Why Elitism Is a Bigger Problem Than Racism—Bob Woodson on Tackling Poverty, Drug Addiction, and Crime

Bob Woodson has dedicated the past forty years to helping people in impoverished communities overcome the social ills that surround them, from crime to drug addiction. In an area that had 53 murders in just two years, Woodson once helped two warring gangs meet in his office and negotiate a truce. As a result, there was no gang-related murder in that area for 12 years.

For his lifelong work, Woodson received the Presidential Citizens Medal, one of the highest honors the U.S. President can award a civilian.

In his latest book “Lessons From the Least of These: The Woodson Principles,” Woodson summarizes the precepts he’s learned over the years. Beyond another program, charity or donation, he explains how to create long-lasting change.

This is American Thought Leaders, and I’m Jan Jekielek.

Jan Jekielek: Bob Woodson, so great to have you back on American Thought Leaders.

Bob Woodson: Pleased to be here, as always.

Mr. Jekielek: Bob, you have a new book out. I haven’t managed to finish the book in its entirety, but what I have read at times actually brought tears to my eyes—incredible stories of empowerment and change from some of the most difficult neighborhoods and communities in the country. Tell me about this book.

Mr. Woodson: Well, most of my professional career I have spent walking with and among people in low-income, high-crime, drug-infested neighborhoods and in rural communities too. When I look at how society has attempted to render assistance to this group, a top down approach that we parachute into these low-income communities, because we don’t believe there’s any strengths or assets that are indigenous to the community. We administer the moral equivalent of a transplant, and no matter how well intended, transplants tend to be rejected by the body.

I believe that the answers can be found within the zip code of those experiencing the problem, so my life has taken me into these communities. I have seen some of the most miraculous transformations and acts of redemption. I have met people who are resilient people who have overcome great odds. I was blessed enough to walk beside them with them. I chronicled everything that I’d learned from them.

This book really represents a compilation of experiences of interactions that I’ve had, and lessons that I have learned from studying people who are what I call “community antibodies.” What I did is try to capture 10 principles from the many, many experiences and that I’ve had. I tried to distill it into 10 principles that summarize the font of wisdom that I’ve found in these communities.

Mr. Jekielek: That’s incredible. Indeed, one of these principles, or at least a component of one of these principles, is this idea that you go into these communities, and you were looking for the people that actually are being successful in these communities, trying to figure out what they’re doing. So it’s not a one size fits all solution, throw money at a problem. Let’s go in and see what the people that are actually being successful are doing there. Is that right?

Mr. Woodson: It is. What I believe is that the principles that operate in our market economy should operate in our social economy. As you know, in our market economy, only 3 percent of the people are entrepreneurs, but they generate 70 percent of the jobs. Entrepreneurs tend to be “C” students, not “A” students. As I have said, “A” students come back to universities and teach. These students flunked out.

We don’t look for credentialed people in our market economy; we look for people who are effective. But in our social economy, we don’t apply the same principles. But I do. I believe that even though social entrepreneurs represent a small percentage of people in these communities, they are the ones where you’ll find most of the innovations.

We need to cultivate the social entrepreneurs in our social economy, the way we cherish, support and cultivate entrepreneurs in our market economy. These people that I write about are really social entrepreneurs. Even though they may be small in number, if we properly harness what they are doing, we can invest in the way you do as an entrepreneur, and you can bring about large scale reform in those communities.

My struggle is to convince America that the way to help these communities is to support those that know how to promote reform and recovery from within the communities. My struggle is to convince policymakers and funders that the answers are within the community suffering the problems, that the real experts are those that are personal witnesses, and that transformation and redemption are possible.

Mr. Jekielek: You’re making me think of the Benning Terrace complex and what was able to happen there. Tell me about this quite incredible story in the book.

Mr. Woodson: About 22 years ago, I was working with a group of men, the name was “Alliance of Concerned Men.” These are men who had been to prison. Most of them were drug addicts, but through God’s grace, they would be redeemed and transformed. They were working in the community with young people trying to divert them away from a lot predatory lifestyles. They came to me because they knew I had some experience in gang intervention.

I said to them, “No one can really measure your impact, even though you’re trusted by a law enforcement officials and people, civic leaders and the kids. So why don’t you go to one area of one neighborhood and see what you can do?” Then Darryl Hall, the 12-year-old, was killed in a public housing complex called Benning Terrace in southeast Washington. There were 53 murders in a five square block area in two years in this one complex.

I said that God has made the choice to go up and bring those warring gang leaders to my office downtown, because there is sanctuary. So they were able to go in and in one day, bring 18 of these young men in. They came in separate vans to my office downtown. I had a meal waiting for them, because kids will fight when they’re drinking together, but never when they’re eating together. I think there’s something biblical about that. They convinced them to put down their guns.

After a few sessions, they dissolved the gang and became the “Concerned Brothers of Benning Terrace.” They went back into the same community that they terrorized and tore up. They became a force for redeeming it. They planted grass working for the housing authority in a special program—they planted grass. The whole community came alive as hundreds of kids rushed into the streets. For the first time they could use the football field. It was transformed from a killing field. These young men were the catalyst to transform that whole area.

Pete Gruden, the head of the DEA office, [Drug Enforcement Administration] came to me and said, “Bob, it’s been a year, and not only is violence and crime down in Benning Terrace, but it also is down in the contiguous communities. When we conduct a raid, it just gets transmitted, it just moves. But you all solved me the problem.” For 12 years, we did not have a single gang-related murder that community.

As we continued to invest, and I’d learned principles that I extracted, we were able to take the experiences of Benning Terrace and those principles and export them to Dallas, Texas, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We learned an awful lot. We worked with the police in doing this, and PBS did a special on it. It was just an amazing experience that’s called the “violence free zone.”

Mr. Jekielek: What happened in this meeting that seems to have created the seeds? I mean, they had a meal, but these are people that are killing each other. So what happened in there?

Mr. Woodson: Well, they said, “First of all, nobody ever asked us to be peaceful.” So we asked them questions about when the beef started. They said, “Well, somebody killed my cousin, so we retaliated.” I said, “But why did it start?” They couldn’t tell me. So we asked them some simple questions: “Are you happy with your lifestyle? Are you happy with having to call your girlfriend when you come to find out whether anyone is waiting to ambush you? Are you happy with this lifestyle?”

And all of them hung their heads and said, “No.” “Well, then if you’re unhappy with it, and we gave you a peaceful way, a respectful way to stop it, would you take it?” And one of them got up and said, “Yes.” Then all of them stood and said, “Yes.” So what we did then, when they shook hands, we had a press conference.

But it’s not enough to tell young people what not to do. You got to redirect them to tell them what they can do. So what we did, since the Housing Authority was a part of this gathering, the director of the housing authority set up a special program that hired all 18 of these young men as maintenance crew. The leader of the avenue became a foreman and got paid $8.50 an hour. The leader of the circle was another foreman and he got paid $8.50 an hour, and they switched. The work crews are made up of a mixture of the gangs.

We gave a lot of fanfare to them coming back. We had the press out there photographing them, taking off the graffiti from the walls. The housing authority said that they removed more graffiti in six weeks than their regular maintenance crew did in two years.

Then the Housing Authority extended them. Two of them wanted to go into the landscaping business, so we recruited Rupert Landscaping Company. They came out on weekends and coached these young people, gave them their product at their price so they could build some capital. Another young man started a restaurant.

We just invested in these young people as models of transformed individuals. We did a lot of press. The kids were complaining that the police now were no longer afraid to come into the communities and throw them on the ground. So I went with Chief Rodney Monroe, who is the area commander. He said, “Well, I will bring 25 of my officers to the church, and let’s have a sit down.”

So I bought 18 of the young people together in a church on a Tuesday morning, [and they] sat down with 25 police officers. It was tense at first. But after a while, they got to know each other as human beings, as dads. That changed the whole relationship between the police and the young people.

In Benning Terrace, I remember the first Easter when they got their first paychecks, they wanted to celebrate. So we had a big picnic out there and they put banners that said, “Concerned Brothers of Benning Terrace Salute the Mothers of Benning Terrace.” There were softball games and picnics.

We said to them, “What we’re doing for you isn’t charity, you got to give back to what is being given to you. What are you passionate about?” And they said they wanted to be coaches. So we announced that we’re going to set up football teams. The first day 58 young people showed up. And then we had 120.

So our fellows who were predatory gang members became coaches. They began to set up football teams. We got it funded; we had cheerleaders. On a Wednesday night, the area commander Rodney Monroe said to me, “Bob, look at this. Kids are playing football, they’re selling hotdogs, and there’s peace, and there are no police out here. This is truly a miraculous transformation of this neighborhood.”

Mr. Jekielek: Now that’s an incredible story. Something I just noticed, you mentioned you made it clear to them this isn’t charity, you have to give back. I’m reminded of a quote that I pulled from the book and you wrote this. “People of goodwill armed with noble intentions can do great harm to people in need by their acts of crippling generosity and condescending assistance.” So clearly what you did here was not this model. But there are a lot of people out there who do want to help or are invested in helping, but somehow, you’re very critical of some of these folks.

Mr. Woodson: I really am. I’m glad that you mentioned that because as soon it was in the press that there was peace in that community. The next thing we know, some very middle class organizations had a banquet and they were recruiting people to come out to Benning Terrace, recruiting volunteers to come out and clean up the neighborhood. That was a way for them to recruit their members.

They came out and I said, “This is the worst thing that you can do is to bring all these celebrities out here, and you’re going to clean up.” I said, “The kids are being paid to clean up the neighborhood. They are in a process of cleaning up their own neighborhood, they gain a sense of ownership of that neighborhood, and you’re interfering with this process.” So I really had to push back against these well-intentioned, but ill-advised actions on the part of these people. That became another struggle to push back against.

For instance—and this is why you have to listen to grassroots leaders—I said to Curtis Watkins, the coach, “Are you ready for uniforms?” And he said, “No, let the kids play without them first so I can see who’s serious.” So I said, “Well tell me when you’re ready.” I was at a business meeting in another part of Virginia when I got a call from Curtis. He said, “Bob, we’re ready for uniforms.”

So I passed the hat in his business. I said, “I need $15,000 before I leave this meeting. My kids need uniforms.” They gave me the money. I said, “I want you to come to our press conference when these uniforms are given out, but the uniforms will not be given from you. The uniforms will be given to the kids by the coaches.” They will get a free T-shirt or shirt. It is important when you’re dispensing support that you use every means possible to reinforce the relationship between the local leaders and the ones that they are serving.

[Here’s] another example that makes this point. Some years ago, there was a woman who had a shelter for abused women. Every year volunteers would collect toys, and they would give them to the kids at Christmas. Everybody was happy except the mothers. So the next year, the president of the program made it possible for the mothers to volunteer and earn toy vouchers. So the toys that were collected the second year at a Christmas party were placed in a storeroom, and then the mothers shopped for their own children. At the Christmas party, it was the mothers that gave the toys to the kids, not the volunteers. That’s an empowerment model.

Mr. Jekielek: That’s really fascinating. You also describe, in your book at the beginning, the impact of all the “Great Society” policy efforts. You’re someone that actually grew up under Jim Crow. You were a significant part of the civil rights movement. But then you exited, because you saw it going in the wrong way. We’ve talked about this before, but part of the reason was because of this difference in approach—one of personal empowerment, and the other one of donation. Do I have that right?

Mr. Woodson: Yes. It is the difference between, like I said, treating people as if they are clients, impotent clients, as if they are helpless, and therefore any assistance that is provided has to come from outside. You don’t build on restraints that are in there, that’s the problem. It’s like I told you before, someone comes in with heart palpitations and the first thing the doctor says: you need a heart transplant.

But that’s not how responsible medicine starts. You always start helping with something to help in a way that is least intrusive. You start with, “Well, get some rest. Well, take some medicines.” So we only introduce help until we get to a certain level of intervention, and then the problem is solved.

But we don’t come in with presumptions about the problem and say, “Oh, we need a transplant.” That’s what we did with poor people over the last 60 years. We have said, “Oh, there’s a problem. We’ll just import a program into there.”

Seventy percent of the $22 trillion we spent on the poor in the last 50 years went not to the poor, but those who serve the poor. They asked which problems are fundable, not ones which are solvable. So we’ve created a commodity out of the poor. If your job depends upon having dependent people to serve, what proprietary interest do you have in promoting their independence. It doesn’t matter how compassionate you are. The game is rigged against the poor and in favor of you.

Mr. Jekielek: Bob, you’ve created and modeled communities in 39 states that have actually been running these Woodson Center style programs empowering the local community leaders. Actually, I think you said most of them have “ex-something” in their biography, but basically people who were deep in those communities.

I have one question. A lot of people that become successful in some of these very difficult communities actually end up leaving, right? So how does that affect how these programs actually work and the retention of these leaders who affect this transformational change?

Mr. Woodson: I know very few leaders who leave. They could very easily. We’ve trained about 2,500 grassroots leaders in about 39 states. I remember when one of the group of funders came to visit one of my programs in San Antonio. He asked a question of one of the counselors in the drug program. He said, “How long are you going to be serving here?” And he never understood the question. He said, “How long are you going to be serving?” He said, “I’m a lifer.” I can’t think of but maybe one or two grassroots leaders who started down this path, and is not still doing it.

We say to young people, particularly young gang members, those who are in gang-intervention, we make a pact with these kids. We say, “If you pledge your life to living and life, we will pledge the rest of our life to you. I know young people, I met them when they were 16. They are 53 today. That’s how long grassroots leaders stay with the people they serve. They’re not there for the life of a grant. They can use money that enables them to reach more, but their long-term relationship is not dependent upon funding.

Mr. Jekielek: It strikes me as just bizarre that programs of the nature the Woodson Center has been doing all these years are not more prevalent. More of these donor-type programs, client-type programs are dominant.

Mr. Woodson: That’s because elitism is more over-valued than racism. When it comes to a social economy, we have been conditioned to believe that the real experts are the people with PhDs who have studied about poverty. In fact, most of the leading experts on poverty, both left and right of center never talked to poor people. Never did. And yet, they are the established experts.

When you had them gathered in a room as I have, and asked them, with all of the billions of dollars spent on social science research into the cause, and prevention of violence and poverty, I would like you to explain—give me three recommendations that you would make that would reduce poverty and would reduce violence. They couldn’t do it.

They can give you names of categories of failures. But they’re not oriented towards solutions. And you can get away with it. You can waste millions in a social economy, if it’s well managed by well-intentioned people, because producing outcomes that have the benefit of uplifting people is never a requirement.

Mr. Jekielek: Forgive me for being ignorant here, but how could it not be?

Mr. Woodson: Because when people talk about intervention, they talk about how many people they serve. And that gets accepted as effectiveness. How many you serve, not how well are they served—or whether someone [who had] been broken has now been made whole. I remember when I was testifying before, people talk about metrics.

I was testifying before the Senate committee on the merits of Christ-centered or faith-based drug recovery programs, and I was testifying with three psychiatrists. I said at the testimony, when they’re talking about validating interventions, I told him that I took my 13-year-old daughter and my 16-year-old son for a week, and volunteered at Outcry in the Barrio, a Christ-centered drug recovery program in San Antonio.

The third day into our visit, Ninfa Garcia, who was an ex-addict herself and the co-sponsor of the program, said to these two women, “I want you to take Bob’s daughter and my three granddaughters in the van, take them to dinner, and then take them to an amusement park have them back by nine at night.” As they were leaving, she said to my wife, and me, “Relax, Bob, they’re ex-heroin addicts and they’re ex-prostitutes. The kids would be just fine.”

I said to the psychiatrists, “How many of you would trust your 13-year-old daughter to patients that you have announced were cured as a result of your intervention?” Of course, there was a silence. And it was laughter throughout the hearing room. But I said to them, “That’s the level of confidence I have in a faith-based cure.” Because Pastor Freddy Garcia and his wife, who are ex-addicts, their witness makes them very discerning.

They know who’s faking. But you don’t have the competence in your craft to risk your children. The question that I have is, shouldn’t that assessment be counted or taken into consideration when we’re defining effectiveness? Why can’t we build that in?

Mr. Jekielek: I think that’s an excellent question. I have the same question, Bob.

Mr. Woodson: But I would have trusted any one of the 25 men and women sitting there with tattoos on their arms. I would have trusted anyone. As long as Pastor Freddie and Ninfa said, “Go with them,” I would trust. That’s the level of confidence I have. And that order counts for something. Scholars ought to study that intervention. They ought to interview people who have been helped in that way to try to discover why and how does faith-based intervention work?

Why can’t we take social science and apply it to studying what James C. Scott called metis knowledge? There are two types of knowledge according to James C. Scott, a Yale-trained economist. He says there’s two types of knowledge: metis knowledge and epistemic knowledge. Epistemic knowledge, meaning that which you can teach in a classroom, that you can teach someone to maneuver a ship across an ocean.

But when that ship gets to the port of Baltimore, New York, or Philadelphia, that ship’s captain turns the ship over to a harbor master. Because the harbor master has metis knowledge, it’s common sense knowledge, about the jetties and what is going on in that port. It takes the harbor master to maneuver that ship into port.

Well, grassroots leaders are like harbor masters, they have common sense knowledge. They know how to maneuver people into recovery from predatory behavior, from drug addiction, and from all kinds of maladies. As a society because of elitism, we assume that only people with letters behind their names have legitimate contributions to make. People with letters in front of their names like ex-con, ex-this, ex-that, we discount what they say and what they do.

The Wilson Center has been tasked with trying to convince this society that they’re looking in the wrong places for answers to poverty and despair, that the real solutions are found by investing in these grassroots leaders. Like the Alliance of Concerned Men and thousands of others that abide in these troubled neighborhoods.

Mr. Jekielek: Bob, I’m thinking about the fact you have ten different principles here. One of them we talked about a bit already, this idea of agency. Talking about the pastor, you just mentioned, you were talking about another one, which is this idea of witness. What I noticed was that grace is actually your tenth principle. My question is, is this connection with the divine some kind of transcendent connection, an important part of this always?

Mr. Woodson: It is a fundamental part of it. Grace, I call it, in some cases, radical grace. In the book, and in other essays, I talked about Robert Smalls. Robert Smalls was born a slave in 1839, in South or North Carolina, He was working on a southern supply ship during the war. One night, he stole the ship, when it pulled in on Friday, and arranged with his crew to pick up the family members of the slaves. He put on his master’s hat and coat and gave hand signals and went past five southern garrisons and safely made it out and turned the ship over to the Union Navy.

He was celebrated throughout the country. It was because of his brave act that Abraham Lincoln permitted blacks to fight in the Civil War. After the war was over, he became a very successful businessman, and during Reconstruction, served several terms as a member of Congress. He went back and purchased the plantation on which he was a slave. Because the wife of the slave master and her siblings were destitute, and she was delusional, he took them in and permitted her to stay and sleep in the master bedroom. That, to me, is an act of radical grace.

Dr. King exhibited that same act of radical grace when he had to flee his home with his wife and small child when his home was firebombed. He’s standing next to 200 angry black men who are armed with guns, ready to tear the place apart. Dr. King counseled peace in the midst of that kind of challenge. Dr. King was maintaining this act of radical grace and thousands of our grassroots leaders do the same thing every day. That forgiveness is an integral, integral part of their recovery, forgiving themselves and forgiving others.

Jan Jekielek: Tell me: why did you write this book? Who is this book for?

Mr. Woodson: I really wrote this book as a real guide to people, particularly those that are outside, who are really sincere about wanting to make a difference in these communities, so they can be given the proper direction as to how to help, so they won’t injure with the helping hand.

I also wanted to write it to validate the grassroots leaders. I really want to celebrate grassroots people through this book, so that the general public will get a chance to know what radical grace is, and how wonderful and how innovative, how resilient grassroots people are. I really wanted to validate the important role that grassroots leaders make, that the qualities that make them effective also makes them invisible. Well, I wanted to remove some of the invisibility of grassroots leaders.

I wanted people throughout the country to read it and go into low-income communities, not looking at it as a cesspool or a pathology, but going in and looking for the Joseph’s of this world, looking for people who are in there who are in poverty, but not of poverty. So that was part of it. I really wanted people to be inspired, but also wanted people to look beyond race.

The moral and spiritual free-fall that Americans are in is consuming wealthy people in affluent neighborhoods like Silicon Valley, where there are two-parent households with both parents with master’s degrees, and a median income of over $180,000. At the same time, their teenagers are committing suicide at six times the national average.

Even in places like wealthy Plano, Texas, white teenagers in some affluent families are chewing pure heroin, and they’re called gunners. In places like New Hampshire and Northern Virginia, where there are wealthy whites, they’re dying from suicide and drug addiction. Appalachian whites, low-income whites, oxycontin is destroying communities there. Inner cities, people are dying of black-on-black crime. Homicide is the biggest cause of death in the inner city, and suicide in affluent communities.

So Americans are thirsting for content and meaning to their lives. It is the absence of content and meaning that is causing this despair and the self-inflicted wounds that are taking place. If grassroots people can find moral content and meaning in their lives, in these toxic high-crime neighborhoods, and they can find peace, then maybe they have something to export to people who are morally and spiritually starving to death in the gilded ghettos of America.

I’m hoping that if we can just get beyond, we can de-racialize race and desegregate poverty. I’m hoping that one day we can reach a time when we put aside our racial differences and come together to see how grassroots low-income black and brown people have found moral content in their lives, how they can teach people in these gilded ghettos how to find moral content and meaning in their lives.

That’s why I wrote the book. I hoped it would be an inspiration to people to come together to recognize that in America, those bourgeois values of faith and family are still the most important foundation upon which we should build our lives and our nation.

Mr. Jekielek: Bob, before we finish up, I have to talk about this as well. We’ve talked about this offline before, that a lot of the models in society or the celebrities in society—you touched on this just moments ago—seem to have this bit of a moral hole or this kind of challenge. This is what a lot of the young folks are learning right. At the same time, we also have critical-race-theory-based diversity education, which is prominent in the federal government and across the education system, which seems to be going in a very different direction than what you’re suggesting.

Mr. Woodson: It’s a growing secularization as we have transferred the moral authority from individuals and civic institutions to government as the ultimate arbiter of what is right and wrong. That’s the direction in which we are headed. Critical race theory used to be called stereotyping, where you generalize about all things, and it’s really a dumbing down of standards of people. But it’s [because of] this growing secularization that we’re moving away from faith. You look at what is happening.

I just saw a special on Whitney Houston, one of the most accomplished, beautiful women, died at age 48, with five or six different drugs in her system. Prince, another talented black entertainer, died at a young age. Michael Jackson. These people had everything that the secularists tell you we ought to have in order to achieve success in life. River Phoenix. You can go down the whole list of so-called celebrities, secular celebrities, that have taken their lives because they lack content and meaning. That cannot be the direction in which we should be guiding our children.

By contrast, the people in the Woodson Center network, they may not have the money or the celebrity status. But when you go and visit with them, you just feel the level of love and respect that they have for one another. You don’t see them destroying their lives with drugs. You don’t hear about suicides among low-income, grassroots leaders. In 40 years, I know maybe at most, one or two who committed suicide. So you have to look at low-income people as a source of restoration and reform and replenishment.

Mr. Jekielek: Bob, any final thoughts before we finish up?

Mr. Woodson: I’m just delighted that I was able to work with grassroots leaders. I have been a spectator, a participant spectator. I just love and cherish my grassroots leaders and they have been such a source of wisdom and such a source of support. I’m just blessed that God gave me the opportunity to report to the country a little bit about what they do and the potential contribution they make to save this nation. I really think that grassroots leaders are going to be the new patriots that are going to save this nation.

Mr. Jekielek: Bob Woodson, such a pleasure to have you on.

Mr. Woodson: Thank you.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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