Effective Compassion

The Triumphs of Joseph: How Today's Community Healers Are Reviving Our Streets and Neighborhoods, by Robert L. Woodson Sr., New York: The Free Press, 158 pages, $20.00

I've never thought of calling my elderly friend Mrs. Rogers "Joseph," but I may begin doing so now that I've read Robert L. Woodson's thoughtful book, The Triumphs of Joseph: How Today's Community Healers Are Reviving Our Streets and Neighborhoods. Mrs. Rogers is the "community grandmother" of Blue Ridge Commons, a low-income housing development where my church's urban ministry center is located in Charlottesville, Virginia. Though in her late 70s and in frail health, she retains an indomitable commitment to work for her neighborhood's improvement.

For 27 years, she has counseled single moms in distress, lovingly pushed wayward teens in a better direction, served as president of the tenants association, organized block parties and service projects, and lobbied city officials for better service and more cops. She is the spiritual head of Abundant Life Ministries, my church's partnership with the residents of Blue Ridge Commons. She guides and encourages us as we try to keep kids in school, match fatherless boys with positive adult male role models, dissuade the girls in our teen club from drugs and sex, and prepare adults for the work force through our job-and-life-skills training program. Mrs. Rogers is definitely what Woodson calls a "Joseph."

Woodson draws on the biblical story in which Joseph, a Hebrew boy persecuted by his brothers and sold into slavery in Egypt, eventually becomes second-in-command to the Egyptian Pharaoh by dint of his integrity, leadership skills, and uncanny powers of discernment. Along the way, Joseph overcomes many obstacles--including an unjust prison sentence--but never gives in to self-indulgent defeatism or abandons his faith in God. Despite his humble beginnings, minority ethnic status, and "dysfunctional" family, Joseph excels Pharaoh's courtiers in wise counsel and leads Egypt successfully through a seven-year famine.

Woodson argues that many such Josephs exist today in our inner cities and that these grassroots, faith-based leaders are effectively transforming lives and neighborhoods that no one else has been able to influence. His book tells their stories. The "Josephs" speak for themselves through Woodson's interviews, and we get a close look at a few particularly effective organizations through his short case studies. While not a social scientist, Woodson makes a thoughtful journalist, not only describing the Josephs but analyzing their philosophy.

Woodson has met these Josephs over many years through his National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, an umbrella organization that supports grassroots urban leaders who are reclaiming the lives of drug addicts, rescuing youth from gangs, fighting crime, renovating abandoned properties, and launching inner-city businesses. Many Josephs have themselves undergone radical personal transformation--liberation from a life of drugs or crime--and are devoting themselves to helping others caught in such traps. Other Josephs are neighborhood residents who resisted these pathologies and succeeded despite innumerable obstacles, and are now giving back to their communities.

Freddie Garcia, an ex-drug user whose Texas-based Victory Christian Fellowship has led over 13,000 men and women out of addiction, is a Joseph. So is Toni McIlwane, who left her abusive husband and single-handedly mobilized residents in a drug-infested, violence-ravaged Detroit community for a campaign that has cut crime by 42 percent. The members of McIlwane's Wade Street Block Association each pitched in $25 and installed new lawn lamps until the whole block was well-lit. Then they shut down the crack dealers by purchasing and renovating the abandoned properties the dealers used.

Carl Hardrick is a Joseph who has spent 30 years mediating gang conflicts and leading kids out of gangs in Hartford, Connecticut. By building a friendship with the teenage leader of Hartford's largest and most notorious gang, the Magnificent Twenties, Hardrick was able to convince the Twenties to turn from violence to community service. Twenties members now sponsor youth festivals, deliver meals to the elderly at holidays, and run a job training program teaching boys construction skills.

Josephs like these have been effective with even the toughest cases for several reasons, argues Woodson. They personally know the streets and they make themselves available "24-7"--all day, every day. They view those they help as friends, not clients. They emphasize discipline and insist that those they help take responsibility for themselves and abandon a victim mentality. Their approach is personal and flexible, and they seek not merely "rehabilitation" but personal transformation. Josephs want to persuade people not only to abandon deviant behavior but to commit themselves to a new, purposeful life of service to others. Freddy Garcia's Victory Fellowship, for instance, has found that teaching addicts to be sensitive to and feel responsibility for others is fundamental in getting them to transform their own lives.

Most important, Woodson writes, Josephs "have forged an effective, internal, spiritual response to the spiritual and moral atrophy of our civil society which goes far beyond the limitations of conventional remedies of professional therapy and economic assistance." Most Josephs are faith-based. They don't talk of dysfunction or pathologies or being "at risk"--language that implies material deficiencies that can be redressed by public policy. They use words such as sin, brokenness, and redemption and assert that power from God must be brought to bear to effect healing and change. They focus on individual behavior and individual responsibility, stressing that the biggest obstacles to positive change are internal, not the external economy or environment. As one graduate of Victory Fellowship puts it, "The problem is inside you."

Woodson's lament in The Triumphs of Joseph is that these effective community healers are often ignored--or, worse, opposed--rather than celebrated and supported. In his formulation, "Pharaoh's courtiers" have conspired against the Josephs and their assumptions and strategies: "There are many powerful social, economic, and political institutions that have a proprietary interest in the continued existence of the problems of the poor, the denial of the existence of solutions, and the portrayal of low-income people as victims in need of defense and rescue," writes Woodson, in a characteristic passage.

These institutions, Woodson says, include the civil rights establishment, the "poverty industry" of social workers and government agencies focused on the underclass, and various politicians who align themselves with these interests. The civil rights establishment is hostile to Josephs, Woodson contends, because it knowingly advocates race-based preferential policies that benefit better-off blacks at the expense of poor blacks. Moreover, by emphasizing racism and victimization themes, civil rights leaders undermine the crucial values of personal responsibility, self-sufficiency, and determination preached by the Josephs.

Government agencies and large, state-funded nonprofits running social programs judged only by their laudable intent, rather than by their dismal concrete results, also frustrate the Josephs. These organizations cultivate the very dependency Josephs must combat. And Josephs with creative, unconventional-but-effective programs to lift people out of poverty have been stymied by government red tape.

Grassroots efforts to encourage African-American families to adopt needy kids from the foster care system, for example, are hampered by the extended duration of mandated "home studies." A tenant-ownership initiative sponsored by residents at the Kenilworth-Parkside public housing complex in Washington, D.C., was denounced as "ridiculous" and "a hoax" by Reps. William Clay (D-Mo.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), now the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus. Woodson complains that since 70 cents of every public dollar spent on "poverty programs" is absorbed by service professionals, the poverty industry has a vested interest "not in boosting the poor to self-sufficiency, but in maintaining and expanding a client base of dependents."

Recent welfare reform represents a "pro-Joseph" policy shift. Welfare reform has changed the incentives for government agencies: Now they will be rewarded for moving people off the dole rather than for keeping them on. This should help decrease dependency and reinforce the Josephs' advocacy of personal responsibility.

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