When you consider the scope of social activist Geoffrey Canada‘s efforts to eradicate cyclical inner-city generational poverty, it’s easy to get overawed. Certainly the New York Times Magazine‘s Paul Tough, author of the book Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America, doesn’t shy away from superlatives. Tough has called Canada the frontman of “one of the biggest social experiments of our time.” So how is he doing it?

Geoffrey Canada
Courtesy Photo

Canada helms the Harlem Children’s Zone, a non-profit provider of health and academic youth services, which he helped evolve out of the more narrowly-mandated Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families. The HCZ now tracks and aids the scholarly and social progress of children from cradle to college in an ever-expanding area of almost 100 city blocks. In recent years, thanks to Tough’s coverage and the attention of other media outlets, Canada and the HCZ have received a surge of media attention from outlets as varied as Charlie Rose, 60 Minutes, Mother Jones, The Colbert Report, and This American Life.

In an e-mail conversation with the Indy, Canada was optimistic about the effects of all these eyes on his team. “It has been tremendously exciting, because the problems we are addressing in Harlem are the same in poor neighborhoods across the country, so we believe that our model can help produce the same results for hundreds of thousands of children,” he wrote. “While the increased attention raises the stakes, it is also beside the point: all of my staff know that they are 100 percent accountable for the success of our kids, regardless. It doesn’t matter if Anderson Cooper is watching; I’m watching.”

The HCZ’s evident success has led other community leaders to ask if Canada’s strict, information-intensive methods might work for children in their own cities. Canada’s staff seems to think so; Tough and others have covered the HCZ’s endeavors to assist other cities in replicating their results. “I have always told people that they do not have to copy the project detail by detail,” Canada wrote. “How a project takes shape should be determined by the local resources and problems. That said, there are several basic principles I believe a project should have. It should focus on rebuilding a specific geographic area, it should create an interlocking series of high-quality programs to serve children from birth through college, it needs to work at a large scale, and it must use a rigorous evaluation system to keep it on track.”


UCSB Arts & Lectures brings Geoffrey Canada to The Marjorie Luke Theater (721 E Cota) to deliver the free lecture, “Re-Imagining Community: What We Can Do to Help Every Child Succeed” on Wednesday, February 17 at 8 p.m. For more information, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.


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