March 3, 2009 by JSOnline — With the late afternoon sun streaming into his corner office on K Street, Robert L. Woodson Sr. is touting the benefits of his violence-reduction program in Milwaukee Public Schools when the phone rings.
Bradley Tech High School has gone “code red,” Woodson is told.
He takes the call and coaches one of Tech’s recently implemented youth advisers through the flare-up, a fight that resulted in 17 arrests and a minor police officer injury. Though he is 800 miles away from the incident in a city where he has never lived nor has any family ties, Woodson’s commitment to the person on the line is as strong as his long-standing commitment to Milwaukee.
A national social activist turned Milwaukee insider, Woodson, 71, has played a key role over two decades in shaping the philosophies of various institutions, from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation – which has poured millions into Woodson’s work – to smaller nonprofits and local church leaders.
His latest project aims to improve the safety of Milwaukee’s youth, and to replicate that success in other cities.
“Three years, and we want the national media to say that Milwaukee has been transformed from one of the most problem cities in America to one of the safest cities,” Woodson says.
A former civil rights leader and faith-based community organizer, Woodson directs the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise in Washington, D.C. He founded the nonprofit while pushing for public ownership of government housing projects.
But colleagues say Woodson’s most defining ability is a knack for ferreting out little-known community leaders who have the potential to radically improve their neighborhoods. This skill attracted the attention of a young Bradley Foundation, which was looking to fund local projects but didn’t know how to find good applicants.
So they called in tall, poised and impeccably dressed Woodson. He hit the streets, canvassing the city’s barbershops and asking people whom they turned to for help and guidance.
Paralleling this passion is Woodson’s emphasis on youth. A major initiative of his Center for Neighborhood Enterprise is the Violence-Free Zone, which has grown from a pilot project five years ago in MPS to full implementation in eight schools.
The concept – placing full-time youth advisers in schools to build relationships with students and give them 24/7 access to their cell phones – is simple. But, Woodson says, because it isn’t run by “experts,” the idea has lacked widespread implementation and testing.
“What these kids need more than anything else is someone to call,” says Woodson, seated on his office couch.
Woodson got his master’s degree in social work and child therapy, and worked in that field before joining the civil rights movement in the late 1960s.
But the kids brought him back.
After working to eradicate gang violence in Philadelphia in the 1980s, Woodson earned national recognition in 1997 for negotiating a truce between two gangs in a notorious D.C. public housing project. The fighting had caused dozens of student deaths.
In line with his philosophy of picking indigenous leaders to empower their neighborhoods, Woodson identified two main nonprofits in Milwaukee, the Running Rebels Community Organization on the north side and the Latino Community Center on the south side, to find and train local youth advisers.
His full vision for Milwaukee would take millions more dollars to pull off.
Schools, he believes, should have one youth adviser per 1,000 students. Young men coming out of prison should be recruited as advisers and trained how to use their experiences to help others. Organizations that have the best track record of serving and retaining youths – such as the Running Rebels – should be given more resources so they can stay open around the clock and spur offshoot projects, such as a taxi service that could provide community jobs as well as transportation for kids.
“If you ask a kid who would you rather die than disappoint, and if they don’t have an answer, we need to create that person,” Woodson says.