NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his "One On 1" series with a profile of a South Bronx native, who’s education took him to Maine, Harvard, and back to New York's Central Harlem where he’s helping kids much like he was all those years ago.
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Geoffrey Canada may love what he does, but to get the results he wants, even hate can be a good thing.
"We want to actually have to work hard to fail,” says Canada. “We don't want them to be able to just casually fail. We want them to say, ÎI hate that Canada; he's been bugging me since I'm three years old; the hell with him, leave me alone.’ You gonna have to fight me to go off in a place where you're gonna be a failure. We think if we get these kids on this conveyor belt that it is just going to be a natural assumption that they're going to end up making it."
Welcome to the “can do” world of Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children's Zone, a cradle-to-college program for some 9,000 youngsters in 60 blocks of Central Harlem.
Canada has worked with New York kids for almost 25 years, and he long ago realized that a simple after school program was not going to be enough to them beat the obstacles presented by the neighborhood.
"You've gotta have playgrounds that that families can go to; you’ve gotta have parks that people want to walk in; you’ve gotta have kids growing up not being afraid of being shot and killed; you’ve gotta have schools that make sense; real health care; kids gotta get their teeth fixed, make sure they're not fat. I mean, you’ve gotta do everything,” says Canada.
Canada will do almost anything to get a kid to excel in school, even occasionally giving them a little bit of money for perfect attendance.
"Lock a kid up here in New York City in jail costs us about $60,000 a year to lock that kid up. It's crazy. If we can get our kids for $10, to do what we want them to do, I think that's a price easily paid," says Canada.
So Canada will use a little green to encourage.
His black belt, too.
"I knew that there was group of kids I could reach using martial arts that I couldn't reach any other way,” says Canada. “Just a group of kids who were so lost out there in this world of trying to figure out if they were tough that if you could become the toughest thing they ever saw then you had their attention."
And through the years, he's always heard the same question.
"’Have you ever had to use the martial arts?’ — and they are waiting for the story about six guys surrounding me and I disarmed them with knives. And I said Îno.’ And you could see the disappointment. ÎNo?’ That's the whole point, if you live your life right you never have to fight," says Canada.
Canada's zest for the work and the program's success has brought him national and international attention.
But the requirements of running a large non profit mean that his days are now spent largely on the phone and in meetings and giving speeches, away from his first love, the classroom.
"This is a funny field because you don't get a lot if you come into the field,” says Canada. “They don't pay you a lot of money. You don't get stock options. In the end, you know, a lot of folks don't get a pension. But there is not another place that I know where you work, where you know people actually love you when you do the job well.”
"The challenge for me became: I could stay working with my 50, 100 or 200 kids or we could try to do something larger, and in the end it seemed to make sense to do something larger,” says Canada.
Canada is equally at ease talking to kids and business people. He credits his years growing up in the South Bronx, loving the world of the street and the world of books.
"I was as tough as any kid, I was as prepared to fight as any other kid and I loved that kind of respect,” says Canada. “But at the same time, I was a voracious reader, and so I realized there is this other world out there. There’s a world I’m trapped in, which is the South Bronx, which had very tough rules that you had to really play by; but then there was this whole other world that I wanted to get a glimpse of what that other world was like."
Canada's early experiences are chronicled in his 1995 memoir, “Fist Stick Knife Gun.”
He says he knew he wouldn't survive Morris High School in the Bronx, so he chose to go live with his grandparents and go to high school on Long Island.
He says he got a full scholarship to Stony Brook, but his records were lost.
That's when he remembered that he'd been accepted at a place called Bowdoin, an elite but lily white college in Maine.
"I called the people up there and I was trying to convince them that I had really sent a letter accepting their offer,” said Canada. “They said, ’No Mr. Canada, we never heard from you.’ I said, ÎNo, this is not right; you can't do this to me. You're just doing this to me Îcause I’m black.’ I'm pulling every card I could.”
Brunswick, Maine was a world away from the South Bronx. But Canada's timing was good, because the school was beginning a push to enroll more minorities.
There was one other issue.
"I went to the admissions office and I was trying to find my room. I said, ÎLook, where's the women’s campus?’ And the woman looked at me like, you poor soul. ÎNo one told you? This is an all boys’ school.’ An all boys school? Who would have invented something stupid like that? You're 18, first time you're away from your parents and they send you to an all boys school? It was inconceivable to me."
Canada survived and prospered at Bowdoin.
From there it was on to the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where students were preparing to possibly become school superintendents.
But to support his young wife and family while he was at Harvard, Canada got a job as a building superintendent.
"The people said to me, ÎSo now why do you want to be a superintendent?’ ÎOh, cause I've always loved taking care of buildings.’ They said, ÎAre you dedicated to this as a career?’ ÎOh this is what I want to do with my life,” Canada recounts.
But there was nothing funny about Canada's next job after his year as a Harvard grad student/building super.
It was the mid 70’s and Boston was at the height of its bitter busing battle.
Canada taught at an experimental school with all white kids bused out of their neighborhood.
"When they found out I understood how they were growing up, they said, ÎWe are going to give Mr. Canada a pass.’ He's black but he's alright and he's not like the rest of them.’ It was sort of funny because to hear these kids say this was like revolutionary coming out of their mouths Îcause they would be literally run out of their communities for saying something like that. They were stunned that I actually understood how they were growing up.”
Canada says he learned that there is no difference between poor black and Latino and white kids.
He's been working with young people in New York since the mid-80s, arguing that it's better to spend money to educate a child now so that we don't have to spend more money to incarcerate that child years later — and get nothing in return.
But Canada's battle is also cultural, fighting what he sees as the negative aspects of rap and hip hop.
“When you have an industry built around set of values, which destroy my children, which suggest to them that they ought to be gangsters and suggest to them they ought to use drugs and suggest to them they ought to sell drugs and suggest to them they ought to buy guns — and every time I began to say who is the enemy? When I begin to look, I see other African American men and women who are making a lot of money — they’re millionaires — selling these kids this wasted dream, a dream that’s going to lead to nowhere, that to me is totally irresponsible.”
Canada is 54. He’s married with two children, and has two children from a previous marriage.
He says he's been at this so long that he now has the kids of kids that he helped years ago.
"People look at this work and they think it's a straight line. They think, well you start with a kid here and end up here, but nobody's life is a straight line. These kids go up, they go down. If you can be there long enough for these kids, it will in the end have an impact on a significant number of kids,” says Canada. "When you've done this work, when you really work with these difficult families, it's complicated, it's hard but it's infinitely doable and we can do it.”
— Budd Mishkin
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