The only reason to spend your time studying failure is if you want to produce more failure. You cannot learn to produce success by studying failure. Every school, every neighborhood, no matter how dismal its circumstances, has successes. It's a mystery to me why we spend so much time crying over our failures and so little time trying to learn from our successes.
-- Robert L. Woodson, president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.
Neither Bob Woodson nor D.C. Del. Walter E. Fauntroy knew what to expect a couple of months ago when they agreed to a face-to-face meeting arranged by a mutual friend.
Fauntroy, whose background is the civil rights movement, is as solidly liberal as any member of Congress. Woodson, whose very name can evoke sneers from some members of the civil rights community, is head of a bipartisan group of black conservatives known as the Council for a Black Economic Agenda.
What could these two talk about without going for each other's throats?
Well, it turns out that, as one result of that meeting, Fauntroy has introduced legislation to encourage one of Woodson's pet ideas: resident management of public housing.
Fauntroy looked at what a woman named Kimi Gray has done at the Kenilworth-Parkside public housing project in Northeast Washington, and he was sufficiently impressed by what he saw to want to make it possible for others like her to come to the surface.
What Gray and her Resident Management Corp. have done is to halt the deterioration of a project that once went three years without heat and hot water; provided employment for scores of residents; launched businesses run by and for their tenants, and, miraculously, turned the deficit- ridden complex into a black-ink enterprise, more than doubling rent collections.
Gray and her colleagues had to fight for the right to manage their 464-unit property. Fauntroy's legislation, while it would not make resident management automatic, would establish this idea of a resident management corporation as a policy goal.
It would also make it possible to do what Gray was able to do only after she won a fight against the District Building: retain the profits from her improved rent collections and newly efficient management to provide jobs, services and, eventually, more homes for low-income families.
It is just the sort of idea that has appeal for both liberals and conservatives concerned about helping the poor. The emphasis of the liberal is on the government's responsibility in helping to remedy problems that it helped to create, although the liberal recognizes that people have a responsibility for improving their own circumstances. The conservative lays stress on having the government get out of the way so that people can run their own lives, although he acknowledges that the government's help is sometimes vital.
That is why these two, away from the glare of the television cameras, were able to find areas of agreement. There are doubtless others, if liberals and conservatives will look for them instead of looking for ways to make one another look ridiculous.
Fauntroy understands that there are very few Kimi Grays, in public housing or out, and that his legislation won't create them. It is unlikely, for instance, that many of the RMCs created as a result of his bill would be able to match -- though some might -- Gray's record of sending 580 of her residents to post-secondary education. (Before she took over, an average of two residents per year went to college.)
But Fauntroy is proposing opportunities, not miracles. He wants to create the possibility that others can learn from Kenilworth-Parkside and similar successes around the country. Having spent some years looking at failure, he now wants to study success.