Convicts, gang bangers, addicts and dropouts from across the country descended on Denver the other day.
But instead of drawing police, they had an admiring audience of analysts, academics and donors eager to study their success. Success, that is, in transforming troubled lives -- just as they themselves have been transformed.
Leaders of more than a dozen groups, from San Antonio's Outcry in the Barrio to the House of Help City of Hope in Washington, D.C., gathered for the "Joseph Summit," a movement to change lives, schools and neighborhoods. Sponsored by the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise (CNE), the summit took its name from Joseph of the Old Testament. In his book "The Triumphs of Joseph," CNE founder and president Robert L. Woodson explains that Joseph transcended his dysfunctional family and checkered past -- including a prison stint -- to lead Egypt in a crucial moment.
Like Joseph, the nationwide neighborhood leaders affiliated with Woodson's CNE have had their character forged through circumstance and redeemed by grace.
In a season of national anxiety over our fraying social fabric -- flash mobs in Philadelphia, rioting at Wisconsin's state fair -- these Josephs, long laboring at community restoration, are poised to offer solutions.
Conventional approaches to poverty and social breakdown look for credentials and elaborate program design. By contrast, the unlikely leadership of these Josephs is built around three paradoxes.
The first paradox is that their strength has come through weakness. Whether it was hitting bottom through addiction, losing a loved one to violence, or giving birth to four children by age 19, these Josephs are leaders today because they found hope beyond the circumstances that many would have expected to seal their fate. Their own experience of transformation makes Josephs tenaciously pursue redemption for other broken people.
The second paradox is transformation through incarnation. Josephs have transcended terrible circumstances but meet people in similarly dire straits. Relationships that witness to the possibility of transformation are the key to the Josephs' success. And that requires being there.
At the Denver summit, Tom Tillapaugh, founder of the Street Schools Network for homeless and dropout teens, described the Josephs' mission as "sacrificial intervention by loving adults to the point of extreme inconvenience." That means 24/7 availability for youth advisers working with the toughest 10 percent of at-risk high school students through CNE's Violence-Free Zone initiatives in five cities. The students they mentor have their cell phone numbers so they can call for any need, big or small.
The best calls are the ones that show just how vital the mentoring relationships become to some of the young people. Former students will phone to wish happy Father's Day to Sonny Hoge, a youth adviser with the Violence Free Zone initiative at George Wythe High School in Richmond, Va.
The third paradox is dignity through discipline. Josephs give grace but demand accountability. They express love by requiring responsibility.
When others have given up on "lost causes," these are the leaders who believe enough in the dignity of those they serve to expect more of them. Those expectations translate into strict standards. Bob Cote, an ex-drunk who started Step 13 in Denver to help others overcome addiction, insists on order and tidiness in his center.
Cote considers graffiti beneath his men, and when he found it once in the bathroom, he boarded it up. The men could use the bathroom at the bus station down the street, he informed them. During the 13-day lockout, he got some static from naysaying outsiders for "violating their human rights." Cote was concerned with doing right by them as human beings.
These paradoxical principles of the Josephs' work may elude specialists and challenge prevailing models for helping those in need.
But their fruits are incontestable.
Not all agree that dignity comes through Step 13-style discipline, but those who employ Bob Cote's graduates can't fault the results. These programs may not fit traditional models of cookie-cutter "replicability" and "scalability." But analysts can't deny the cycle of social prosperity Mike Riley of Colorado Uplift began when he mentored Vic, who has since mentored another, who has since mentored another.
Josephs beget Josephs, unto the third and fourth generation.
Even so, these Josephs perennially struggle to make ends meet financially. The most successful outreach initiatives are often the most invisible to prospective supporters. They don't have flashy advertising or elaborate fundraising campaigns because they are consumed with the work of restoring lives.
Woodson's mission is to bring Josephs to the attention of would-be "Pharaohs" -- philanthropists, policymakers and other concerned citizens who can elevate these neighborhood leaders and extend their restorative influence.
The Old Testament recounts how Joseph's wisdom helped Egypt survive severe famine. Today's Josephs can help America find its way out of the social deserts that have overtaken too many neighborhoods -- and restore this land's promise.
Jennifer A. Marshall is director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in RealClearReligion