Empowerment Advocate

By Selle, Robert R. | The World and I, February 2001 | Go to article overview

Empowerment Advocate


Selle, Robert R., The World and I


Robert Woodson has evolved from a self-demeaning high-school dropout to an Air Force avionics expert to a civil rights activist to a guardian angel whose deep roots in black communities around the country have allowed him to stop riots and gang wars cold.

His secret for defusing community violence, he says in an interview, is to identify the neighborhood "Josephs"--the street-level leaders whom community residents trust--and then make friends with them and show them how they can make a difference during crises. Joseph refers to the biblical story of how the wise and "street-smart" Joseph and the all- powerful pharaoh of Egypt forged a partnership that led to immense prosperity for the empire, even during seven years of terrible famine.

The 62-year-old Woodson, who founded the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise (NCNE) in 1981, has a dream--namely, that this biblical story become reality in modern America in a big way. If it happens as he envisions, key people with money and power (the pharaohs) will realize that the nation's affluence is gravely imperiled by America's "moral and spiritual free fall." They will then recognize and make common cause with the neighborhood saints and sages (the Josephs).

"Then the pharaohs will learn from the Josephs how they were able to cure people of drugs, alcohol, violence, and irresponsibility in low- income neighborhoods," Woodson muses, "and how the resources and training and technical assistance provided for those cures can be exported to the desperate children of pharaoh who are dying of [similar problems and] despair in their gilded ghettoes."

Woodson's NCNE, of which he is president, is a Washington, D.C.--based nonprofit group that supports neighborhood-based initiatives to reduce crime, restore families, create economic enterprise and employment, and revitalize low-income communities.

But while Woodson's feet are on the streets, his heart is with his God. "My faith totally defines my life and is the center of my life," he declares.

Everything he's done, says Woodson, who was raised a Baptist, has been based upon a set of pragmatic religious principles, including:

* Servant leadership, which involves emptying oneself out and leading others in a spirit of humility, so that they, not the leader himself, elevate him.

* Using one's talents and skills with an attitude of being their steward, not their owner.

* Acting to serve God's purpose, not one's own.

* Accomplishing goals for the glory of God, not oneself.

Woodson, who today has four children (two from his first marriage of five years and two from his second union, which is now in its twenty- third year), was born and raised in inner-city Philadelphia. His father, a baker, died when young Robert, the youngest of five children, was nine. His mother, a maid and seamstress, went on to raise the children on her own. The NCNE president remembers that his father used to take the children to his workplace early in the morning, walk in with a tray of fresh cinnamon rolls, and chat with them. …

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