John Teevan’s recent profile of Bob Woodson and the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise (CNE) reminded me of a profoundly impactful tour I took of George Wythe High School in Richmond, Va., which was led by Mr. Woodson as a case study of CNE success.
The tour was part of a seminar with the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society, and was intended to showcase effective solutions to social problems. In this, it greatly succeeded, highlighting that any such solutions can only be effective insofar as they take into account the full needs and dreams of the human person.
The school had recently emerged from a season of heavy violence and crime, due in large part to its partnership with CNE’s Violence-Free Zone Initiative, which seeks to restore peace and trust to broken communities by equipping local schools with on-the-ground “Youth Advisors” and partnering with local organizations, churches, and law enforcement.
Rep. Steve Southerland, who also joined the tour, wrote a brief account of the trip, which includes a good summary of the initiative and how it’s benefited George Wythe:
This violence-reduction and high-risk student mentoring program prepares students to learn by equipping them through relationships with the skills and knowledge necessary to overcome violence. The Richmond public schools system has worked in conjunction with CNE to create the Violence-Free Zone. Youth advisors who are affiliated with the Richmond Outreach Center, a local church, and who have overcome similar challenges, work as hall monitors, mediators, character coaches, and trusted friends. For the 2009-2010 school year, George Wythe reported a 26% decrease in fighting, a 68% decrease in truancy, and a 63% reduction in dropouts since the inception of the Violence-Free Zone program. (emphasis added)
Led by Woodson, we able to interact with several Youth Advisers and local pastors, each of whom poured out their hearts, telling numerous stories of reconciliation and restoration with students and explaining how, thanks to the people and programs now in place, many conflicts are being promptly defused while students see greater and greater levels of success and empowerment—spiritually, socially, academically, and beyond.
Here we saw the power in CNE’s approach. These advisors and pastors were not detached bureaucrats. Each was wholly invested, actively sacrificing their time, energy, and material resources on a daily basis to invest in kids who desperately needed guidance, mentorship, and protection —someone who they could trust. These are people who are called, positioned, and empowered to look at the problems individuals and communities at individual and community levels, taking each student’s unique personality and needs into account, and responding accordingly with love and grace.
This is a solution that gets to the heart of things, focusing on people as people and needs as personal and spiritual, not just material. The Violence-Free Zone Initiative and other initiatives like it are not about throwing money at the status quo and assigning “experts” to oversee it. It’s about combating injustice at its most basic level—broken relationships—and empowering those who feel called to be a part of restoring those relationships.
The ultimate spiritual focus of the solution became ever more evident as the tour continued, as one Youth Advisor began to share his own testimony in the halls of a public school, talking through his own dark past all the way up to his eventual transformation and redemption, which he now shares with students each and every day. When asked by Woodson why he chose to serve these kids, he immediately identified with a famous story in Acts.
“I don’t have money,” he said, paraphrasing Peter, while quickly becoming teary-eyed. “But what I have, I will freely give.”
“Silver and gold have I none.” It’s a refrain that has long been recited across congregations and Sunday school classrooms, yet it’s one that I fear has been pigeon-holed and unduly limited in its scope and application among the church.
In our attempts to heal the persistent brokenness amid all of our newfound abundance, we seem increasingly bent on obsessing over material causes and materialistic solutions. Whether it be through the latest price-fixing fad or redistribution scheme, we tend toward top-down, surface-level pseudo-solutions to solve complex bottom-up injustices. Far too often, we assume that the main solution for students like those at George Wythe is mere silver and gold.
Yet as the approach of Woodson and CNE demonstrates, if we want to really turn things around—if our aim is to restore human dignity and facilitate human flourishing on all levels and across all of society—we should stop focusing on these convenient schemes and instead offer that which we know has been offered to all of us. The pouring out of silver and gold will surely be required, but the long-term mending of relationships and reversing of injustice must begin with investment and sacrifice of deeper demand, driven by obedience to a higher order.
Only then will a solution truly be a solution, and only then will we be able to say, with all faith and confidence, “Rise up and walk.”
To get a better sense of CNE’s model, watch the following PovertyCure video of Woodson: