Looking forward to a new year, our challenges are many. Homicide and crime, especially in our urban centres, remain too high. Another variant of COVID-19 is raging, straining our healthcare system. Depression and suicide among young people continue to soar, afflicting the rich more than the poor. Financial poverty is technically on the decline, but the underlying issues are likely masked by massive COVID-19-related federal spending set to expire this year. Meanwhile, inflation squeezes family budgets.
While these headlines paint a bleak picture for 2022, every day I learn stories of redemption, renewal and transformation in local communities that often don’t make the news. We like to analyze problems on a national scale, but the most effective solutions are almost always local.
Despite our well-documented polarization, Americans remain generous and open people. Support for nonprofits increased early in the pandemic. If this trend continues in 2022, there is a lot we can do to empower struggling communities to solve their problems.
While government programs to help the poor tend to be ineffective and encourage dependency, a study of just 70 nonprofits in the United States found they generated $14 billion in profits for their communities over five years. The average return for every dollar donated to these nonprofits was between $89 and $157.
The details of the issues we face vary not only from state to state and city to city, but also from block to block. And no one understands the problems of a particular block better than the people who live there. Effectively educating children, supervising young people in difficulty, housing the homeless, and feeding and caring for the sick, drug addicts, abused or injured, requires neighborhood-specific knowledge more than professional expertise.
For 40 years, the Woodson Center has demonstrated that transformation, renewal and redemption can work even in the most challenging environments. Our Voices of Black Mothers United initiative was launched a year ago and has brought together mothers of deceased children and community partners to heal, strengthen and secure communities. These powerful women are working together to support intervention and sensible police reform, and they have pushed back against the deadly Defund The Police movement.
Amid an ongoing pandemic and homicide wave, they have expanded to more than 20 states to work in the areas of family advocacy, community response and positive policing.
Since 1998, we’ve invested more than $50 million in our Community Affiliate Network affiliate program, a group of more than 500 local nonprofit organizations. We do this by distributing grants for violence prevention, addiction recovery, youth mentorship, neighborhood revitalization and other projects to catalyze upward mobility.
In total, we awarded 208 grants in 2020-21, the most in our 30-year history. Our local affiliates have touched approximately 44,000 lives in total. We heard daily testimonies of hope from across the country through their work. Constantly they remind us that the solutions can be found in the same zip code as the problem.
For example, Ron Anderson runs a youth mentorship and leadership development nonprofit in Louisiana called Project Reclaim. Last year, we partnered with him on our grant program because we found that investing in at-risk youth up front can prevent dangerous and irresponsible behavior later on. Ron has demonstrated that he can serve a youth for just over $1,000 a year. Compare that to the exorbitant price of $154,760 over a year of incarceration in Louisiana for the same child.
Not only is the outcome for the child better with the help of Project Reclaim, but the program also frees up hundreds of thousands of dollars a year that could be spent on incarceration to go to other community investments.
Project Reclaim served a total of 120 youth in 2021, all of whom were classified as “at risk”. So far, all have stayed in school. None have been involved in juvenile court or teenage pregnancy. We can’t wait to see them step up to the next level.
One Reclaim Project participant, Kristin, stands out for me. In eighth grade, she stole her mother’s car to go for a ride with friends. Her mother found out about Project Reclaim through the juvenile court staff, and it changed both of their lives.
Two years after their first Project Reclaim program, Kristin and her mother run a small business together, preparing and delivering home-cooked meals. Kristin is a straight student. She is a leader and feels she has a family outside of the family with Project Reclaim. We hope and strive to achieve this with every young person we meet who needs help.
Some of our leaders are leveraging their grants to build momentum and expand their programs. This is what the East River Family Strengthening Collaborative in Washington did. It has operated in the predominantly low-income part of DC’s Ward 7 since 1996. Its grant initiated the work it needed to do to expand its community services to meet the basic needs of people facing extreme poverty, drug addiction and violence.
These are just a few examples of the programs we have seen flourish this year. Anyone can hand out backpacks or turkeys, but lasting transformation comes from genuine human connections built on trust. That confidence – not a perfectly crafted brochure or a market-tested mission statement – is what makes real change possible.
In 2022, I hope Americans take a break from the pessimism of national news and the endless discussions of national politics that speak in abstractions and ignore living, breathing human beings.
This year, let’s invest in problem solvers who understand problems because they’ve experienced them personally. Invest at the block level. Give neighborhood leaders the support they need to thrive, and we’ll reap all the dividends.
• Bob Woodson is the founder and president of the Woodson Center and the author of “Red, White, and Black: Rescue American History from Revisionists and Race Hustlers”.