Robert Woodson retires after 40 years of empowering communities

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MILWAUKEE, Wisc. — When Paul Ryan and Robert Woodson first came here nearly 10 years ago, the Republican congressman from Janesville and the civil rights icon had something in common. They both believed that poverty and generational crime in black communities was best remedied not by big government programs, the monies of which typically go more to staff than those in need, but instead by the community members themselves.

For years, Woodson took Ryan incognito to neighborhoods in Indiana, Ohio, and here in Wisconsin, each plagued by generations-long drug epidemics, street violence, and a shortage of prosperity and upward mobility. They visited faith-based organizations, often led by ministers whose own lives had included stints on drugs or in jail. These community leaders, reborn in their own lives, were able to reach their peers. They wanted to be part of the solution rather than continuing the legacy of apathy and dependence.

The former speaker of the house said in an interview with the Washington Examiner that what Woodson showed him was life-changing. “One of the best things I did in my career was ask Bob Woodson to teach me about poverty,” he said.

Ryan said he spent about four or five years touring poverty-stricken areas on a monthly basis, making connections with people who can make a difference. “I did this with no media or anything like that, just to learn, and it was transformational to me," he said. "And it's helpful to what I do now."

Last month the civil rights leader and president of the Woodson Center announced his retirement after four decades fighting the good fight, helping communities across the country improve their lives — often doing so outside the orthodoxy of more mainstream black institutions that rely heavily on government backing.

Woodson’s approach was based in experience, he said. He understood that just because people were living in a community on the edge, it didn’t mean they weren’t looking around it for examples of integrity, dignity, and honor. “My approach was to be that vehicle to provide those examples,” he said.

Woodson said he began his career at the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s in Philadelphia. “After years of being involved with the movement, I realized that the poverty programs aimed at making lives better for the poor only made life better for those who ran those places," he said. "And that the movement was moving away from improving civil rights and into a race-grievance industry."

“I looked around and decided that I was in the wrong struggle,” said Woodson. Eventually, in 1981, he founded the center to guide residents of low-income neighborhoods so that they could address the problems of their communities themselves.

“The man made a mould for using foundational principles to attack the problem of poverty at its root cause and to empower individual people to take control of their lives and their neighborhoods," said Ryan. "And he never lost sight of his principles. He never lost sight of his goal. And he always, every time, thought about how we can make lives better for people in transformational ways."

Ryan said Woodson moved the needle on poverty to where it is much more effective. “And he's done it in a way by applying these timeless principles that we as conservatives believe in," he said. "There's just nobody else who has done anything like it. And he's just a man who sees truth for how he sees it. And he speaks passionately about his sense of truth. And he's always on a quest to learn.”

Then-Speaker of the House Paul Ryan embraces Robert Woodson after delivering a farewell address in the Great Hall of the Library of Congress on December 19, 2018, in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Indeed, Woodson does not lecture, nor in his career has he ever portrayed himself as someone who believes he is better or knows more than the people he is working with.

Ryan said Woodson made such an enormous difference in fighting poverty at root causes in such a way that those efforts could be scaled and replicated and can truly move the needle. He has dedicated a big part of his post-congressional career to taking Woodson’s legacy and building on it.

“I am trying to get more people to take the Woodson model and replicate it so that we can make a huge difference,” he explained. He is also trying to get young conservative policymakers to focus on poverty and do the same thing.

Woodson said his retirement doesn’t mean the public will not hear from him. “Well, you retire from a job, but you expire from a calling," he said. "I'm never going to fully disengage."

Woodson, 84, said he turned the operations of the Woodson Center over to younger leadership so that they can have another successful 40 years. “I really am moving aside, but I will still be a president emeritus. I will still raise funds for the center. I'll still write, I'll still teach. But I'm going to just turn over the general operations of it to a younger person, younger leadership, so that the center can continue to prosper.”

“Goodbye ain't always gone,” said the former head of the National Urban League Department of Criminal Justice, long a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Foundation for Public Policy Research.

But for now, he said, “I owe my wife a couple of vacations.”

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Tags: Civil Rights, Paul Ryan, Poverty, Conservatives, Retirement, Pennsylvania, Racism

Original Author: Salena Zito

Original Location: Robert Woodson retires after 40 years of empowering communities