Robert Woodson would probably wince if you called him a "community organizer." That's because for the last 30 years as president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, he has not spent time organizing the poor around ineffective government programs and other addictions he has been helping them become self-sufficient.
"You can't learn anything by studying failure," he says. "If you want to learn anything, you must study the successful."
I spent last Tuesday riding around Washington and Waldorf, Md., visiting housing projects Woodson's organization supports and studying his success. I met former drug addicts, dealers, prostitutes and pimps -- all of whom testify to having been through failed government programs -- who now say they are clean, sober and off the streets.
The keys are discipline, raised expectations, a family atmosphere infused with tough love, imposed morality and yes, hope.
Cost estimates for the "war on poverty" vary, but most put it in the trillions of dollars. That war hasn't been won. Record numbers are on food stamps.
Woodson says the difference between programs he supports and others is that he "takes time-tested principles and virtues and applies them to addictions, homelessness and other conditions. We have moral consistency."
Woodson quotes popular Christian minister Chuck Swindoll: "Life is 10 percent what happens to us and 90 percent how we respond to it." Woodson, who is African-American, as were all of those I met, tells me "Every black community going back to 1784 had welfare based on morals." The last 40 years, he says, have transformed the way we look at poverty: "Until 1965, 80 percent of black families had two parents in the home. The '60s destroyed all that."
When most people think of "civil rights leaders" they think of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and the NAACP. Woodson has no time for them. He says, "They get publicity; we get results."
"Eighty percent of all anti-poverty money doesn't go to poor people," Woodson says, "but to organizations that claim to serve poor people." He is emphatic about what he says and he produces success when so many other programs fail: "Faith in God transforms the inside and that faith transforms the outside."
Pastor Shirley Holloway is a no-nonsense, African-American woman who heads Kingdom Village in Waldorf. It provides housing and, more importantly, a home environment for many who have not had a place to live -- other than prison in some cases -- in years. She also runs House of Help/City of Hope in a formerly tough (until she took over) neighborhood in Southeast Washington. Holloway tells me that she and Woodson "are not visible because we don't whine and complain."
Woodson reminds me of an often-ignored fact: "Poor whites in Appalachia are worse off than inner-city blacks." Perhaps that is because not as many government programs are available to them and the media and politicians mostly ignore poor whites.
There is a lesson here for Republicans if they will stop forfeiting the compassion game to Democrats. Woodson and Holloway are employing conservative Republican values and ideas, which are succeeding. Why are corporations and wealthy individuals donating so much money to people and programs that aren't working? Why do so many corporations contribute to Sharpton and Jackson when their track record of transforming people from dependency to self-sufficiency is, to be charitable, somewhat lacking.
Republicans could win over the votes of many of the poor who think their future lies with Democrats. It doesn't, not if Democrats continue to spend money on failed programs that have no power to change lives. This will require Republicans getting out of their comfort zones and hanging out with people who not only have found hope, but who can communicate hope to others.
As Jesse Jackson might put it: "Keep hope alive!" For Woodson and Holloway, that's more than an applause line.