Geoffrey Canada: “I’ve Never Given Up Hope for My Kids”

20 May 2010 |

By Geoffrey Canada, President & CEO, Harlem Children’s Zone

In 30 years of working with poor children, I have never given up hope for my kids, despite the huge odds stacked up against them.  But today I am more confident than ever that we as a nation are on the verge of a transformation of what the horizon will look like for inner-city children across America.

Every day of my professional life has confirmed that education is the key to breaking the cycle of generational poverty.  The problem has been how to educate these poor children who are trapped in a calcified, failing public-education system, and in devastated neighborhoods where failure has become the accepted norm.

However, with the recent announcement of the first planning grants for President Obama’s Promise Neighborhoods, I can see the proverbial cavalry coming over the hills.  And let me tell you, it is a thrill.

In neighborhoods across America, community-based nonprofits are talking to each other and with their local schools to create new partnerships with the goal of boosting the educational prospects of poor children.   In some cases, these adults – who all have had the same desire – are working together for the first time.  Many have been doing heroic work – whether they are tutoring high school kids or teaching teenaged moms to raise healthy babies.  But now they are putting it all together, creating comprehensive systems to address the needs of children from birth through college, and aiming to strengthen the families and communities around these children.

People always ask me how the Harlem Children’s Zone was able to rally a community that had been devastated for decades and the simple answer is making children’s success the centerpiece.  Everyone wants the children in their community to succeed.  So we tapped into that universal feeling and focused our efforts around the needs of children – which were numerous in a neighborhood like Harlem.

I am also excited to see the other ways that the federal government is reinventing its role in America’s public school system.  The U.S. Department of Education has an unprecedented level of funding and is using it smartly – dangling the carrot of hundreds of millions of dollars in the Race to the Top initiative to encourage states to adopt long-needed reforms.

At the Department of Housing and Urban Development, there is an innovative proposal called Choice Neighborhoods, a holistic approach to affordable housing.  Choice Neighborhoods is breaking down the silos that have kept government agencies from coordinating efforts at broadly improving the lives of tenants living in public housing, who are often in the greatest need of social services, successful schools and support programs.

Wherever I go these days, I meet people who are fed up with the status quo in our education system – not just advocates for poor children, but even middle class parents who are frustrated with the widespread mediocrity of American public schools.

This fall, a documentary on public education called “Waiting for Superman” will be released by the director and producer of “An Inconvenient Truth.”  I was interviewed for the film and attended its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won an audience award.  I was excited to discover that the director, Davis Guggenheim, was able to accomplish something I had always hoped someone would do, which is portray the real faces of the education crisis: the parents who are scared to death to send their children to their local school, which is more likely to produce felons than college graduates.  It’s impossible to not be moved by the stories of these innocent children and their anxious parents as they try to get into successful charter schools and have a shot at a good education.  The makers of the film have already begun to create a grassroots campaign for education reform, asking people to sign a pledge online to see the film this fall and to become local activists.

The challenges facing poor children today are more daunting than ever, exacerbated by the disappearance of blue-collar jobs and the rise in global competition for white-collar ones.   Still, I am more optimistic than ever before.  In Harlem, I see thousands of kids writing a new narrative for their lives, on track for college and the workplace.  And I am seeing the pieces falling into place so that their peers in other devastated neighborhoods will also have a conveyor belt to success.  It’s an incredibly exciting time for me and I hope you will join the effort to reinvent the future for American’s children.