Understanding and Engaging with Common Humanity: A Chat with Omar Woodard
PHENND Fellows had the pleasure to chat with Omar Woodard, Executive Director of GreenLight Philadelphia during an installment of Dinner with a Civic Leader. Woodard has been in that position since January 2016 and he has had a plethora of professional experiences prior, ranging from political campaigning to sales to management consulting. Woodard was a patient and thoughtful presence in the PHENND office. He was extremely friendly, bubbly, always engaged and present with us Fellows. He asked all of us questions about our sites and said he was always thinking about ways to connect to the things we are interested in, to see where GreenLight Fund Philadelphia could help out. All in all, he gave us fantastic advice about how his path in life shaped who he became and how to follow our dreams in our future careers.
Woodard is a North Philly native who grew up as a low-income kid living in an area with one of the highest poverty rates in the city. His mom would give him food stamps to buy sustenance, but he realized when he got older that food stamps aren’t actually real money. That is something that poverty does to families; it makes them hyper aware of what they/others have and what they/others don’t have. Both of Woodard’s parents were incarcerated during his elementary school times and he was raised by his aunt in Norristown, Montgomery County. He explained that his experiences of being born out of poverty and born out of being a child of someone who is incarcerated can dramatically inform what you believe and what you think about the things around you. What a powerful statement to digest.
Woodard gave two reasons for why he is here and doing the work he does. The first was his mother’s commitment and belief that education could move her family forward. The second was philanthropy, as it allowed him to get access to capital and opportunities he would not have had access to otherwise. Philanthropy is also the catalyst that helped him attend a fantastic university to develop his skill set in policy: Woodard went to GW to major in international affairs. He was student body president and was readily involved in college politics. He stayed at GW for to receive a master’s degree in public administration and was also a Presidential Administrative Fellow. His education happened because of philanthropy and you could sense by the way he told his story that it means a lot to him–something he truly values.
He took away a key message at his time in college that influenced how he carries himself: “How can I understand the common humanity of others? How can I engage in that common humanity to make a difference in the world?” It was apparent almost immediately upon meeting Woodard that he is quickly able to figure out how people are connected, where the overlap is, to see the commonality between who he is talking to.
After college, Woodard needed to make money. So, he worked several different jobs: on Capitol Hall, lobbying representing African governments to try to understand capital flow, and back in Philadelphia, managing Chester County for Barack Obama’s presidential run. Woodard also did business intelligence sales for healthcare and higher education institutions and even ran for State Senate! His variety of experiences helped shaped what he is truly passionate about achieving in life. He was unemployed during his career for a certain amount of time and he wasted no time by grabbing coffee for 3 months straight with everyone he knew to build relationships and find his passion. The incredible thing about his persistence is that his community realized that he has a passion for investing and then looked out for him. This was done beautifully by one of the founding directors of GreenLight Philadelphia, Matt Joyce, who offered him a job because Woodard won the State Senate race. Woodard dropped the campaign because it was a no-brainer. He can make things happen now and he didn’t have to wait anymore. The opportunity was waiting for him.
The GreenLight Fund helps transform the lives of children, youth and families in high-poverty urban areas by creating local infrastructure and galvanizing local support to help programs reach and sustain impact in the new city. Essentially, they invest in non-profits to help them grow and flourish. That is extremely important for the public service field because more money needs to be contributed to the growth of issues that citizens care about and fight for on a daily basis. There are too many fantastic projects out in the open that are underfunded and understaffed because of the lack of resources and capital/grants to help with funding. GreenLight helps make this dream a reality. So far at GreenLight, Woodard has moved 2.1 million dollars and raised 2.7 million dollars, all to accelerate economic mobility in the neighborhoods he grew up in. What a wonderful way to come full circle and truly give back to your community every day.
Woodard is a prime example of what a true public servant represents and strives for: engaging common humanity to understand how to better the world around him. Thank you for your insightful wisdom and bubbly personality, you’ve inspired us all!
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