Woodson, Robert L. 1937—
Robert L. Woodson 1937—
Sociologist, activist, business executive
Robert Woodson has helped to develop and coordinate economic empowerment programs throughout the country and around the world. As founder and president of the nonprofit National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise (NCNE), Woodson has laid the groundwork for legislation that allows residents of public housing projects to manage their own developments and purchase their homes from the government. In addition, he has argued for the establishment of “enterprise zones,” wherein small companies are offered financial incentives for setting up shop in economically depressed urban areas.
Woodson “advocates a revival of [the] entrepreneurial spirit that he says blacks once had but lost,” according to Michel McQueen in the Wall Street Journal. But McQueen also noted that Woodson has dismissed the work of traditional black organizations, such as the National Urban League (NUL), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Congressional Black Caucus, as “bitchin’, begging, and busing.” Jacob V. Lamar, Jr., described Woodson in Time as one of a “growing number of influential black thinkers who are vigorously challenging the liberal notions of their intellectual forebears, the black sociologists who dominated the civil rights era.”
Woodson was born in Philadelphia in 1937. His father died when Robert was nine years old, leaving his mother to support him and his four brothers and sisters. Woodson dropped out of high school during his senior year, but he later returned to complete his studies and receive his diploma. He went on to study math and science at Cheyney State College in nearby Westchester, Pennsylvania. Although he had originally hoped to teach high school science, his evening work with juvenile offenders at a local prison inspired him to pursue a career in social work. After receiving his bachelor of science degree in 1962, he enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Work. Three years later, he obtained his master’s degree in social work, and the following year began doctoral studies in sociology at the University of Massachusetts.
While completing his graduate work, Woodson became actively involved in the civil rights movement, directing
At a Glance…
Bom April 8, 1937, in Philadelphia/ PA; married Ellen Hylton; children: Robert Jr., Ralph, Jamal. Education: Cheyney State College, B.S., 1962; University of Pennsylvania, M.S.W., 1965; completed doctoral work at the University of Massachusetts.
Civil rights activist, 1962-68; Unitarian Services Committee, social worker, Boston, MA, 1968-71; National Urban League, Administration of Justice Division, director, New York City, 1971-73; American Enterprise Institute Neighborhood Revitalization Project, director, Washington, DC, c. mid-1970s; American Enterprise Institute, adjunct fellow, 1976-81; Council for a Black Economic Agenda, chairman; National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, founder, and president, 1981—.
Awards: Community Service Award, Martin Luther King Community Center, Houston, 1976; Distinguished Service Award, National Black Police Association, 1980; Leslie Pinckney Hill Humanitarian Award, Cheyney University Alumni Association, 1983; George Washington Honor Medal, Freedom Foundation at Valley Forge, 1985; Outstanding Public Service Award, GeorgiaCoalition of Black Women, Inc., 1986; Marian pfister Anshutz Award, Family Research Council and Anshutz Foundation, 1990; John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship, 1990.
Addresses: Office—National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, 1367 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Washington, DC 20036.
and coordinating community development programs for a number of local and national organizations, including the NAACP. But by 1968, he had become disillusioned with the direction the movement was taking, specifically with regard to federally mandated school busing. He believed—and continues to maintain—that forced integration eliminates individuals’ freedom of choice and creates the impression that “all black” is bad. After resigning from the NAACP, Woodson moved to Boston, where he spent three years as a social worker with the Unitarian Services Committee.
In 1971 Woodson was hired to head the NUL’s Administration of Justice Division in New York City. He began with high hopes but left after only two years, worn out by what he described to McQueen in the Wall Street Journal as the ineffective efforts of legions of “poverty pimps”—social workers and organization officials, both black and white—who seemed to be doing more to help themselves than they were to help those who were truly needy. At the time, he included himself among them.
Woodson also felt that the Urban League, like many other traditional black organizations, was focusing on the wrong issues and approaches. “To apply civil rights solutions for the black underclass is to sow seeds of false hope,” he told Kenneth M. Jones in Black Enterprise. “If racism ended tomorrow, that would not alter the plight of the black underclass.” He put it even more succinctly in his conversation with McQueen: “I did not fight in the civil rights struggle to take white pigs away from the trough to replace them with black pigs at the trough.”
Following his brief stint with the NUL, Woodson spent several years as director of the American Enterprise Institute’s Neighborhood Revitalization Project in Washington, DC. He then became an adjunct fellow at the institute, where he remained for the next five years. In 1981 he left to form the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, endeavoring to provide technical support and assistance to community groups; by 1995, the Washington-based organization was operating with a full-time staff of 14, calling in outside consultants to help with special projects.
Woodson first gained national attention in November of 1984, when he was appointed to head a neoconservative think tank known as the Council for a Black Economic Agenda (CBEA). Formed at the behest of the Reagan administration, the CBEA brought together economists, businessmen, scholars, community leaders, and activists from around the country, but excluded representatives of more traditional black organizations. Within a few weeks, the council had announced its agenda and sent the White House a request to meet with President Reagan. Meanwhile, the liberal press was scathing in its criticism of what it viewed as a cynical, politically motivated Republican party move.
“True, it’s the umpteenth time Republicans have come up with a flashy new strategy for attracting [black] support,” wrote the New Republic’s Fred Barnes of the CBEA. “This one, however, has the advantage of allowing conservative Republicans ... to tout capitalism to their heart’s content as the salvation of the black underclass, and they won’t have to do it within earshot of unbelievers such as Benjamin Hooks of the NAACP and John Jacob of the National Urban League. Now the White House has come up with a new group of blacks to talk to, and it is promoting them as the next generation of black leaders.”
The highly publicized meeting that followed “invited controversy from the start,” related Black Enterprise’s Jones. For starters, the conference followed dozens of unsuccessful attempts by more established black groups to gain access to the president; in fact, Jones mentioned that as recently as December of 1984 the White House had declined to meet with a group of black leaders to discuss the administration’s policy of ’constructive engagement’ in South Africa. Some felt the conference usurped the position of the NUL by taking place on the eve of that organization’s annual “State of Black America” report. Furthermore, the meeting occurred on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, the most important day in the civil rights calendar.
Controversy aside, the issues addressed during the hourlong meeting included economics and housing and education for blacks. One of the CBEA’s key proposals was the idea of giving new, small companies “risk capital” for locating in impoverished inner-city areas, Jones reported, adding that, according to CBEA member Arthur Fletcher, any discussion of “traditional black issues” such as welfare and food stamps, was deliberately avoided in an effort to distance the CBEA from the older black organizations. NAACP president Hooks was incensed by the suggestion that both his group and the Urban League had limited agendas, and in an interview with Jones, dismissed the allegations as “absurd and stupid and [Reagan] administration propaganda.”
In January 1985 CBEA conference was only the first of a series of meetings between Woodson and members of the Reagan Cabinet. Woodson returned to the White House numerous times over the next three and a half years to discuss such issues as child welfare, tax revision, tax incentives, welfare reform, and public housing. On one occasion, he helped host a White House briefing for potential corporate donors, intended to raise money for a series of conferences on revamping the welfare system.
A federal government mainstay, Woodson remained a visible presence at the White House during the tenure of President George Bush, riding the crest of black conservatism. Among the key points remaining on the black conservative agenda were termination of affirmative action, which conservatives believe undermines blacks’ real accomplishments and encourages resentment among whites; abandoning large-scale social programs in favor of tax breaks for minority-owned businesses; replacing welfare with “workfare,” a benefit tied to jobs or training programs rather than a government entitlement; turning over government duties, such as ownership and management of public housing, to private individuals; and fostering “family values,” self-reliance, and self-restraint as a means of ending social ills.
Woodson’s detractors have accused him of twisting his principles to suit his needs. Though he has complained that government aid stifles black initiative and creativity, he has not been averse to using his White House connections to support NCNE projects. For example, in the mid-1980s, Woodson helped the tenants of a Washington, D. C., public housing project obtain millions of dollars in federal funds to repair the complex and organize a prototype tenant-management plan.
New Republic writer Crocker Coulson commented that “in 1981, Woodson [had] testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in favor of dismantling the OJJDP [the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention], but over the last two years his group has received a half million dollars from that same agency and opened a branch office in Chicago with the funds.” “I still don’t think OJJDP should exist,” Woodson told Coulson, “but as long as Congress refuses to kill it, I have to try and see that these funds are getting to the black community and not to pay for more studies by white professors.” Coulson also noted that while the NCNE has used OJJDP money to make “technical assistance grants” to community organizations working with delinquent youths, “more than half of the funds are chewed up in administrative costs.”
Despite cricicism, Woodson has held that the solution to the nation’s social and economic woes lies in less government and more self-help. “In spite of a government-financed poverty industry that has claimed a monopoly on social services, there are thousands of grassroots leaders who have worked—without support and often in the face of regulatory barriers—to effectively address the problems that confront their low-income communities,” Woodson editorialized in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
He continued, asserting: “These community activists have been effective where professional programs have had no sustainable impact…. To the greatest extent possible, government should free up the efforts of these grassroots activists. Just as we can unleash economic activity by decreasing the capital gains tax, and just as we can stimulate entrepreneurship by reducing regulatory barriers, we can tap the strengths that exist within our low-income communities by breaking the iron grip of the poverty industry’s monopoly.”
Woodson’s critics, and even some friends—among them Betty Whaley, director of the Washington Urban League, and former corrections official John Boone, who collaborated with Woodson on a number of writing projects—see him as a clever self-promoter and are quick to point out the false assumptions of his approach. “The whole business of a self-help philosophy is artificial,” Whaley told McQueen. “It is not a separate ideology.” But what particularly irks Whaley, she confided, is Woodson’s tendency to “dump on other organizations just to get [his] point across.” Boone put it another way, suggesting, “When somebody is bold enough to court an administration [Ronald Reagan’s] that is of dubious credibility as far as black people are concerned, that smacks of hypocrisy.”
Those who oppose Woodson claim that by challenging the civil rights establishment and encouraging a distrust of big government, he is helping to foster dissension in the black community. It is not surprising, hoever, that Woodson views his role quite differently. He told McQueen,”I consider my role to be stimulating and reinvigorating the debate that should always have been taking place in our community.” The solution to the monumental problems facing low-income blacks is empowerment rather than entitlements, Woodson contends. In addition, he believes that black leaders must turn away from what he described in the Wall Street Journal as “symbolic causes that entail no responsibility for action on their part” and focus instead on real social and economic issues.
”The long-term systemic decline in our inner cities can only be corrected with sustained private-sector investment that creates real jobs, develops relevant job skills, and fosters broad-based local business ownership,” Woodson and Jeffrey R. Gates, former counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance, wrote in a Los Angeles Times editorial. “Only in this way can urban policy create hope, strengthen the moral, social, and economic fabric of these communities, promote individual responsibility and self-sufficiency, and thereby break the cycle of dependency and costly government subsidies. Help is needed—but offered in a way that people can help themselves.”
In addition to supervising the creation and operation of hundreds of community-development programs in the United States, Woodson devotes much of his time to writing and editing articles and books on social, economic, and political issues; lecturing to university students and empowerment groups all over the world; and advising the government on issues of concern to Americans from low-income and minority backgrounds. In 1991 he traveled to Norway to address the World Congress of the International Union of Local Authorities, an event attended by more than 2,000 mayors and local leaders from 50 countries.
Early in 1995, Woodson was asked by Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich to organize and direct the Neighborhood Leadership Task Force on Grassroots Alternatives for Public Policy, a special team of community leaders and grassroots activists appointed to make specific recommendations to the 104th Congress on problems of poverty in the United States, including crime, welfare dependency, unemployment, and homelessness. Woodson has also shared his self-help philosophy and market-oriented approach with community leaders overseas. In recent years, the NCNE has established an economic development training center in South Africa, designed to foster economic empowerment among the republic’s black population.
Although many of Woodson’s critics view him as a political opportunist with questionable tactics, colleagues praise him for his practicality and vision. Other supporters, such as Kimi Gray, the public housing resident who helped devise the tenant-management plan Woodson promoted, credit him with substantially improving the quality of their lives. “Some people, they come in and it’s ’I’m here to help you, let me show you how it’s supposed to be done,’” Gray told McQueen. “The reason we respect Bob Woodson is he lets us dream our own dreams. He has helped us. Everything you see out here, the residents did it. But he will assist me in getting in a lot of doors that I could otherwise not open.”
Black Enterprise, April 1985, p. 20.
Christian Science Monitor, October 27, 1992, p. 3.
Los Angeles Times, August 7, 1992, p. B7.
New Republic, April 15, 1985, pp. 9-10; March 2, 1987, p. 19.
Newsweek, July 15, 1991, pp. 18-19.
Philadelphia Inquirer, November 20, 1994, p. E7.
Time, November 11, 1985, pp. 33-36.
Wall Street Journal, June 2, 1987; March 20, 1992; July 6, 1994.
Washington Post, September 25, 1992.
—Caroline B. D. Smith
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