“I proudly say that 80 percent of my closest friends have letters in front of their names, like … ex-drug addict. Ex-gangbanger,” Bob Woodson says, chuckling.
From facilitating truces between warring gangs to helping ailing communities triumph over violent addiction and social degradation, Bob Woodson has devoted the last 40 years to helping people in the most troubled of circumstances become “agents of their own uplift.”
This Christmas, we invited Bob Woodson to share his incredible insights into redemption, healing, and transformation, and why he believes the singular focus on racism is diverting attention away from the greatest challenges facing America.
“America is in a moral and spiritual freefall that is consuming our young people, of all races and of all classes … Young people are growing up without content or purpose in their lives, to the point where they devalue their life. If a child devalues his or her life, then they will take their own, or take someone else’s.”
The solution will come from grassroots leaders, Bob Woodson said. “America needs a brushfire, a moral and spiritual brushfire. And brushfires burn from the bottom up.”
Bob Woodson is the founder of the Woodson Center and the 1776 Unites project.
Jan Jekielek: Bob Woodson, it’s such a pleasure to have you back on American Thought Leaders.
Bob Woodson: Pleased to be here again.
Mr. Jekielek: You know, Bob, I always love having you on. Every time I have had you on the show, you have given a hopeful outlook, even as we were discussing some of the most difficult questions of the nation. And of course it’s a Christmas show. Today, this show’s broadcasting on Christmas day. I wanted to break the wall here and just say to the viewers Merry Christmas, Happy New Year to everybody.
I’m going to start with this premise and as we were talking earlier, you said it really beautifully. You said, “We really have to think about how to win when we’re dealt a losing hand.” I think there’s a lot of people out there right now that are feeling that way. They’re really not holding a winning hand; but nonetheless, there’s all sorts of scenarios that you’ve been involved with for decades of people actually doing that.
Mr. Woodson: Yes, I’ve been blessed to serve people that others run away from. I proudly say that 80 percent of my closest friends have letters in front of their names like ex something—ex drug addict, ex gang banger. And they have, through God’s grace, been redeemed.
I spent my whole life examining and participating in people who have recovered from some of the most challenging circumstances that life can possibly confront someone. It’s because I’ve been around people who have not only survived and thrived in the face of despair, but they have some very valuable lessons to teach us about this country, and about the challenges that we, as individuals, face.
Bishop Sheen, one of my favorites, gave a speech 50 years ago. He said, “America’s like an eagle. That’s why they nest high in the mountains. When the eaglets get to a certain point, they take their feathers out the nest and push them out and the eaglets will fall to the earth. But just before it crashes, the mother will grab it and take it back up to the top, and this process is repeated until the eagle learns to fly. America is like that.”
God has thrust her out and she’s in a free fall, but God is going to seize her just before that fall and take her back up to the mountain until we learn to fly and soar again.
Mr. Jekielek: You know, Bob, that’s interesting that you say that right now because just as we were coming to this interview, having lunch, there was a bald eagle circling over the parking lot, an unexpected site. A whole bunch of people were looking up. I was wondering, “Why are people looking up?” Well, perhaps this is the bald eagle that you’re talking about here.
I’m seeing and hearing a lot of desperation among people. And I’m remembering how you actually got into this work; how you engaged these communities very early on while you were still in the civil rights movement. Tell me about that because I’ve read about it, but I don’t think you’ve ever told me.
Mr. Woodson: Well, I was a young civil rights leader. I came from a very low income neighborhood. My dad died when I was nine and even my mother, with fifth grade education [and] with five children to raise—I was the youngest of five. I dropped out of high school at age 17, went into the military, then found myself there and finished high school; came out and went to college. But I got involved in the civil rights movement because I thought America’s greatest challenge was racial and it was during the ’60s. But I really left the movement over several issues.
One was forced busing for integration. I believed the opposite of segregation was desegregation, not integration. And I never believed that the civil rights issue should’ve been argued except for this inherently unequal. It is strategically unequal because if you say something is separate that is inherent in, you mean that anything that is all black is all bad and everything is all white is all good. And so, I got pushback from the fellow, my peers.
But the second and most profound issue was that there was a bait and switch game going. They were using the demographics of low-income blacks to promote remedies that generated resources that went to middle class people, like myself, who was well educated at the time. But the plight of poor people was abandoned.
So, I led demonstrations outside of Wyatt Laboratory in West Chester, Pennsylvania. When they desegregated, they hired nine black Ph.D. chemists and we asked them to join the movement. They said, “We got these jobs because we were qualified, not because of the sacrifices of people who were janitors, factory workers, ordinary black folks.”
I realized this huge bifurcation in the black community. From that day forward, I began to work on behalf of low-income people of all races. The greatest barrier facing America is not racial, it is class. It is upward mobility for those at the bottom.
So, that sort of set me in one place when the cvil rights movement morphed into a race grievance industry. That sort of set me apart, and defines the journey that I have been on for the last 40-50 years. That is to move America’s greatest challenge—those who lack upward mobility from the bottom; and they’re white, they’re black, they’re brown, they’re red—and there is where the focus should be, but it is not.
Mr. Jekielek: There’s a line that you said, I don’t know if this was the same incident in West Chester that you just mentioned, but you said there was a moment that you realized the real power is in the streets.
Mr. Woodson: Well, I realized that, as I said, 80 percent of my closest friends are people who experienced brokenness in their life, and their greatest challenge is how to overcome brokenness. But it was also there’s this separation, this distinction, that people have been conditioned to believe that the greatest challenge is external, coming from external forces.
Chuck Swindoll, Pastor Swindoll, I think, summarized what I believed to be the fact—that 10 percent of who we are is defined by external circumstances—your family, racism. But 90 percent of who you are and what you do is defined by your attitude about the 10 percent. What I concentrate on is helping people to understand that you have responsibility to be agents of your own uplift, regardless of circumstances.
But there are powerful forces telling large groups of people—particularly blacks—that your life is defined by the external circumstances. And therefore until those circumstances change, you can’t expect to flourish, and this is a poisonous message. There’s nothing more lethal than to say to people that their destiny is determined by factors that are outside.
It’s poisonous to say to any people that your destiny is determined by people that are external and that’s where the whole race—I part company with the race issue. It’s preventing us from addressing the critical crisis facing America.
Mr. Jekielek: This is a powerful idea that 90 percent of who you are is determined about your attitude towards that 10 percent. But another way of looking at it is that people could actually be denying 90 percent of who they are if they’re purely focused on that 10 percent.
Mr. Woodson: That issue, that’s what’s wrong today. There’s nothing more lethal than giving people a convenient reason for their failure. When you say that your destiny’s determined by people who don’t like you, particularly in a racial context—it’s really an embrace of white supremacy for people who are well meaning to say to people that if you’re engaging in self destructive behavior, it’s not your fault; it’s someone else’s.
There are two ways to deny people an opportunity to compete: one is to deny them by law the way we used to do under segregation.
But the second one that is much more disabling is to say to them, “You don’t have to compete. Because of the legacy of slavery and discrimination, you are an exempted class; therefore we will just provide you with opportunity. You don’t have to compete; you don’t have to have the same test scores. The entry standards will be dumbed down for you because of past disadvantage and because you were denied opportunity in the past, we’re going to lower the standards.”
That is what we’re confronting today and that prevents us from making progress. But, again, what we do at the Woodson Center is that we challenge that paradigm, not with a counter argument but we do it with counter experiences. That people are motivated to improve their lot when they’re shown victories that are possible. The Woodson Center emphasizes, and I want to share with your viewers, examples of people who have achieved against the odds under the worst of circumstances.
We have much more to learn from studying success than we do studying failure. You can learn nothing from studying failure except how to fail. If you wanted to learn how to play an instrument, would you go to find people who failed and say, “What mistakes did you make?” No, you would go to the one person who has mastered the instrument and say, “Share with me your success.”
And that’s what the Woodson Center does. We look back, historically, to say, “How did people prosper in the face of oppression?” Not, “How many people failed?” It’s not denying that people failed but you learn more by studying success, then you do.
That’s why I say now, even when you’re dealt a losing hand, you can achieve. There were 20 blacks who were born slaves who died millionaires, and they did so because they followed certain success paths. Frederick Douglass, this is Christmas time.
Mr. Jekielek: Yes..
Mr. Woodson: Frederick Douglass said that the worst time—when the plantation was Christmas because the slave masters gave the slaves off a holiday between Christmas and New Year’s. But the slave master wanted the slave to define freedom as self-indulgence and dissipation. So the slave masters often provided rum to the slaves and even had a competition as whose slave could drink the most because they wanted slaves to define freedom with self-indulgence.
After the participating in these orgies of self-destruction, some of them became sick and concluded that it’s better to be slave to man than to be slave to rum. Not every slave responded to that enticement and Frederick Douglass said there were some who responded by taking that time to visit family members, to learn to read, some used that time to hire themselves out so they could purchase their freedom. But even in a slave system, you have a choice.
That’s the 10 percent is slavery. Frederick Douglass said there were people who were in slavery, but slavery was not in them. He said, at a certain point he became a man who was a slave instead of a slave who was a man. So, if people under circumstances of slavery could make a choice when they’re confronted with oppression, then certainly today people can make informed choices, and that pattern therefore persisted even in the …
Viktor Frankl, the man searched for meaning. He was in the death camps. He lost his children and his wife; never saw them again. For four years, he faced death every day. He said, “And even in those oppressive circumstances, there were bad prisoners and good guards and also there were some who just acquiesced, gave up.” There were some who identified with their oppressors and became capos, and more brutal to their people than the Nazi guards.
But there were others like Viktor Frankl, who made the kind of choice that that slave did, to visit his family. He used that to say, “If you control nothing else, you can control your own personal response to oppression.” And so, you have control over yourself.
What the Woodson Center has chronicled in the years that we’ve been in is that we have told the stories of people who have achieved against the odds, even though they’ve been dealt a losing hand and we chronicled—what steps did they take to win? One of the attitudes that they have, even about oppression, is they never succumb to bitterness.
Dr. King described agape love, what I call radical grace, and that’s a part of survival tool, agape love. Dr. King said, “We should never succumb to bitterness, even against an oppressor. What we should seek is not the humiliation or the destruction of the oppressor, but always seek the oppressor’s redemption; while at the same time protecting yourself against the oppressor.”
And if you read about Dr. King, he witnessed to that principle when his family—his wife was sitting in the living room and heard a crash and she got out of the house before it was firebombed and it blew up. And Dr. King was surrounded by hundreds of armed blacks, angry, ready to tear that city apart, and he was able to counsel peace and said, “This is not the way.” There is an example of radical grace.
You see that throughout the history of successful people who have fought against slavery and oppression, not by succumbing to anger and resentment and seeking to retaliation that is commonplace today. But they seek to alter the attitude and behavior of the oppressor, and they refuse to respond in kind and be oppressive themselves.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s such a powerful message, you know, and you’re reminding me, not long after we first met some years ago now and we interviewed; I remember you told me something that stunned me. But you explained it very thoughtfully and had really changed my thinking about a lot of things, I want to mention this. You said, talking about Jim Crow and slavery, when white people were at their worst, blacks were at their best.
Mr. Woodson: You have a whole class of elites today that keep talking about the biggest challenge facing America is racism, and everything is defined by race. The 1619 Project in the New York Times that said America, because of slavery, that all white people are villains to pay reparations to blacks and blacks are victims. Therefore America is almost like a criminal organization; that it is beyond redemption.
When you say that racism is in the DNA of a country, you can’t change your DNA and they’re recruiting people. There are two groups of people who seem to mouth this mantra. They’re those who are ill intentioned, they’re people who are trying to destroy America by undermining the founding values to say that the nuclear family is egocentric and racist, and that competition and all the other principles that define this country are racist.
But there’s another group of people who are being misled. They’re well intended but ill informed. And I think they represent the majority of people so we believe that you can educate people who are ill informed, and you educate them by presenting them with examples of people that meet the criteria.
So, if you say that the problems facing black America today were 70 percent, and certain groups of blacks, low-income blacks, out of wedlock births, the crime that you’re seeing rampant in the cities—somehow that’s a legacy of slavery and Jim Crow—that’s not true. In our essays at 1776, we provide proof that it’s not true. That, again, when whites were at their worst, we were at our best.
In 1930-1940, when racism was enshrined in law, there was no political representation and the economy tanked. Twenty-five percent of whites were unemployed, 40 percent of blacks were unemployed. That’s the situation.
What was the response of blacks? We had the highest marriage rate of any group in America. Elderly people could walk safely in our community without fear of being assaulted by their grandchildren. I was born during the Jim Crow area, 1937. Even though I grew up in a low-income neighborhood, 90 percent of all households had a man or woman raising children.
I never heard a gun discharged. I never heard of an elderly person being mugged, never heard of a two-year-old being shot to death in their cribs. But this is commonplace today, but it wasn’t up until 1960’s. So, it’s important for America to know that when whites were at their worst, we were at our best. You hear people say, “Well, a lack of economics that were redlining.” Well, in cities like Chicago in 1929, in the Bronzeville section, there were 731 black owned businesses.
We have been redlined, but we have 100 million in real estate assets. If you go on YouTube and click in Negro Durham, you will see a 40-minute video of a tape we found—a movie of what Durham in North Carolina in the Hayti section was the black Wall Street of Durham. City after city, when we were denied access to hotels, we built our own.
It is important for America to understand that the conditions that we’re witnessing today have little to do with a legacy of slavery and discrimination. It had everything to do with our response to it. What we are promoting is we need to go back, as we have done, to apply old values to the new challenges. Some of the people that the Woodson Center is serving today, by applying those same values of our founders, they are able to accomplish in the midst of all of the challenges: restoration, transformation, and redemption.
Mr. Jekielek: I just love the concept of radical grace and I want to talk about some of these examples where you’ve applied what you now call the Woodson principles. I think you told me that there’s over 2500 active Woodson leaders out there.
Mr. Woodson: In 39 states.
Mr. Jekielek: In 39 states.
Mr. Woodson: Different racial groups in all the 40 years we’ve been together, we’ve had conferences and retreats. Racial animists never came up one time in any of our gatherings because if people who are coming together who are broken, all they want to talk about is what is the strategies to overcome brokenness.
Being broken by drugs or prostitution or predatory behavior is more important than what race; you’re not a white, red or black junkie—you’re a junkie. What you’re looking for is recovery, restoration, redemption. That’s what you thirst for.
Mr. Jekielek: You know, you’ve had some pretty spectacular results in reducing, for example, gang violence. In the kind of behaviors that you’re describing, the house of Umoja is a great example. Maybe you can kind of tell me about that.
Mr. Woodson: Yes. In my hometown of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, it used to be the youth gang capital of America in the early ’70s, in the mid ’70s. They used to publish the Vietnam deaths next to the gang deaths. A very enterprising woman and her husband, named David and Falaka Fattah—in fact, her 90th birthday is coming up soon—she found out the oldest of her six sons was a gang member; so she invited him to bring his friends home.
He bought 15 of them in. And because her husband was what we call an OG, an old gangster, used to be in that life, he negotiated with the local street gang to let these 15 boys from a rival gang come into her house. She said, “After talking all night, I know nothing about gangs. I know something about family so why don’t you join ours?”
Again, she’s the entrepreneur. She cleared all the furniture out and moved these 15 boys in with her six sons and husband, one bathroom. She said, “We have to be clean and disciplined and work.” Long story short, they retired her mortgage in a year or two and within three years, they purchased five other houses because when young men found that there was sanctuary, 100 of them now occupied these five houses in this community.
She said, “If we have peace among all these warriors, why can’t we extend this to the whole city?” Well, all the city fathers and all the experts said, “It’ll create chaos.” The Quakers allowed them to use their downtown church. They had the meeting, they had a truce, gang deaths went down from 48 to two in one year.
I was able to follow her around and chronicle everything she did; and the House of Umoja was born. The principles that I extracted from studying it became the foundational principles that the Woodson Center operates on.
Then I knew what to look for. So, two years after that, I went around the country and looked for the Fattahs in other people, and I found 10 of them. I brought them together with young people whose lives they’ve transformed, and I was with the American Enterprise Institute. I brought these gang leaders together, and then community leaders and I invited three of my scholarly friends, Dr. Peter Berger and his wife, Brigitte, and Dr. Robert V. Hill.
For three days, we listened to these young people explain what changed them and transformed them, and I wrote a second book called “Youth, Crime and Urban Policy: A View from the Inner City.” That was celebrated by Vanderbilt Law Review because Bob Woodson stayed out of it. I let the young people explain what changed and transformed them.
Then our knowledge about the process of transformation and redemption was enhanced because I listened to those whose lives were transformed. Then I was able to establish the Woodson Center based upon the actual experience of these grassroots leaders. That’s why and how the center has been maintaining this tradition of constantly listening to, learning from, cultivating, helping them to refine. Then we take these principles, and we’re exporting them over the country.
If the country is to be salvaged, it’s going to take; and that’s what we do now: we raise money, we try to study, celebrate, learn from, identify the operating principles. So my book, “Lessons From The Least of These,” is a distillation of years of experience of listening to, learning from, visiting with grassroots healing agents—I call them Josephs—and learning from them, and then being directed by them.
So, the center is like a venture capitalist without capital. We’re able to take those principles, and then we’re trying to disseminate them throughout the country so that we can perhaps stimulate a moral brush fire that will rescue this country from itself. But the seas of that moral brush fire are latent within the community suffering the problem. It’s not coming from professional experts; it’s not going to come from this gladiatorial debate between the left; elitist on the right and elitist on the left.
Mr. Jekielek: What struck me here is that when you talk about these troubled communities, frankly, it’s not just the typical communities that you think of as troubled. I mean, for example, in Silicon Valley, we know that children have a six times greater likelihood of committing suicide than the average across America. How did that happen? If that isn’t a disaffected community, I don’t know what is.
Mr. Woodson: Well, this is why with the center, is realizing we must take race off the table. Race is preventing America from addressing the critical problem that it is facing. America is in a moral and spiritual free fall that is consuming our young people of all races and of all classes. The greatest challenge facing any person is to wander without content or purpose in your life.
If young people are growing up without content or purpose in their lives, to the point where they devalue their life; if a child devalues his or her life, then they will take their own or take someone else’s. What we did at the Woodson Center recently, we started a group called “The Voices of Black Mothers United.”
Sylvia Bennet-Stone is the mom who lost her teenage daughter. She is providing leadership, and she’s reached out to thousands of other moms around who lost their children through homicide. And we took out a full paid ad supporting the police.
Eighty percent of black Americans polled do not support defunding the police, but you would never know that because the elites on the left presume to speak for all people. And now we have come together with moms who lost their children to suicide and opioid. A lot of Appalachian moms and low-income white moms have lost their children to opioid addiction. It’s such a crisis in Ohio that they had to literally bring in portable refrigerator trucks to care for all the bodies.
Like you say, Silicon Valley is six times the national average. We have moms coming together from these three communities in a consortium, and so the goal is to form mothers united to save children because those who are polarizing us by race, they’re doing a lot to contribute to the destruction of children. Therefore, if we are to address the real crisis in America, the Woodson Center is organizing a collective, bringing these moms together. But in order for us to be able to find solutions to prevent the continued destruction of our children, we must take race off the table.
A white mom who lost a 17-year-old daughter in Silicon Valley, telling her that she has privilege is stupid and saying to a black mom in public housing in a city who lost her daughter to homicide that her problem is racial discrimination is ludicrous. So, we have been encouraged by the camaraderie and the common ground that moms coming from these three perspectives have found; and we hope to use the organization of this to help America confront the real crisis—that is a moral and spiritual free fall to save our children.
Mr. Jekielek: So many things I want to follow up with now. The first one is you don’t sound like a guy who’s just recently retired. I mean, very briefly, it sounds like you’re still staying active here.
Mr. Woodson: You know, you retire from a job, you expire from a calling. I intend to, this spring, step aside and turn over the daily operations of the Woodson Center to a younger person; and I already have in place a solid young staff that is really running the place. I think it’s time for me to step aside of the operation. But I still want to remain an ambassador to these issues. I could never totally step away from my involvement.
But I want to use my time to write and to teach, and to be a spokesperson for the renewal of America because I really believe low-income blacks are the new patriots in America. They are the ones who are going to be the source of moral, and spiritual renewal that America needs—a brush fire, a moral and spiritual brush fire—and brush fires burn from the bottom up.
Mr. Jekielek: So many guests I’ve had on the show, and frankly, a bit of my own thinking evolving through what I’ve been reading, or I’ve been learning about the realities of America, both historically and the present, tell me that solutions are going to come in the grassroots, right from the top. Another thing is there seems to be this theme that’s emerging, to my eyes, of this elite. You mentioned elitism. Can elite contempt for the working classes?
Mr. Woodson: Oh, yes.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s take a moment just to discuss that. I can see you agree wholly, but in so many different areas.
Mr. Woodson: No, you really zeroed in on the problem. Someone said that when, I think it was Bill Bennett many years ago. He says that when some of the elites on the left look at poor people and black people, they see a sea of victims. And people on the right see a sea of aliens. Many people on the right believe that if these people would only mirror our values, that somehow, because you have money and education, your values are superior to those who are poor.
Therefore, if only these poor people would just do what we do, then they would be fine. There’s an old African proverb that when bull elephants fight, the grass always loses. And the poor are the net losers for this gladiatorial debate between the left and the right. That’s why, because what is missing in that is trust. When I meet with low-income people, I do so with the utmost respect, and therefore it engenders trust. But the problem facing America, as you pointed out, is elitism of the left and the right.
People on the right often say, “Well, when you look at that,” they do failure studies. They just talk about, “Well, let’s just have work requirements for welfare.” And I’m supporting of that. “Let’s have drug testing for welfare.” Okay, fine. But those are all negatives. What the Woodson Center, if you say that 70 percent of low-income blacks are raising children that are dropping out of school and on drugs, that means 30 percent are not. What we do is study the 30 percent.
Only 3 percent of Americans are entrepreneurs, but they generate 70 percent of the jobs. And entrepreneurs tend to be C students, not A students. Smart people come back to universities and teach, C students come back and endow. The principles that operate in our market should apply to the social economy, but they don’t, and that’s why I believe that the solutions to the problem come from those that are unadorned.
Mr. Jekielek: One thing I wanted to touch on, because I want to come back to this and talk about a few more of some of these incredible stories of success over the years. But you’ve also said that the civil rights movement was hijacked, right? And this is part of you were talking about how you left. But how was that hijacked and how has that manifested up to today, in your view?
Mr. Woodson: Well, a simple question. One of the goals of the civil rights movement, they said, blacks said, “Okay, let us run these cities. Elect us to mayors, city council, housing authority, healthcare system. Put blacks in charge and we will be better to our people. Our people will be better off if you just take middle class blacks and put them in charge.” Well, middle class blacks have been running these cities for 50 years.
Why, then, are they—that the biggest income gap is not between whites and blacks; it’s between low-income blacks and upper income blacks. Why are all these inequities that they are chronicling? Why are they occurring in cities run by their own people? When I was debating somebody from Black Lives Matter, I said, “Explain to me racism where the culprit—why are black children failing in schools run by their own people?”
An example; when I say that whites were at their worst, we were at our best. There were five high schools at the turn of the century in five major cities: New York, Baltimore, Washington D.C., Atlanta, New Orleans—where the high schools had overcrowded, used textbooks, half the budgets of white schools. Every one of those five high schools tested higher than any white school in those cities. But some of those high schools are around today. Less than 10 percent of the children could even read at grade level.
If we were able to accomplish this during segregation, why are children failing after 50 years of political rule by blacks of these institutions? Racism couldn’t possibly be the cause of it. But, you see, it’s difficult to get a discussion. It is systemic incompetence, not systemic racism that is the cause of it. Therefore we must ask ourselves what are the practical remedies? But only middle-class people who are running these institutions that are failing; their children are doing well.
There are more blacks in college today than there are in prison, but the sons and the daughters of the middle class are in college. The sons and daughters of low-income people are the ones suffering the problem. It is more of a class problem that it is a race problem. But as long as attention is given to systemic racism, we will never have to address the systemic incompetence of people of color who may be running these systems. We can’t even get a reasonable discussion about remedies because it has to meet a racial threshold.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s talk about solutions, and let’s talk about your work from the grassroots. You had told me when we were speaking earlier that you had just come from the Benning Terrace area. You have a quite interesting story that’s very current. But let’s talk about the original story from Benning Terrace, which I find just absolutely fascinating.
Mr. Woodson: Well, nothing is more menacing than violence and crime. There was an area of Washington D.C. about 25 years ago called Benning Terrace, Simple City. There was a housing complex, public housing, and because of these warring factions that happened on the Circle, 53 murders occurred in this area in two years. Police were fearful of going in there.
I had been working with a group called Alliance of Concerned Men. These are all ex-offenders whose lives had been transformed and redeemed to God’s grace, and they were healing agents; well known and respected by the kids and also by authorities. I had been working with them, sharing with them my experience with Umoja and how to take the principles that Sister Fattah and her husband, David, had applied.
I was in the midst of a training seminar with them and I said that, “Your influence is scattered. We need to concentrate it in one area.” A 12-year-old boy was killed at Benning Terrace and because it made national headlines and embarrassed the police. I said, “God has made a choice. Go up and bring those warring factions to my office downtown, the sanctuary.”
Long story short, because they had the trust of the kids, they actually brought eight young men from the Avenue; eight young from the Circle in separate vans and we met in my office downtown. Sister Fattah said, “When young men meet, they will not fight when they’re eating together. But they will when they’re drinking together.” So, we had a meal waiting for them.
After a series of meetings, we were able to negotiate a truce. There was a public announcement of it, and these same young men who were fighting one another became ambassadors of peace. They went back in, working now for the housing authority as maintenance crews. The head of the Avenue became a foreman, and some of the guys in the Circle worked for him, and vice versa. So, we celebrated this peace and we worked closely; the alliance worked closely with these young men and they became mentors to other kids.
We asked them, “What are you passionate about?” They wanted to be coaches, so then we had 120 kids who used to look at them as gang leaders now look at then as surrogate fathers and big brothers. As a consequence of saturating this community with these transformed agents of peace, we were able to; for 12 years, there was not a single coup related murder in this community.
We took the principles that we learned from Benning Terrace and exported it to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and the violence free zone that’s still being supported by the school system there, and two grassroots organizations. We exported it to Dallas, Texas.
But in Washington D.C., after the officials who helped us left, the city withdrew its support for the program, and went back to shot detectors, cameras and police. Tthen you saw the violence go up again in these communities, but at least we were able to understand how one reduces violence.
I have been blessed to raise some private dollars, and now we’re doing a restart in southeast Washington, starting November 1st. We have taken a very violent area and identified the number of violent incidents occurring. It’s to reduce them dramatically over the next few months, and some of the people who are participating have spent decades in prison. They said if they are able to exercise control inside of the prison, why can’t they take that same relationship and apply to a community?
These are men whose lives have been transformed through God’s grace. They have been delivered from predatory behavior and now they’re ambassadors of peace, and the Woodson Center is financially supporting it.
Also, we believe this will be a moral and spiritual vaccine that will prove that the way communities can recover from the scourge of violence is not by ending racism or assaulting the police and talk about defunding the police. It’s doing what I said—taking that 10 percent that is the problem and applying the 90 percent of making them agents of their own recovery.
The solutions to the problem is in the same zip code as the problem—the solution is the same. But it’s internal; you must support an internal restoration, transformation and redemption, and that’s what the Woodson Center is betting on.
Mr. Jekielek: So this Benning Terrace, these two gangs sitting across a table eating—what exactly happened at that table that people that were ready to kill each other not too long before, suddenly decided to work together? Do you remember, what is it that made that change?
Mr. Woodson: All of them wanted peace; they just didn’t have a pathway to peace. Someone asked me, “Why would a drug dealer give up a lucrative drug trade for a $6.50 an hour job?” And I said, “If you were a lawyer and you could make three times the amount of money setting up a practice in an area where you could be shot any day, would you do it?”
Well, these young men are as rational as anyone else. They know that the price that they had to pay for their lifestyle wasn’t worth it, but most of them just need a respectful way to say no. They’re just waiting for someone to point out a path towards responsibility, and it has to come from a respected source.
See, when these men who spent all this time in prison, when their character changed, their characteristic had an advantage. Their reputations didn’t change, their experience didn’t alter. What did change is their values, attitude and therefore their behavior. So, then they’re able to go into these communities and persuade young people, or provide young people with a respectful way to say no to violence and self-destruction. In other words, they say, “So and so’s a tough guy and if he says peace is worth the price, then maybe I can trust in what he says.”
That’s the magic sauce. A witness is more powerful than an advocate. An experience will always trump an argument. When Jesus was approached by the servants of John the Baptist to say, “Are you the one or do we seek another?” He didn’t pull out his resume and say, “Wasn’t I born on Christmas?” He healed in their presence and said, “Go tell them what you saw.”
These men and women do the same thing. They have the trust and confidence of young people, and the young people know that their word is their bond. If these young people say, “I knew him to be a drug dealer and he was one of the toughest guys in my neighborhood. And if he says redemption is worth it, then I believe it.” That’s real leadership, and these are indigenous healing agents that are contained, and everything.
When you heal a snake bite, what do you do? You take some of the venom of the snake, right? To produce the antivenom. And so, the way we can heal our cities is to look internally for healing agents, and provide them with the resources they need, and the guidance. So that they can begin healing from within those communities; but the answers are within.
They’re not some intellectuals debating other intellectuals about institutional racism, or questioning whether the two parent families, or whether or not faith is important anymore. Only elites can afford to have that kind of debate and discussion while their children are in safe schools.
Mr. Jekielek: You know, Bob, this reminds me again. I believe it was Rob Henderson that came up with this idea in an essay called “Luxury Beliefs.” I don’t know if you came across that but what you just said makes me think of that, and I see this idea. There’s a certain group of people [who] can afford to believe things for which they don’t have to bear any accountability.
Mr. Woodson: It is true. Most people who are atheists are leaders, but even atheists don’t name their children Judas. You ever heard of anyone named their son Judas?
Dennis Prager had another test. He talked about if you ran out of gas in a high crime neighborhood; 11 o’clock at night, and you had to walk two blocks to a gas station, and there are two groups of men that you could confront. One group was coming from a bar; the second group had just left Bible study. Which group would you want to confront?
Mr. Jekielek: Well, I hope the answer’s obvious.
Mr. Woodson: Everyone listening and watching knows what the answer is. You can be an atheist all you want, but there’s a survival instinct inside that tells you you’d rather confront people leaving Bible study. You don’t even have to be a believer to understand a secular consequence of people’s beliefs; how it influences their behavior.
Mr. Jekielek: One key thing that you said earlier was responsibility; that all of your solutions that stem from the Woodson principles that you had derived involve agency—involve accepting responsibility as a central point, don’t they?
Mr. Woodson: It really is; that no matter how you started life, you can win with a losing hand. It’s up to you. Bill Raspberry, the late journalist, he said, “You show me a black child with self-determination, grit, intestinal fortitude, and a will to work hard. No matter what obstacles you place in that child’s path, he or she will succeed.
Show me a white child without those characteristics, no matter what opportunities you give to that white child, I can show you that child’s failure. Opportunity denied that black child will not prevent him or her from succeeding, and opportunities given to the white child without those personal guidance will not assure that person’s success.”
Mr. Jekielek: Bob, I’m just thinking about something that you said, and I’m just going to read from here because I found it to be quite powerful. You said, “Democracy and capitalism are but empty vessels into which we pour our values as a nation. The crisis we face today is a crisis of values.” As we’ve been discussing, yes.
Mr. Woodson: Yes. And Samuel Adams was a general. He said that “a general dissolution of principles and manners will more surely overthrow the liberties of America than a whole force of a common enemy. While the people are virtuous, they cannot be subdued. But when they lose their virtue, they will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader. That neither the wisest Constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt.”
That deals with the 10 percent versus the 90 percent. Your destiny is determined by your values, and that a contract is only good as the trust. There’s no contract. People always sign a contract. Contracts are agreements between two honest people that sets forth the terms of a contract. But fundamentally, what protects both parties is virtue. I will keep my word and you keep your word.
That’s why people like race grievance. Civil rights people—many of them I call traitors. Treason is worse than bigotry. You see, a burglar only steals what’s in your house. But an embezzler steals everything you’ve accumulated over a lifetime. And for someone to purport to be a champion of poor blacks while advocating policies that are destructive to them, engages in what I call moral treason. Give me old fashioned bigotry than someone who betrays me, and profits from my failure.
Mr. Jekielek: Bob, in this vein, if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last three or four years [of] looking at the realities in society, and speaking with some very smart and thoughtful people, it’s the incredible propensity for human beings to engage in self-delusion. We see it in so many areas. We’re seeing it on display in so many realms of inquiry as we speak. Even this person that you’re describing, I expect a number of these people simply believe they’re doing good. I think it’s easier to deal with the people that they know they’re doing bad.
Mr. Woodson: That’s the point. Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about that in “Letters [and Papers] from Prison.” The German theologian who was martyred; killed by the Germans. You’re talking about radical grace. He prayed for the guards who were leading him to the gallows. Some of those guards were in tears because he was praying for them as he was led to the gallows. That’s radical grace. And Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his “Letters [and Papers] from Prison,” said the most difficult human phenomena to deal with is not malice, it’s folly.
There is no defense against folly. It’s like a child, they say, sitting on a fence with a razor. You don’t know whether he’s going to cut you or cut himself. Folly is more lethal because you can’t confront it. It’s when someone says, “But I’m doing this to promote your interest because I know what’s in your interest better than you do; even if what you’re doing is destroying me.” And so, that’s why malice you can confront, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, with violence. But folly, there’s no defense against folly.
There was a group of white folks and said, “What can we do?” Jason Riley at the Wall Street Journal said, “Stop helping us. Stop pursuing social justice in our names. If we feel there’s injustice, let us champion ourselves.”
There are two groups of people that are most lethal today and who are leading this racial grievance industry. Delano Squires, one of our scholars, said, “It is guilty white people who are seeking absolution from crimes they never committed, and entitled elite blacks who are seeking absolution from injustice they never suffered.” And that’s what’s driving this race narrative.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s bring things back to our theme that we started here; basically, how to win. Something that you’ve been very successful with, and many of these leaders—how to win getting a losing hand.
Mr. Woodson: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: I think that this whole realm that we just covered, it’s sometimes hard to imagine how to escape out of a lot of folly around us in society.
Mr. Woodson: Well, one of the things that we need to do and we’re promoting at the center, is there needs to be a center for the study of resilience. We just need to have some place where all scholars, and all we ever do is look for examples of success.
We have a young lady, for instance, right now who—Kamia Bradley from Denver. She was raised one of three children under very tough circumstances. Very difficult circumstance. I won’t go into detail about her personal life, but no one in her family ever graduated high school.
She was homeless at one point while she was in school. She moved nine times when she was in high school; but she said that she made sure that she stayed the same high school because there was a Christian program. Colorado Uplift had provided a Christian mentor to her that helped anchor her in the midst of the confusion in her life.
Part of the mentoring program, they took them on a helicopter ride over Denver, and she got so turned on with flight that when she graduated from high school, attended college to become an air pilot.
She graduated at the top of her class from college, and at 23 years old, is a certified flight instructor trying to get a job in an air line. But she says she, as a black woman, does not want to be a check mark on a diversity schedule because it’s insulting to all the hard work that she has done to achieve what she did. She doesn’t even like to share her story of overcoming the odds, but she reluctantly did so with us so she can inspire other young people.
Well, there are hundreds of stories of redemption and restoration like this around the country. But you won’t find it unless you go looking for it because the qualities that enabled people like this to achieve against the odds also makes them invisible because they’re not complaining and whining or protesting anything—they’re just busy working.
Therefore, you’ve got to be like a Geiger counter, and go and find them. What we’re trying to do at the Woodson Center starting this next year is to establish the Center for the Study of Resilience and Perseverance. We’re trying to, maybe, work with a university; so scholars can be commissioned to look for the Kamia Bradleys of this world.
We are taking a retrospective look. Looking back at people who’ve achieved against the odds like Robert Smalls, the man who was born in Sumter, South Carolina. He was one of six crew members, and on a Friday night, the captain went to dinner.
He took the ship, stole the ship. Picked up the families of his crew; put on the master’s coat and hat, and gave all the hand signals to go past five different garrisons, and turned the ship over to the Union Navy. Congress voted him $1500; and he was celebrated. Traveled throughout the north, and encouraged Lincoln to let blacks fight in the Civil War.
After the war was over, he became a very successful businessman, and became a member of Congress doing reconstruction. He purchased the plantation at which he was a slave, and took in the wife of the slave master, and her children because they had become destitute; and allowed her to sleep in the master bedroom because she was delusional, and didn’t know slavery ended. That is an act of radical grace.
Here’s a man: born a slave; escaped. Became a wealthy businessman. Went back; purchased a plantation. Only in America can you have stories like this. Part of a Center for the Study of Resilience … [is] to look in the past about how people achieved against the odds. There were 20 blacks who were born slaves who died millionaires using the free enterprise capitalist system. One other story, if I could.
Mr. Jekielek: Please.
Mr. Woodson: There was a man named Elijah McCoy. Elijah McCoy was born of fugitive slave parents, and they escaped to Canada where he was born, and graduated in engineering college. Well, he came back in the late 1840’s into Chicago and applied for a job at the railroad. Because he was black, they gave him the most dangerous and the lowliest job, and that is oiling the wheels of the trains.
Rather than complaining, he used this opportunity to invent a mechanism to oil the train wheels automatically and became rich. He’s in the Inventors Hall of Fame. When people tried to develop knock offs, the owners of the railroad said, “No, we want the real McCoy.” That expression—the real McCoy—came from a black inventor, and it’s used throughout the world.
Part of what on this holiday, we ought to be thankful that we live in a nation that allows these kinds of amazing transformation and redemptive acts to occur. Only in America can you have people born in slavery and died millionaires, and only their faith informs them not to respond with anger and retaliation. But with [what] King said, “radical grace and agape love.”
Mr. Jekielek: Well, Bob Woodson, it’s such a pleasure to have you on here at Christmas time. I think it’s exactly what the doctor ordered.
Mr. Woodson: Well, thank you for having me and Merry Christmas to all your viewers.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.
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