Pedagogical autobiographies are difficult to write. Using their life experience, the authors generally promulgate a set of rules or principles for an effective life that they have learned to embrace and then give the reader examples of how others have used these insights to better themselves and their communities. Done well, books of this sort can be truly educational. Done less well, they can easily veer towards auto-hagiography and become monuments to self-absorption and self-centeredness.
Believe in People: Bottom-Up Solutions for a Top-Down World, by Charles Koch, and Lessons From the Least of These: The Woodson Principles, by Robert Woodson, illustrate both the value and risks of this genre. Both authors are successful men in their 80s with rich and challenging careers behind them. Koch is a corporate leader who has invested much of his wealth in politics, policy reform, and social entrepreneurship. Woodson, the founder of the Woodson Center, is a lifelong social entrepreneur who has championed a grassroots approach to overcoming the challenges of crime, drug abuse, and other actions that beset poor communities. Each is now sharing his accumulated wisdom about how to make America a better place.
Neither is shy of writing about his own positive role in shaping and supporting innovative strategies for local initiatives of many different kinds. They both champion a “bottom-up,” localist approach to solving social challenges. And, to illustrate their arguments, they profile dozens of individuals who have come up with new and effective ideas for social improvement. That said, the authors’ own personalities still dominate these volumes. The reader is never confused about whose voice is speaking in these pages, although Koch’s book was written with Brian Hooks, his longtime collaborator and chief executive officer of Stand Together. While the two works avoid outright hagiography, some may find that Believe in People comes very close to tipping in that direction.
I am not a friend of the authors, but I am acquainted with them. In my early days as a program officer at The Joyce Foundation, Woodson and Bob Friedman, the then head of the left-of-center Corporation for Enterprise Development, were the central figures in a very pan-ideological conversation about the best ways to work with poor communities. Through them, I met a number of the leaders featured in Lessons From the Least of These. Some years later, I was an advisor to a donor to a major libertarian think tank that was generously supported by Koch. In that role, I had an opportunity to observe Koch as a donor. Then, his style had more in common with hard-nosed corporate investing than with enlightened philanthropy.
Authenticity and authority
Despite the many similarities in the perspective, rhetoric, and style of the two authors, there are also big differences that make Lessons From the Least of These a more-valuable book. Three qualities are especially important. First, Woodson exudes an understanding of these communities and their leaders that has an authenticity and realism that is missing in Koch’s volume. Indeed, his deep grounding and understanding of poor neighborhoods has given him a standing in community-development circles that defies ideological boundaries. When he talks about the travails of urban life, his voice has the authority of someone who has lived those challenges.
Second, Woodson has a more-subtle and informed way of discussing how institutions and individuals can help troubled individuals and communities. He has spent most of career observing up close how government, foundations, and wealthy individuals have tried and failed to intervene in poor urban and rural areas. He has particularly sharp words for those who believe unconditional giving is the best way to provide philanthropic support. For Woodson, such giving “leads to pity rather than the desire to succeed.” He continues by making a strong case that donors should expect more from their community partners and, indeed, demand that they contribute what they can to every project.
If Woodson’s views reflect his own experiences raising money for himself and his local collaborators, Koch’s views are shaped largely by his experience as a successful businessman. That does not make his observations on philanthropy less valid. Like Woodson, he is critical of foundations and government agencies for being too driven by the opinions of experts rather than the practical knowledge of those in poor communities. However, beside an injunction to trust the people closest to the problem, Koch provides very little guidance to existing and would-be donors on how to give more effectively.
Finally, throughout the book, Woodson confronts the issue of racism unflinchingly. His unwillingness to use racism as the core explanation for every problem faced by poor communities will not please some readers. In poignant and pungent language, he criticizes “social justice warriors” who see Black Americans as helpless victims. He argues that every person has the power to improve his or her life, family, and neighborhood if they are encouraged and inspired. Some will cluck that this is simplistic and ignores the enormous systemic forces that supposedly keep people in poverty. Yet, he provides many examples of how individuals in some of the roughest communities in America have come together to battle homelessness, abuse, crime, and poverty.
In this age of cancel culture, it may not be surprising that Koch is more circumspect in dealing with the issue of racism. One suspects that he shares many if not all of Woodson’s views, based on his ultimate belief in the ability of individuals to overcome adversity. For a book that screams boldness in action, his Believe in People is muted at best on this sensitive topic.
Taken together, these two books make the case for a more community-driven, grassroots effort to deal with our social ills. But if you want to be inspired, provoked, and enlightened about how to truly empower individuals and neighborhoods, spend your money on Woodson’s Lessons From The Least Of These. You will not be disappointed.
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