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There’s ‘no time’ for the long road to justice in Omar Woodard’s neighborhood

Omar Woodard. August 31, 2016 Category: FeatureFeaturedMediumPeople
Omar Woodard is staring at his palms as he sits quietly in a café chair. He knows what he’s trying to say, but he seems tangled up on a thought.

The stretch of silence is very much out of character for the amiable young nonprofit director from 20th and Cecil B. Moore. He’s a lingo-savvy conversationalist who, in just six months as executive director of GreenLight Fund Philadelphia, has learned how to talk shop with the best of Philly’s impact intelligentsia.

These lulls are typically where the 32-year-old North Philly resident might make spirited chatter about wonky things like “cross-sector funding models” and “venture philanthropy.” They may be buzzy terms, but Woodard doesn’t just toss them around meaninglessly.

He puts them to practice every day. They’re strategies he employs on his long-claimed quest to “reduce poverty.”

It has not gone unnoticed.

Woodard’s comprehension of the impact ecosystem and his vision for how it should function has earned him a place among an inner circle of local philanthropy leaders alongside folks like Philanthropy Network ED Maari Porter, Philadelphia Foundation President Pedro Ramos and Fels Fund President Sarah Martinez-Helfman.

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He might run with a lot of buying power during the day, but at night, Woodard returns home to his neighborhood in 19121, where the median income is $16,105.

That’s what’s got Woodard’s tongue before he looks up and breaks his silence.

“I still care about North Philly, man,” he said, whipping out his phone. “Let me show you something.”

Woodard pulls up an email and, after a few hurried swipes, begins rattling off data points, linking the 300 domestic violence calls made from the ZIP code last year to its 23 percent unemployment rate.

“Domestic violence is a symptom of a much larger issue. It’s that we’ve allowed poverty to become mobile,” he said. “People who live in substandard housing, surrounded by violence — particularly gun violence, so there’s multi-generational trauma — it’s not easily fixed by getting people more money or moving people out of their neighborhoods.”

That’s what Woodard says gets him motivated every morning: He feels like things have “only gotten worse,” and he’s not willing to sit around and wait for it to get better.

It’s a surprising proclamation for the ordinarily mild-mannered Woodard. Sure, he’s gotten emotional talking about his upbringing, but getting riled up and expressing impatience? Not so much.

[Barack] Obama says he takes the long arc bend toward justice. That’s a coping mechanism for leaders at that level. He often says human history is a long novel and we’re just trying to get our chapter right, and I resent that,” Woodard said, sitting back in his chair. “It’s true. He’s right. But I resent it because for people living in 19121 and other ZIP codes like it, the urgency has never been greater. We don’t have the time.”

Woodard looks at it this way: People of color are estimated to make up the majority of the U.S. population within the next 30 years or so. If nothing has changed in 19121 by then, he said, conditions will be representative of the rest of the country.

“We’re damning mostly Black and Brown people to a substandard quality of life,” he said. “The urgency for me has never been greater. I’m not interested in reducing poverty anymore. I want to end it.”

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