In his 25-plus years with the Harlem Children’s Zone, Geoffrey Canada has become recognized internationally for his pioneering work helping children and families in Harlem and as a passionate advocate for education reform.
Since 1990, Mr. Canada has been the President and Chief Executive Officer for Harlem Children’s Zone, which The New York Times Magazine called “one of the most ambitious social experiments of our time.” In May 2011, Mr. Canada was named to the TIME 100 list of most-influential people in the world.
In 1997, the agency launched the Harlem Children’s Zone Project, which targets a specific area in Central Harlem with a comprehensive range of services. The Zone Project today covers 100 blocks and aims to serve more than 10,000 children.
The New York Times Magazine said the Zone Project “combines educational, social and medical services. It starts at birth and follows children to college. It meshes those services into an interlocking web, and then it drops that web over an entire neighborhood….The objective is to create a safety net woven so tightly that children in the neighborhood just can’t slip through.”
The HCZ Project is the model for the Federal Promise Neighborhoods initiative. President Barack Obama called HCZ “an all-encompassing, all-hands-on-deck, anti-poverty effort that is literally saving a generation of children,” and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called Mr. Canada “an extraordinary innovator and one of my heroes.”
Delegations from around the world have visited the Harlem Children’s Zone to learn about its comprehensive model, from Iceland to New Zealand, from Boston to the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma.
The work of Mr. Canada and HCZ has become a national model and has been the subject of many profiles in the media. Their work has been featured in the documentary Waiting for “Superman,” as well as on 60 Minutes, The Oprah Winfrey Show, Black in America 2, Nightline, The Charlie Rose Show, This American Life, and articles in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and The Associated Press.
In September 2008, Houghton-Mifflin published Whatever It Takes, by Paul Tough, a detailed look at the work of Mr. Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone.
Mr. Canada grew up in the South Bronx in a poor, sometimes-violent neighborhood. Despite his troubled surroundings, Mr. Canada was able to succeed academically, receiving a bachelor’s degree from Bowdoin College and a master’s degree in education from the Harvard School of Education. After graduating from Harvard, Mr. Canada decided to work to help children who, like himself, were disadvantaged by their lives in poor, embattled neighborhoods.
Drawing upon his own childhood experiences and at the Harlem Children’s Zone, Mr. Canada has written two books: Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America, published in 1995 by Beacon Press (and reissued as a graphic novel in 2010), and Reaching Up for Manhood: Transforming the Lives of Boys in America, published in 1998 by Beacon Press. In its review of Fist Stick Knife Gun, the magazine Publishers Weekly said, “a more powerful depiction of the tragic life of urban children and a more compelling plea to end ‘America’s war against itself’ cannot be imagined.”
For his years of work advocating for children and families in some of America’s most-devastated communities, Mr. Canada was a recipient of the first Heinz Award in 1994. In 2004, he was given the Harold W. McGraw Jr. Prize in Education and Child Magazine’s Children’s Champion Award. He received the 2009 John W. Gardner Leadership Award from the Independent Sector and the 2008 Posey Leadership Award from Austin College. He also was given the 2011 William E. Simon Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Social Entrepreneurship.
He has also received the Heroes of the Year Award from the Robin Hood Foundation, The Jefferson Award for Public Service, the Spirit of the City Award from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the Brennan Legacy Award from New York University and the Common Good Award from Bowdoin College. He has received honorary degrees from Harvard University, Bowdoin College, John Jay College, and Bank Street College.
In 2006, Mr. Canada was selected by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg as co-chair of The Commission on Economic Opportunity, which was asked to formulate a plan to significantly reduce poverty. In 2011, he was appointed to the New York State Governor’s Council of Economic and Fiscal Advisors.
Mr. Canada joined Harlem Children’s Zone, Inc. (then called the Rheedlen Foundation) in 1983, as Education Director. Prior to that, he worked as Director of the Robert White School, a private day school for troubled inner-city youth in Boston.
The National Book Award-winning author Jonathan Kozol called Mr. Canada, “One of the few authentic heroes of New York and one of the best friends children have, or ever will have, in our nation.”
Watch the full Finding Your Roots episode: Barbara Walters and Geoffrey Canada.