history of achievement against the odds.
That’s why at the Woodson Center, we commission essays that reflect in history that when whites were at their worst, blacks were at their best. That even in a city like Chicago in 1929, even with redlining and discrimination, blacks achieved against the odds.
In Chicago alone in 1929, blacks established 731 businesses. They had $100 million in real estate assets. So there were black Wall Streets all over this country.
So, the biggest barrier is convincing people to recognize the rich history that they have of achieving against the odds. This can only happen in the greatest nation in the world, America.
And so, we believe that the biggest challenge is to convince people of the richness of their heritage and how blessed we are to be in this country, that people of color risked their lives to get here.
Del Guidice: Speaking of challenges, Bob, one of the challenges facing these communities is the increased push to defund the police. And recently, you had tweeted, “When you defund the police, it’s the low-income black communities that suffer the most because of this outrage.”
Can you talk more about how these communities suffer when the law enforcement are defunded?
Woodson: About 10 years ago, I remember the first time in Cincinnati, Ohio, when a young black man was shot by a white police officer because he was running from him, and he turned suddenly, and the police officer thought he had a weapon, and he killed him.
Well, the civil rights leadership came in and organized a boycott of the city. They vilified the police. It was the first incidence where they began to vilify the police as being racist. They extrapolate from one incident and use it to defame policing, period.
So the white police officers concluded, if they’re going to be accused of racism, then they’re not going to be as aggressive in enforcing the laws in those high-crime areas.
And so after a year, the murder rate went up almost 800% in the high-crime, black areas. But none of the civil rights leaders or the pastors or civic leaders who organized the boycott, they did not live in that area that suffered the consequences of their advocacy.
That then started a pattern that began to occur throughout the country, … leading up to Freddie Gray and George Floyd. Every time, there [were] only maybe 14 instances a year when a white police officer shoots and kills an unarmed black person, and usually they’re resisting arrest. But again, what the left has done is extrapolate from these few instances to vilify the whole police.
So, you have this attack on policing with the consequence, what they call the Ferguson effect, or I call police nullification. So all over the nation, police officers are less aggressive and the consequence has been an explosion of … black-on-black violence.
Over a typical weekend in my hometown of Philadelphia, 10 people are killed. And so, that’s the biggest challenge, that the more we vilify the police and talk about cutting the police, the more blacks are murdered by other blacks.
Del Guidice: Well, before we get back to the book, Bob, I do want to ask you more about a project event you did recently called “When Whites Were at Their Worst, Blacks [Were] at Their Best. … The 1619 Project Has The New York Times,” an event that you had hosted with that title. What was it about and what did that event accomplish?
Woodson: Well, The 1619 [Project], as you know, was done by these black journalists at The New York Times, and they wrote a series of essays. Nikole Hannah-Jones got a Pulitzer for writing a false narrative about American history. It should have been labeled fiction, but nevertheless.
But what the conclusion is, because of America, because of slavery in America, that America is forever condemned, and that racism is in America’s DNA. And therefore, all white Americans should be ashamed, blamed, and made to pay reparations; and all blacks are to be pitied, pandered, and paid. But it offers no solutions, it’s just a recipe for disaster.
So, since the left is using the plight of the black community as their cause celebre in attacking America’s institutions, … we at the Woodson Center brought together black scholars, [we felt] that the messengers should also be black on the other side.
So, we brought together scholars and activists to write essays affirming America’s rich heritage of freedom and justice and all.
And so we’re offering not a counter-argument, but a counter-positive and inspirational narrative that goes back and presents facts to refute their argument that the problems facing blacks today—out-of-wedlock births, unemployment, and violence—is a legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. That’s just not true.
For instance, between 1930 and 1940, when during the Depression, the unemployment rate for whites was 25%, it was 40% for blacks, and racism was enshrined in the law, and there was no political representation.
Well, black America should have gone to hell in a handbasket given those external conditions, but we didn’t. We had the highest marriage rate of any group in society. Elderly people could walk safely in their community without fear of being assaulted.
And so, there are other examples that disprove the 1619 contention that America is forever a racist, and therefore the only answer is reparations. The very fact that we released our own curriculum, and within the first seven days, we had 5,000 downloads—so people are desperate to get the truth. So, we’re very happy that Nikole Hannah-Jones had to walk back her primary contention that America’s Revolutionary War was fought to protect slavery.
Del Guidice: Bob, getting back to the book, what are some of the strategies that you’ve seen applied that really have contributed to rehabilitating these communities? What’s one or two things that you’ve seen that have been especially helpful to healing these neighborhoods?
Woodson: First of all, as I said, the first thing that’s helpful is to recognize that solutions can never work that are parachuted in from outside. That the first thing we have to do, first of all, is not generalize about poor people. Not everybody is poor for the same reason.
There are three categories of poor people. You got those who are just broke. Their character’s intact, but they lost a job or a factory has moved away, and they use outside assistance the way it was supposed to be and that is as an ambulant service, not a transportation system.
And then you have a second group of people who look at the disincentives to work. And if you remove those perverse incentives, they will be fine.
But the third category are people who are poor because of the value crisis. For them, providing direct assistance injures them with the helping hand. And these are the kind of people that need redemption and transformation as a precondition for transactions to help.
And so, the Woodson Center and its constituents, its 2,500 low-income leaders all over the country, we specialize in working with this third group.
The biggest asset is that we look for healing agents inside, the Josephs that are inside these communities. They are the social entrepreneurs. And then we provide assistance to them, access to capital. So what works for a small number of people can work for a larger number of people.
We have examples of by taking this approach of rebuilding the moral and spiritual infrastructure of a community, then economic development and job creation will follow on that foundation. And then, it’s getting the resources to take these items of excellence and expand them out so it covers an entire community, and hopefully it can be a stimulus for doing the same thing throughout the country.
Del Guidice: And finally, Bob, many Americans say that income inequality is due to racial discrimination both in the past and even here now in the present. Do you think that’s accurate? And if so, what can we do about that?
Woodson: Again, we really need to confront these lies with facts. Some of our scholars in 1776 Unites, we have documented the fact that if racial discrimination [creates] income inequality, then why is it that second-generation Caribbeans … and Nigerians, their children perform better than white children here.
Nigerians are at the top when it comes to number of college degrees, income. They have a median income that is higher than whites. The second-generation Caribbeans from Haiti, from Barbados, when they come to America, their children prosper. They have a higher marriage rate.
So you can’t say that … income inequality has to do with color. No one can distinguish between a black from Barbados or Nigeria or Detroit. And so, we have to offer facts to repute that.
For instance, they say that the criminal justice system is racist. Well, that’s not true either, and there’s studies to point this out. …
There are four groups that are underrepresented in prison. One, there are more Gentiles than Jews. You have lower Indian Americans, Asian Americans, and Nigerians. You don’t find very many Nigerians imprisoned. If the system were racist, then why don’t you have more Jews? … It would make a distinction.
So, we think it’s important to confront these myths about income inequality with facts that refute that.
And our scholars at 1776 have amassed a body of knowledge that we put on the table that directly refutes some of these myths about the country. And we celebrate America as the greatest place on Earth. That’s why people of color risked their lives to get here to enjoy what some of us have not realized, how important this country is.
Del Guidice: Well, Bob, thank you so much for joining us on “The Daily Signal Podcast.” It’s been great having you with us.
Woodson: Thank you.
Originally produced and published by The Daily Signal. Republished with permission.