Person of the Week: Geoffrey Canada Lifts Up Harlem's Students One Block At A Time

Founder of Harlem Children's Zone featured in movie, 'Waiting For Superman.'

September 24, 2010, 1:29 PM

— -- Geoffrey Canada has 650 kids in college right now. He's helped raise a generation of children in New York's Harlem.

Canada founded the Harlem Children's Zone in the nineties, leading a bold social experiment using education to break the cycle of poverty for poor children in the United States. He literally turned around Central Harlem, block by block, creating safe zones through schools and community centers for kids to learn and play.

"When I sit down and see my young people working hard and studying for a test, it fills my heart with joy," Canada said. "This is why we created the zone, to see our kids with a real fighting opportunity."

The Zone provides free and comprehensive educational, social and medical services for all 10,000 kids who live in the 96 blocks of central Harlem.

"What we wanted to see in Harlem was our community to look like middle class communities, where kids had healthcare, where kids got their teeth fixed from the dentist, where kids were not obese and they were eating nutritional meals, where young people didn't have to worry about gangs and being shot and being killed," Canada said.

His innovations in Harlem made him a focal point in the newly released documentary, "Waiting for 'Superman.'" The film explores the flaws in the nation's education system and the solutions some reformers, like Canada, are successfully using to help students.

It's Canada's personal story that gave the film its title.

"One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me Superman did not exist," Canada says in the film. "She thought I was crying because it's like Santa Claus is not real. I was crying because no one was coming with enough power to save us."

Canada grew up like the kids he now helps, in a tough urban neighborhood. The 58-year-old educator and his three brothers were raised by a single mother in the South Bronx.

Canada said that when he reached high school, he reached a turning point.

"I was looking for a way out, and I figured out early on that my way had to be education, and if there was one door that I could slide through and get out of the South Bronx to success, it was going to be education," he said.

Geoffrey Canada's Lucky Break

When Canada saw the Bronx high school he was meant to attend, he worried he might not make it.

"Today, it would be called a dropout factory," he said. "Most of my friends never made it out of the South Bronx as healthy and productive citizens."

Canada got a lucky break. His grandparents moved to Long Island, and he moved with them to a better school.

"I have always said to myself that it is totally unfair in this country that by luck I was able to make it, and because other kids did not have that luck, they weren't able to make it," Canada said.

Canada went on to college and studied at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, but it was the unfairness of his own lucky break and his dismay at watching his childhood friends fall prey to the ills of his neighborhood that became the catalyst for his life's work.

"I always thought, Boy, if I get the chance to go to college, I'm going to figure out what I should've said and what I should've done to save these young people."

Canada has certainly figured out what resonates with young inner city children. His efforts are set to become a national model. This week, the Obama administration awarded grants to 20 communities to create "promise neighborhoods," replicas of the Harlem Children's Zone.

Canada said this isn't the fulfillment of his dream, it's just the beginning.

"It is one of the great joys of my life, that when I look at my young people that I realize there is a bunch of us adults standing with these kids saying we're going to guarantee you make it," Canada said.

There's one sight that never gets old for Canada: seeing his students in suits on the way to an internship interview.

"That's what we've worked for, these young people," he said. "They see a future, they're prepared for their future, they dress for their future, they speak as if they are part of the future of Harlem."

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