In the Zone: Geoffrey Canada Is Changing the Odds in Harlem
“There are many places in our nation that we have allowed to become areas of hopelessness,” said educator and activist Geoffrey Canada last month at the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit. “Despair rules and young people who grow up there have no way of knowing right from wrong.”
Canada, the founder and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, told Willow Creek ministry leader Nancy Beach that youth become “contaminated” with negative values and principles that must be counteracted. It’s a message he’s been proclaiming in New York and now around the nation for more than twenty years.
Perhaps you’ve seen Canada discussing education on television. He was prominently featured in the controversial 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman, which took a hard look at the tenuous condition of American public education. These days when any serious conversation about public schools turns toward the topic of real solutions, it’s difficult not to reference Canada’s name and work.
In inner cities where overcoming the odds is the only way for children to achieve success, Canada contends that the odds need to be changed. This conviction, coupled with a waiting list for the after-school and summer youth programs Canada directed through the mid-1990s, convinced him to scrap a model social services organization in favor of what The New York Times Magazine calls “one of the biggest social experiments of our time.”
As we begin a new school year, and our nation’s system of public education continues to falter, it’s worth taking a look at Geoffrey Canada’s efforts as a case study on what might be possible if we’re willing to work hard, think innovatively, and put our children first.
The Great Experiment
Founded in 1997 as a corporate reorganization of the Harlem-based Rheedlen Centers, which ran various after-school, violence-prevention, and summer youth programs for 500 children with a $3 million annual budget, Harlem Children’s Zone has embraced a mission to prove that poor children, especially poor black children, can succeed in big numbers. Success means good reading scores, grades, and graduation rates for average students, not just the smartest or most motivated or the ones with involved parents.
The catalyst for Canada’s changed approach was a perpetual waiting list at Rheedlen. Canada became dissatisfied that no matter how many children his centers served, their services merely treated symptoms of far deeper social ills for hundreds of children while thousands went unattended every day.
He was also frustrated with an “apartheid” type of school district where kids living below 96th Street were super achievers and kids above 96th Street chronically underperformed. Grappling with the disparity, he wondered whether it’s even possible to transform the system so that success might become the norm for Harlem too.
Fueled by the belief that individual children will do better if the children around them are doing better, Canada set out to prove that success can indeed become normalized. Unapologetically, HCZ is a social experiment designed to amass evidence that demonstrates how to equalize the playing field so that poor children perform on the same level as middle-class children. Canada foresees a day when, “This isn’t an abstract conversation anymore. If you want poor children to do as well as middle-class children,” to become “typical Americans” who can compete for jobs, “we now know how to do it.”
According to the Times Magazine, “If [Canada is] right, the services he will provide will cost about $1,400 a year per student, on top of existing public-school funds. The country will finally know what the real price tag is for poor children to succeed.”
In 2005, U.S. News & World Report described Canada as having “the street walk and Harvard talk.” That combination generates enough credibility to be given a legitimate shot at making his experiment work.
Holistic Programming, Tightly Networked
Geoffrey Canada’s political philosophy is both liberal and conservative, meaning he believes the economy systematically disfavors poor people no matter how hard they work, but he also believes poor parents need to raise their children better. His solution is a holistic approach that invests in traditional services such as public schools, day care, and after-school programs to remedy structural inequities, while also teaching parenting and life skills to enhance personal responsibility.
None of the Zone’s programs, by themselves, is unique. What is unique is how they create an interlocking web of services designed to nurture poor children in a particular neighborhood from birth through college. The Cleveland Plain Dealer describes HCZ’s distinctive this way: “The Zone is a network of tightly connected initiatives. … What sets them apart is the unifying vision Canada has imposed, creating a single, womb-through-college cocoon for thousands of poor kids … and fierce determination to achieve measurable outcomes.”
Each individual initiative fits into an expansive strategy that meets different needs differently. There’s no one right, cookie-cutter formulation for what every individual child needs. Instead, HCZ offers a panoply of services, including:
• Harlem Gems, a computer-based, pre-kindergarten program teaching Hooked on Phonics
• Employment and Technology Center
• TRUCE after-school program for teens
• Family Support Center and foster care alternatives
• Baby College co-ed class for pregnant parents
• Promise Academy charter school
All of HCZ’s programs are geographically located within a 100-block area of Central Harlem, a neighborhood characterized by a poverty rate of nearly 50 percent and foster-care placement rates among the highest in New York City. The 10,000 children living within this community Canada describes as “my kids,” and his goal for them is “fairness … just give my kids a fair shot.” Once they have completed college, “they’re as equal as anybody else, and they’ll be able to fend for themselves.”
Harlem Children’s Zone rests its various program initiatives on four pillars.
1. Rebuild the community from within by developing indigenous leaders who already live in the neighborhood. “Mostly we found that to change a block, you had to get between 10 and 20 percent of the people engaged.” Hope spreads and negative elements move elsewhere.
2. Start early and never stop. Provide services from before birth through prenatal parenting classes and continuing through the completion of college. “Our theory is you never let the kids get behind in the first place.”
3. Think and plan big. Overwhelm the negative with positive influences. Make success and hard work normative.
4. Evaluate relentlessly. HCZ holds 1,300 full and part-time employees accountable to predetermined results. “If you took a salary to deliver an outcome and you didn’t deliver the outcome, you can’t stay here in the organization.” All programs have ten-year business plans with goals, targets, and timetables.
Canada asks no less than 15 years from stakeholders to demonstrate that HCZ’s approach actually works, calling quick fixes to entrenched social problems “pipe dreams.” In exchange, he promises a rigorous reporting and evaluation methodology to track progress and identify program weaknesses.
His management style runs the non-profit like a business and treats philanthropists like venture capitalists. The HCZ business plan focuses on business-oriented ideas like “market-penetration targets” and “new information technology applications” and a “performance-tracking system.”
The Zone regards clients as “customers” and outreach as “marketing.” Administrative staffers wear suits; every meeting starts on time; and reports, budgets, and evaluations flow constantly.
HCZ focuses its energies and resources on what it can control — namely excellent supportive services for children — and not issues beyond their control such as adult marriages and underemployment. Then it recruits relentlessly to register its target market — the most “at-risk” youths in the neighborhood — through door knocking, fliers, sign-ups, raffles, prizes, and give-a-ways (even “bribes”); and promises to deliver excellent results. For example, HCZ called its first charter school Promise Academy because, “We are making a promise to all of our parents. If your child is in our school, we will guarantee that child succeeds. There will be no excuses. … If you work with us as parents, we are going to do everything — and I mean everything — to see that your child gets a good education.”
HCZ’s educational philosophy emphasizes both testing and accountability. They work within the existing public school system while simultaneously opting-out by starting two charter schools. HCZ’s charter schools operate a longer school day, from 8 a.m. – 4 p.m., with supplementary after-school programs until 6 p.m.; and their academic years extend into July. HCZ has met resistance from the Teachers Union because, even though charter school teachers get paid more than union teachers, they work longer hours, a full 12 months a year, and without the possibility of tenure.
The Zone supplements its own service offerings by partnering with parents, residents, teachers, and other community stakeholders to create a safe, nurturing environment that extends beyond its programs. By collaborating with churches, parks, local businesses, and schools, HCZ advocates for education reform, economic development, and crime reductions while proactively rebuilding the neighborhood.
The Challenge of Fatherlessness
The issue of fatherlessness is deeply personal for Canada, both as a central subplot in his own “against the odds” story and as a driving factor in the culture the Zone seeks to overcome. Canada tackles the subject specifically in one of his books, Reaching up for Manhood: Transforming the Lives of Boys in America (Beacon Press 1998).
Raised in the South Bronx by a single mom with four children, Canada’s father left when Canada was only 4. His mother supported them through a combination of odd jobs, welfare, and food donations. He found solace, and trouble, in the streets as a teenager — drinking, smoking pot, and resolving conflicts with his fists. But mom’s work ethic rubbed off, as he secured a factory job after school and ultimately earned a scholarship to attend Bowdoin College, where he majored in psychology and sociology. He then went on to earn a master’s in education from Harvard.
Canada speaks with conviction about the need to “father the fatherless” in part due to his own experience, but also because of the degree to which the absence of fathers has ravaged his community. “It is so much more dangerous for boys today because there aren’t any role models around for them. There’s some 15-year-old telling a 12-year-old what it means to be a man, and these children are really growing up under so much stress.”
Compounding matters is a cultural environment that “preaches anarchy.” Despite a rich tradition within the African American community of music that “always tried to lead us to the light … [and] get us through the tough times,” the current generation of hip-hop stars espouse “a message that is leading us to destruction. The message is, ‘Go out and do things that will destroy you, that will get you locked up in jail, that will ruin your life, that will ruin your relationships, that will estrange you from your kids.’ That’s what this music is preaching. And we’ve never had any music like that in our history before. … The street isn’t driving the music anymore. The music is driving the street.”
The two-fold solution, Canada contends, begins by reconnecting young boys to men in meaningful, long-term relationships that he calls, “loving men and not just mentors.” Mentors are needed, “but mentors do not replace a responsible adult who loves you, who disciplines you, who’s there when you’re afraid at night, who’s there to really talk to you about school and work. That’s what young boys need, and we have to figure out a way to get uncles and cousins and other folks re-involved with these young people for long periods of time so these boys have role models on what it means to be a man.”
For kids who lack a father’s love, these “re-involved” adults must “not only give them the good, solid, love, and support they need, but the tough love that says to them that you’re going to be held responsible, but I’m going to help you, I’m going to hold your hand; I’m going to make sure that when you are crying, there’s someone wiping those tears out of your eyes, picking you up and saying you can do it, try again.”
Only then will boys get messages contradicting pop and street culture values about sex, alcohol, tobacco, clothing, sneakers, and other “stuff that means absolutely nothing when we really look at what it means to be a caring, responsible father, a real responsible adult in today’s society.” What really matters are values like working hard, saving money, and investing in education. There are no “quick and easy” shortcuts, just hard work over a long time modeled for boys by grown men who are willing to take them by the hand and live life together.
The second piece of the strategy is teaching boys necessary skills to care and nurture children as fathers. Canada argues that if a dad is uninvolved in a child’s first three months, meaning not directly supporting, interacting, and bonding with the child, then that father is able to leave without feeling like his abandonment of the child is a big deal. But a boy who hasn’t had a fathering role model lacks basic skills for bonding with children. Worse, they have to overcome street culture biases by insisting that poor boys and girls refrain from exploitative sexual relationships, and redefining manhood to include nurturing as well as providing. To this end, HCZ’s Baby College intentionally works with both pregnant mothers and fathers.
Challenges to Replication
Over the years, many groups and individuals have studied Geoffrey Canada’s work with the intention of duplicating it in their own cities. But Canada identifies three main challenges to replicating the Harlem Children’s Zone model in other communities. The first, and most fundamental, is finding the right leadership. An appropriate leader is someone whom the community and donors are going to hold accountable while giving that person the authority to hold others accountable. “This won’t work with a collaborative of equal partners.”
Second, groups and individuals must have the discipline and resolve to stay true to the four pillars, including: empowering indigenous leadership to own the transformation process; embracing large and scalable strategies; adopting a long-term, comprehensive, birth through college service commitment; and evaluating and improving performance constantly.
Finally, group leaders must mobilize and sustain the commitment of staff, volunteers, community stakeholders, funders, and residents.
Staying the Course
Back at Willow Creek, Nancy Beach engaged Canada in a wide-ranging conversation on faith and leadership that offers additional insight into his way of thinking and the things that have made him successful.
“I grew up in the ’60s and lost faith in the church because the church wasn’t making a difference in the world around me,” he said. But his grandmother taught him a profound lesson. “She told me, ‘It’s easy to have faith when everything is going great, but the real test of faith is when you’re faced with something where only your faith will keep you believing in God.’”
It’s evident that Canada has taken his grandmother’s words to heart as he goes about the work of transforming education in America. “I’ve never lost this sense that we can test it, but in the end if you have faith, it will pull you through anything.”
+ Harlem Children’s Zone website: www.hcz.org
+ Sam Fulwood III, Bob Paynter and Sandra Livingston, “Central Harlem program combines leadership, commitment to rebuild a community,” Cleveland Plain Dealer (Dec. 13, 2007)
+ Chester Higgins, Jr., “Vision,” New York Times (June 7, 2006)
+ Anderson Cooper, “Stop Snitching,” 60 Minutes (April 22, 2007)
+ Deborah A. Pines, “America’s Best Leaders: Thriving in the Zone,” US News & World Report (Oct. 31, 2005)
+ Paul Tough, “The Harlem Project,” New York Times Magazine (June 20, 2004)
+ Transcript, “Moving Toward Manhood,” The News Hour with Jim Lehrer (Jan. 20, 1998)
+ Felicia Lee, “Being a Man and a Father Is Being There,” New York Times (June 18, 1995)