Building The Perfect Beast

Reading, Writing, Wanderlust, and Commentary

Geoffrey Canada, The Harlem Children’s Zone, and the Beginning of the End of Poverty in Harlem

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This year’s Blog Action Day topic is a difficult one for me for the simple fact that I feel ill-equipped to address the subject.

I have seen poverty up close and personal—I worked for a summer in Haiti in the late ’70s, have spent time in some of the poorer parts of Mexico and Central America for the sole purpose of helping those in need—but this by no means makes me an expert on the subject. In fact, my experience, limited as it is, probably only gives me an acute awareness of the seriousness of the problem without giving me any real understanding of how to solve it. But fear and/or ignorance are not sufficient, I think, to bypass the day in favor of some happier topic.

So here I turn once again to one of my favorite web resources—This American Life. For those of you who think that I listen to little else, well, there’s some truth to that. TAL is a great source of information, sometimes for the entertainingly mundane and at others for the incredibly educational. I mention it so often because, no matter when I listen to it, I learn something.

The week of September 26th I listened to a segment titled Going Big and the first 30 minutes of that three part show was called Harlem Renaissance, a story narrated by a New York Times writer by the name of Paul Tough and which featured the work of Geoffrey Canada, the CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone. Following is a portion of the synopsis for Act I:

Act One. Harlem Renaissance.

Paul Tough reports on the Harlem Children’s Zone, and its CEO and president, Geoffrey Canada. Among the project’s many facets is Baby College, an 8-week program where young parents and parents-to-be learn how to help their children get the education they need to be successful.

That one paragraph introduction gives no indication whatsoever as to the impact that this one 30-minute segment had on my way of thinking. In short, it completely twisted my head around in a way that my head hadn’t been turned around since I was an 18-year-old boy making his first trip to a third-world country whose citizens made less money in a year than I had sitting in my pocket as a month’s worth of spending money. Here’s my synopsis of the story:

Geoffrey Canada is the son of a single mother living in one of New York’s poorest communities. he goes to college, gets an education, gets a woman pregnant, marries her, doesn’t have enough money or the maturity to be a father, divorces the woman, which essentially recreates the same situation that he was raised in.

Fast-forward two decades. Geoffrey Canada is a college graduate, and educator, successful, a man who has spent his lifetime trying to resolve the issues of inner-city poverty, and trying to help those living in dire conditions to rise above it, to escape like he did. And yet with limited success. One or two individuals saved, but not enough to change the entire community.

He is living, at this time, in a middle to upper middle class neighborhood in a NY suburb. He meets a new woman, they marry, they’re in their 40s, they decide to have children, 2 years later he is a parent again. Only this time he’s better equipped. Much better equipped to be a parent. He’s also a parent who has straddled two different kinds of parenthood, once on the edge of poverty and now in the heart of success. And he sees a difference. Then he struggled to make ends meet, was away from home and his children. Now he’s constantly with his son, reading to him, talking to him, being with him. His son grows and thrives. He begins to look at these differences with the eye of an educator and with the eye of someone who has spent his life trying to break the chain of poverty. He recognizes the dichotomy between the father he was and the father he is and wonders if this isn’t the key, the place where the difference takes place, where the chain gets broken. And so he tries to find a way to bring this to the poorest of Harlem’s communities.

There’s far more to this story than I can get to in this (no longer) brief post, and I’m certain that my synopsis does not do it justice, but the conclusion is this. Geoffrey Canada was successful. He took, at first, a small handful of children, and then larger and larger groups of children and has begun raising them above their circumstances. Not by throwing money at the problem, or by spouting platitudes, but by helping to develop an environment where parents learn how to parent so that children can thrive, thereby lifting the next generation out of poverty.

It seems so simple, which is why what I heard on This American Life twisted my head around so much.

I’d like to suggest that you first listen to Going Big then that you pick up a copy of Paul Tough’s book about Geoffrey Canada titled Whatever It Takes. (You’ll find a link to it on the Harlem Children’s Zone web site that will give a portion of the proceeds of the sale of the book to the HCZ.) Then, see if this is something that will work in your community.

That’s exactly what I plan to do.

Written by Jeffery Battersby

October 15th, 2008 at 11:19 pm