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One Man's Quest to Break the Poverty Cycle -- Geoffrey Canada

Updated on December 6, 2017
William F. Torpey profile image

Graduated NYU 1964. Worked in NYC in public relations 2 years then as reporter/news editor 32 years at The Hour newspapers. Retired in 2000.

A Man With a Mission

Geoffrey Canada, founder, CEO and president, Harlem Children's Zone
Geoffrey Canada, founder, CEO and president, Harlem Children's Zone

A Man With a Mission

Geoffrey Canada named one of America's Best Leaders by the U.S. News and World Report.
Geoffrey Canada named one of America's Best Leaders by the U.S. News and World Report.

President to Replicate the 'Zone'

President Barack Obama, whose 2011 budget includes $200 million to replicate Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone idea in 21 cities around the country.
President Barack Obama, whose 2011 budget includes $200 million to replicate Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone idea in 21 cities around the country.

Geoffrey Canada is a man on a mission.

Mr. Canada, who grew up amid poverty and violence in New York City’s South Bronx, founded Harlem Children’s Zone, which is devoted to the cause of increasing graduation rates among high school and college students and enhancing their quality of life in an expanding area of Harlem.

A graduate of Bowdoin College, Mr. Canada earned his master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He developed the Children’s Zone after starting in 1990 as president of the Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families. He transformed that organization by expanding its scope through development of a plan to focus on a 24-block area of Harlem. The Children’s Zone closely follows the academic careers of the youth in the “Zone,” which later was expanded to 97 blocks.

Geoffrey Canada Profile

The Harlem Children's Zone was profiled in 2004 in The New York Times Magazine. Author Paul Tough described it this way: "one of the biggest social experiments of our time.” In 2008, the same author published a book titled, "Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America."

Tough’s book is described in a Washington Post review by Donna Fotte as “a you-are-there recording” of the development, amazing growth and potential of the “Zone.” The review calls it “an informed primer” that correlates race, poverty and “the achievement gap in America.”

Canada's Audacious Plan

A Publisher’s Weekly review describes the Canada plan as “audacious” in its effort to end poverty. It notes the plan aims to change “everything” by linking services to the poor and to children who are least likely to succeed.

Mr. Canada's mission is to transform the lives of youth in his old neighborhood and the neighborhood itself by offering a step-by-step pathway to education along with a social safety net from birth through the difficult grammar and high school years all the way to college graduation. It's his strong belief that there can be no serious disruption along the way that could bar success. It's his goal to help the youth in the "Zone" to have access to the same opportunities and success afforded to middle class and upper middle class households throughout the United States.

A Life Filled With Hardships

In 2005 Mr. Canada, whose young life was filled with hardships, was named one of America's Best Leaders by the U.S. News and World Report.

Mr. Canada’s hard work and success paid dividends in 2009 when it won the praise of President Barack Obama at a White House event highlighting innovative nonprofit programs throughout the country that make a difference to their communities.

The “Zone” not only includes a preschool charter school but also a Baby College, parenting workshops and an obesity program to help keep children healthy. The president announced his plan to replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone model in 20 other cities across the nation.

Obama Endorses the 'Zone'

President Obama has often said he would like to see the “Zone” program replicated. He added in 2009 that if the “Zone” can turn neighborhoods around in New York, “why not Detroit or San Antonio or Los Angeles or Indianapolis?” In his announcement, the president called on foundations, philanthropists and others in the private sector to partner with the government to find and invest in such innovative, high-impact solutions.

In the same speech, President Obama asked Melody Barnes, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, to search outside of Washington for the programs that can most effectively transform communities and change lives.

President Obama Takes Action

President Obama, in late September of 2010, took further steps to implement the Zone program in 21 cities around the country by including $200 million in his 2011 budget request as well as $10 million more for planning grants.

Mr. Canada has written of his early life and experiences in a book, published in 1995, titled, "Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America in 1995" In the book, Canada gives a riveting account of his exposure to violence during his childhood and offers a number of ideas on how violence in inner cities can be alleviated. Growing up amid the violence and code of conduct under which the youth of Harlem lived -- and sometimes survived -- was obviously both a fearful and instructional experience for young Geoffrey.

His second book, "Reaching Up for Manhood: Transforming the Lives of Boys in America,” was published in 1998. Mr. Canada is the recipient of many awards and tributes including the inaugural Heinz Award in the Human Condition, a Doctor of Humane Letters from Bowdoin College (2007) and a Doctor of Laws from Columbia University (2010.)

Passion for Excellence

The Heinz Award exemplifies the characteristics of Mr. Canada in that it demands candidates meet three standards: A passion for excellence that goes beyond intellectual curiosity, a concern for humanity rooted in sensitivity for the well-being of others and determination to see a job through to its completion. Also, the candidates must have an enduring, tangible and meaningful impact, and they must be working in the field for which they were nominated.

Mr. Canada’s work has attracted substantial interest from the media as well. He was not only the subject of Paul Tough’s book, but was profiled on "60 Minutes," interviewed extensively by Charlie Rose on two occasions, had a guest appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and was twice a guest on the “Colbert Report.” He even appeared in a commercial by American Express during the Academy Awards that looked extensively at his work and success in the “Zone.”

Do You Favor Funding Expansion of the Harlem Children's Zone model to other U.S. cities?

See results

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    • William F. Torpey profile imageAUTHOR

      William F Torpey 

      20 months ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Thanks, Peggy. I had the privilege of having dinner with Mr. Canada a few years ago. We could use many more leaders who care deeply about our youth's education and future. I recommend his book "Fist Stick Knife Gun." It's fascinating reading.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      20 months ago from Houston, Texas

      This man has obviously been lauded for his contribution in helping youth growing up in poverty ultimately succeed in life. Hopefully his endeavors and that of our former President are starting to work. Combining private philanthropy funding and support with government efforts is a very smart combination. We need more collaborations just like that to help the people in our country as well as around the globe better their lives and living conditions as well.


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