Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun...Education

One of the most remarkable social reformers in America is a gentle but deeply passionate and committed man named Geoffrey Canada. Back in 1997 he began the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), a community-wide effort designed to transform the lives of Harlem’s youth through a geographically-focused, comprehensive program of schooling, parental coaching, and social and medical services. As Paul Tough says in his superb new book about Canada and the HCZ called Whatever It Takes, Canada wanted to use the HCZ to initiate large-scale social change. “What would it take," he repeatedly asked, "to change the lives of poor children not one by one, through heroic interventions and occasional miracles, but in a programmatic, standardized way that could be applied broadly and replicated nationwide?” More about this in the next post, but for now I want to focus on Canada’s personal journey.

In 1995, even before the emergence of the HCZ, Canada wrote an unsettling memoir about his early life growing up in New York titled Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun: A personal history of violence in America. Born in the South Bronx in 1952, the third of four sons that arrived in quick succession, Geoffrey was part of a family that struggled daily to get by. Abandoned by their father and supported by public assistance and whatever his mother Mary could pick up as a seamstress, the boys subsisted on a diet of rice and beans, powdered milk, and government surplus cheese and peanut butter. In one important way, their mother was different from many others in the neighborhood, however. She had been to college for two years in North Carolina before dropping out to support her family. She cherished her days in college and she still loved to read. She read to her sons every night, and as they grew, she tried to make up for the food she couldn’t afford to feed them by supplying them with a rich menu of offerings from the public library.

Thanks to his Mom, Geoffrey did become a proficient reader and school did matter to him. When he was in sixth grade the standardized test that he took indicated he was reading on a 12th grade level. But the constant action on the streets of the South Bronx was much more exciting to him. He joined the gang the Young Disciples, and not only learned to fight with an assortment of weapons, but saw the friendships that he formed there with fellow gang members as the main thing that gave his life meaning and purpose. In 7th grade, Geoffrey went to an accelerated school and did well, but as he himself has said, his heart was in the streets and over time his focus on school became less and less. He was now carrying a knife regularly and quite prepared to use it. When it came time to go to high school, he didn’t do well enough on the tests required to enter an elite school like Stuyvesant or the Bronx School of Science, which meant that his only choices were dead-end schools, known for grinding kids up and spitting them out. He wanted something better, despite the enduring attraction of the streets, so he followed his brothers somewhat reluctantly out to Wyandanch, a fairly prosperous Black suburb of New York, to live with his grandparents and to go to high school there.

Wyandanch was a very different world from the South Bronx, though also mostly black. You didn’t impress anyone with how well you used your fists or wielded a knife, and academics mattered. Canada did reasonably well and impressed people with his intelligence and relational skills. He became the president of the senior class and served as captain of the football team. He rarely applied himself, though, and was happiest smoking dope and partying through the night. College seemed distant and unimportant. Canada did send applications to two colleges: SUNY – Stony Brook, near Wyandanch, where he expected to go, and to Bowdoin College in Maine, about which he knew nothing, but applied because a school secretary had told him he should do so. He had his heart set on going to Stony Brook, a known party story, but when a mix-up occurred, it turned out Stony Brook was no longer an option. The Vietnam War was raging and he had no intention of going to war. He needed to go to Bowdoin and successfully convinced the admissions staff, though by this time it was August and school was about to begin, to admit him for the 1970-71 academic year.

His experience at Bowdoin was a rocky one, at least at first. Academically, he was well behind his white peers and struggled to keep up. He felt alienated, unwanted, like a token member of the Bowdoin community, and he resented the fact that doing well in a largely black high school did not translate into achievement at a mostly white elite college. His salvation, at least at first, was the other 30 or 40 black students who had been admitted with him and who met regularly at the Afro-American Center. Now he felt some of the same rush he had enjoyed as a Young Disciple. As a black man, he felt like an outsider in this all-white environment, and when he and the other black students that congregated at the Afro-American Center tried to organize the college to make it more hospitable to black students there was constant resistance. Still, Bowdoin eventually became home. His grades improved dramatically, and he learned that the professors, though almost all white, wanted to talk to him, actually sought HIM out, and really did care. In the end, Bowdoin helped him become the person he wanted to be.

Also, Bowdoin opened doors, no question about that. It led to graduate work at Harvard’s School of Education, teaching at the Robert White School working with emotionally disturbed youth, and eventually to executive positions at the Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families, where in a relatively short period of time he rose to the Presidency. But Canada wanted to go where the greatest need was for African Americans and to do something that went beyond helping just a few dozen kids here and there stay in school. He realized that what he had to do was to support the neediest kids in all aspects of their lives and to stay with them as long as they needed his help, even if that meant working with them right through college. He knew the greatest need was in Harlem and that he needed to go there to do something dramatic and transformative, something that could completely alter the social equation for Harlem youth. That’s how the Harlem Children’s Zone was born.

1 comment:

  1. To put a face with the name and get a sense for his energy see: