In his recent Bradley Lecture at the American Enterprise Institute, civil society expert Bill Schambra charged conservatives who say “that’s a job for civil society” to “be able to name and demonstrate immediate acquaintance with at least a dozen actual examples of civil society doing the job, in the form of grassroots groups personally visited and funded.” That’s a good New Year’s Resolution, and one that should also lead to greater alliance between conservatives and faith-based grassroots leaders and community healers who are putting conservative principles of human dignity and personal responsibility into action among communities in need.
Their approach is fundamentally different from liberal ideologues who, for more than 40 years, have channeled trillions of taxpayers’ dollars into a vast array of programs and entitlements in the name of America’s poor and disenfranchised minorities.
Yet, the fact that the number of people who are dependent on these programs continues to mount gives evidence that something is fundamentally wrong with the liberal approach, which centers on top-down services, designed by an elite cadre of policy advisers and delivered through a bureaucracy of credentialed service providers. And that fundamental failure is nowhere more clear than “where the rubber hits the road”-in the impoverished communities that suffer the problems social dysfunction most intensely, without the buffers of financial stability.
As Bob Woodson, founder of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise (CNE), has shown through on-the-ground communication in low-income neighborhoods throughout the country, the government’s vast expenditures have been misspent and have funded, for decades, entities that people consider an option of last resort. When asked who they would turn to in times of crisis, the vast majority of respondents identified an individual or local group of peers within their community.
In fact, CNE was created to serve as a societal “Geiger counter” that has been able to identify these resources of first choice in low-income communities throughout the nation by talking with folks in barber shops, hair dressers, and diners to find out what’s working and why. Woodson dubs the grassroots neighborhood healers he has discovered as America’s “Josephs.” He urges our nation’s leaders to trust the people who have proven that they can bring results, just as the Biblical pharaoh, at a time of crisis, reached beyond his traditional advisers and sought out the wisdom of a young Hebrew boy.
The Josephs identified by CNE include the likes of Freddie Garcia, a one-time drug addict, whose personal transformation became a launch pad for outreach that has touched and changed the lives of thousands of drug addicts and alcoholics. The ranks of these grassroots healers also include Bob Cote’ whose no-nonsense outreach to the homeless of Denver has transformed street drunks into responsible spouses and parents and successful entrepreneurs. And they include former gang members who have committed themselves to touch and reclaim the lives of peers who were immersed in a culture of violence and retaliation.
Typically, this transformative grassroots outreach is faith-based and faith inspired-and that is a fiery and impassioned faith. Today’s Josephs may be more rugged and rambunctious than typical conservatives, but that may be because there’s more at stake in their environments, where their outreach often, literally, makes the difference between life and death among the people they serve. And though, to date, the ranks of the Josephs have not been recognized as allies by most conservatives, they are clearly in the camp of traditional values and steadfast defenders of the inherent dignity of each human being.
In contrast with conventional government funded programs whose “beneficiaries” languish in a chronic (and often intergenerational) state of dependency, the ultimate goal of faith-inspired grassroots leaders is the self-sufficiency of the people they serve; And the means to that goal is the expectation of reciprocity from day one. Perhaps nowhere else in the nation are the “little platoons,” the pillars of civil society, a more vital part of the daily culture than in the afflicted communities where the Josephs live and serve.
At a time of a steadily growing domain of the government, the faith-based neighborhood healers and those they serve are ready to break from a liberal ideology that threatens to replace their roles in their communities. Yet they need a place to move toward as they move away from an arena that has simply taken them for granted. An alliance of fundamental principles and values should move conservatives to open the door for them.
As Woodson has decried, for too long our nation’s Josephs have gone “unrecognized, unappreciated, and underutilized.” As Schambra urged, conservatives should seize the opportunity to embrace them and their outreach, which has proved to be so dramatically effective, and to develop policies that will facilitate their work and remove any barriers that encumber their efforts. Fulfillment of this New Year’s resolution will not only benefit those who are most in need but it also has the potential to bring new life to the very fabric of our nation’s civil society.