Economics 101 & Public Square

How Faith, Work, and Economics Transformed Milwaukee

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When the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee approached the Center for Neighborhood Enterprises (CNE) in 1995, they presented Robert L. Woodson, Sr. with a dilemma.

At the time, Milwaukee was marked by gang violence and community division. The Bradley Foundation searched in these broken neighborhoods for individuals with the potential to help dissipate the violence, but they could not find anyone.

As Woodson recounted in a recent interview with IFWE, he knew that he could find individuals within the community who possessed the strengths necessary to begin community transformation. And so he went to Milwaukee.

Bringing Leaders Together

Over the course of a few days, he visited places like barbershops and laundromats, asking people, “Who do you go to in times of trouble?” After many such questions, a few names surfaced. Woodson went to visit these individuals and asked them why people came to them for help. They would always laugh and recount a time that solidified their role as a source of help to their community.

During the next two years, Woodson and CNE identified grassroots leaders and their needs and provided training. This training was designed to equip leaders to resolve conflict and become self-sustaining in high-risk areas.

The leaders cultivated through CNE’s guidance have worked together to repair Milwaukee’s communities in these formerly high risk areas. In Milwaukee and elsewhere, CNE endeavors to guide individuals from informal to formal processes without destroying what was there to begin with.

A Heart for Change

Woodson lives out his Christian faith as both a self-described “cardiac Christian” and a “radical pragmatist.” His career has covered everything from research to civil rights activism to a position as a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute to his current role as founder and president of CNE, headquartered in Washington, D.C.

Through he didn’t always know how the desire would come to fruition, Woodson has wanted to empower others through an organization like CNE. Often low income individuals are the objects, not the originators of change. Through CNE, Woodson has been working to change this. He explains,

The Left sees the poor as a sea of victims. The Right sees them as a sea of aliens. CNE steps into this void and provides the means of allowing low income individuals to speak for themselves.

As Woodson demonstrated in Milwaukee, CNE goes into an area like a “Geiger counter” and identifies grassroots leaders, people with strengths who are already present in these areas. These men and women are like social antibodies.

I love this analogy because the most effective way of treating the human body is through the least intrusive means. A doctor will begin with simple methods and the cure will get more and more intrusive, ultimately ending with a heart transplant, the most intrusive cure.

CNE provide funds, training, administrative assistance, and nurturing to lower income individuals. CNE’s role is often that of an intermediary; many times, there are grassroots organizations in place who decide to join forces with other organizations once they recognize they share objectives.

Faith and Economics at Work

For Bob, his faith is inseparable from his work. He believes the best apologetics are experience and evidence. As Woodson quipped,

A transformed heart requires a full stomach and busy hands.

Work is the proving ground for faith. Referencing Don Eberly, Woodson points out that, on a macro scale, institutions such as capitalism and democracy are empty vessels into which you pour a nation’s values.

On a more practical level, integrity is essential. There are no legal contracts that will protect you from someone who is dishonest. You first need to establish trustworthiness when you want to work with someone. This is what leads Woodson to say,

There is no bifurcation between economics and faith. To talk about trust is to talk about faith.

Bob stresses the importance of certain heart attitudes in his work. It’s essential to approach any situation with humility. If you want to help someone, you must look first for their strengths, how they may be able to teach you. This is the foundation for respect.

According to Woodson, one of the greatest barriers to change is elitism, the idea that smart, educated people have all the answers. This is particularly relevant in a city like Washington, D.C., where ideas are idolized. But elitism cannot survive in a true market economy. The success of the results matters.

In this environment, everyone can bring their skills to the table and produce something of value. By encouraging  and participating in free enterprise, we strengthen a venue of helping others that preserves the dignity of all involved and creates measurable value for the greater society.

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