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A Pragmatic Heresy

This column was written by Paul Mirengoff.

Robert Woodson is the founder and head of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise (NCNE). A former civil rights activist and community organizer, he is one of the many 1960s-era liberals who was mugged by reality. In Woodson's case, it was the reality that the civil rights movement had become a middle-class cause with little relevance to impoverished neighborhoods.

Woodson responded to the mugging by moving to the American Enterprise Institute, where he engaged in the radical step of systematically studying what works and what does not work in transforming lives in poor neighborhoods. He found that the success stories he identified almost always involved inspirational figures who were working quietly within the community, outside of the civil rights and government bureaucracies.

These people fell into one of two categories: (1) those who were "in poverty but not of it," and thus could inspire others by achieving against the odds, and (2) those "of poverty" who had been criminals and drug addicts, but whose lives had been transformed and now could inspire others as "antibodies" within the community. Woodson studied these individuals and found that the key to their personal success was usually religious faith.

Hoping to put his knowledge to more practical use than a think tank would permit, Woodson founded the NCNE in 1981. His three founding principles were (1) those suffering from problems must be involved in the creation and implementation of the solution, (2) the principles of the market economy should be applied to the solution of societal problems, and (3) value-generating and faith-based programs are uniquely qualified to address the problems of poverty.

Since then, the NCNE has trained thousands of community leaders and worked with faith-based groups in 39 states. According Woodson, it has leveraged more than $300 million for its grassroots partners while spending only about $30 million.

In 1997, NCNE founded itsViolence-Free Zone initiative (VFZ). It began in a crime-ridden Washington, D.C., public housing development, where it succeeded in virtually eliminating crew-related homicides. Since then, the program has moved into cities and public schools throughout the country. The idea is to identify key leaders and their organizations and provide them with intensive training and financial support. Youth advisors, who are from the same neighborhoods and have overcome the same obstacles as those who are involved in crew-related violence, become a presence in the schools, not as security personnel, but as hall monitors, mentors, conflict resolvers, and role models. The VFZ also provides after-school, weekend, and summer programs, always involving parents and other family members and respecting the authority of school officials and parents.

The successes of the VFZ have been remarkable. For example, according to statistics from the Dallas Independent School District, in two Dallas high schools (Lincoln and Madison) the combined incidents of gang violence dropped from 147 in 2001-2002 to 1 in 2004-2005. Combined math/reading achievement scores on the TAKS test improved from 170.9 in 2003 to 227.1 in 2004. Wanda Stanton, assistant principal at Southwestern High School in Baltimore, described the program as "a God send." She adds that the VFZ has created "a new code of ethics" which, among other things, teaches young males how to respect and properly relate to women. Woodson outlined the successes of the VFZ in Washington, D.C. in a piece for the Washington Post.

In one sense, Woodson's approach represents "back to the future" community activism. Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty featured efforts to identify, support, and work with charismatic community leaders. The program reflected the dislike, if not contempt, Robert Kennedy (whose domestic brain-trust helped develop the programs) and Johnson shared for local political leaders. But even though working with community activists who were unattached (at least initially) to local politicos made sense in theory, in practice the approach was doomed because of the power of the local political establishment. The Washington of the late 1960s could no more work around local political leaders on behalf of the black underclass than could the Washington of the late 1860s.

Woodson's program is succeeding where its Great Society precursor failed for a number of reasons. First, it is independent of the government. It neither assaults the local power structure (VFZ has no political pretensions) nor is it susceptible to government-imposed restrictions such as those that ultimately undermined the Great Society activists. Second, Woodson's program is faith-based. The local leaders his organization relies on are more than just charismatic, they are rooted in traditional values.

The strengths of the VFZ are also its weaknesses when it comes to gaining mainstream acceptance. The first strength — independence from government — hardly wins the program friends among liberals and civil rights groups. The second strength — reliance on faith — puts the program beyond the pale. But Woodson, having spent a lifetime discovering what works, is too busy redeeming lives to worry about mainstream acceptance.

Paul Mirengoff is a contributing writer to The Daily Standard and a contributor to the blog Power Line.
By Paul Mirengoff

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