Geoffrey Canada in his office at the Harlem Children's Zone.

Photo by: Rebecca Davis

Geoffrey Canada in his office at the Harlem Children’s Zone.

This article is part of our special reporting on the Harlem Children’s Zone, the antipoverty initiative examined in depth in the current issue of City Limits magazine, Hope or Hype in Harlem?

A native of the South Bronx who went on to Bowdoin College and Harvard University, Geoffrey Canada launched the Harlem Children’s Zone in 1994 as a comprehensive network of services for neighborhood youth and their families, aimed at saving children from drugs, violence and poverty and getting them through college. His program is being used by the Obama administration as a model for Promise Neighborhoods, a set of 20 poverty reduction campaigns in areas around the country.

Canada lives with his family in Valley Stream, on Long Island, but comes to work at the Harlem Children’s Zone headquarters on the corner of 125th Street and Madison Avenue. His sun-soaked corner office, facing southeast, offers views of the city spread like a glittering banquet on an asphalt table. Seated at a round conference table, wearing a crisp button-down monogrammed “GC” over his heart, a striped tie, his omnipresent gold bracelet and gold knot cufflinks, Canada spoke with City Limits in early January. Here are highlights from that interview.

You have said that the Harlem Children’s Zone is midway through a 20-year completion cycle. How do you define success? What benchmark tells you the work is successful—or not?

The only benchmark of success is college graduation. That’s the only one: How many kids you got in college, how many kids you got out. Everything else is interim.

Look, people make a big deal of fourth-grade reading scores. It’s great, they’re indicators, they give you some idea. Kids reading well, that just gives us an indication of how much more work we have to do. If you ask me, kids that get good reading scores, then they don’t get any other help—where are they going to be in a few years? They’re not going to do well. They could fail the 4th grade reading test. I guarantee you, if that kid stays in the [HCZ] program, that kid is going to college. I guarantee it. No doubt in my mind.

We know GEDs mean nothing—they mean nothing. Getting a kid through high school means nothing, nothing. So what? You get a kid doing well in eighth grade. They graduate high school and get into college. That means nothing. There is only one answer: You’ve got to get these kids to graduate college, that’s the only thing that means something. Everything else is interim.

So, are the results suggestive of success? Yes—they give you some indication you’re moving in the right direction. But meaningful in and of itself? No. It’s just an indicator that we’re moving in the right direction.

If you can’t measure actual success for another decade, do you know whether your programs are working? How do you evaluate them now?

That’s a great question. You have to have interim success measures. Each of my programs, starting with Baby College, has a set of outcomes that we look at which suggest to us that we’re on the right path. They’re just suggestive. So, did the parents learn key essentials in brain development? We think that if more did, then that’s a precursor for getting their children prepared to enter pre-K on grade level. And then, we test all the kids to see who’s struggling, who’s not struggling.

You have set a 65 percent “tipping point” as a universal goal for your programs, after which you think success becomes inevitable. How did you determine that 65 percent was the tipping point?

Why that number? Why that number and not 70, 80 percent? There’s no science there. You don’t go look up, find the tipping point of a poor community—there’s no science there. You take your best educated guess. …

I’ll tell you what my belief is, and what’s my underlying logic. Kids do what their friends do. If your friends smoke, you smoke. If your friends drink, you drink. That’s just the way things are. Kids do what they’re around. If you’re around kids who fight, you better learn how to fight. If you get a whole bunch of kids doing positive things instead of negative things, should you expect that to have an impact on other kids? Absolutely. But there’s no science.

If the question is, is there science, has someone done a randomly controlled double-blind study? No, no. But ask anybody. You want the Harlem Children’s Zone on your block, working with the kids on your corner, or not? You don’t need a random study to decide what the answer to that is. You ask people, when a shooting happens, do you want folks from the Harlem Children’s Zone to go in there and make sure no one else gets shot or not? You live in Harlem, guess who you’re calling? You’re calling me.

… Ask any parent. I want for my kids what every middle-class person wants. That’s my science. If it’s good enough for the middle class, it’s good for my kids. When the middle class don’t want it, I don’t want it. Outside of that, there’s no science.

If the Harlem Children’s Zone is a work in progress, and the “acid test” of college graduation is still 10 years out, can the HCZ be the template for a national antipoverty model?

Should the program replicate? Sure it should. Because there is not another answer. I tell everybody, give me plan B. Chicago, Baltimore, Camden, you give me plan B. There is not a plan B. If there is one, someone should tell me—I’d love to do that.

When I was in college, I was absolutely focused on only one thing: How could I improve the outcomes for these poor kids that I knew growing up? Every single class I took, I was looking for the answer. [Today] there are 10,000 talented, smart young people like I was, looking for the answer. One of the things they run into is that maybe you need something much more comprehensive, more holistic, than what’s been tried. …Younger, smarter people will improve on this, they will take it to the next level. They will say, “Yeah, Canada had that part right, but this one over here…he really missed this.”
As an exportable commodity, what’s the most important concept or practice of the Harlem Children’s Zone?

There are some very basic concepts that we tell folks are the underpinnings of our work. One is that you create pipelines for kids and you keep them in it, you don’t stop. You figure out a series of supports for kids that gets them into college and gets them through college. That’s our pipeline.

The second is we think you have to do scale. If you have 5,000 kids in trouble, and you serve 200 kids, you’re not going to change the outcome.

Third is you have to use evaluation: Some things will work and some things won’t work, and you have to use evaluation.

Fourth is you’ve got to rebuild community. There are communities that are falling down around kids, that are unsafe, literally unsafe, and there’s no one out there saying, “We’ve got to change this, make sure that the 15- and 17-year-olds don’t develop a culture where they’re shooting and killing.” Someone’s got to say, “This has to change,” saying, “No, not Harlem.”

Has that made a difference? Yeah. Can you measure that difference? Someone probably could. I can’t tell you that it’s been measured. If you lived in Harlem, would you get that? Yes, you would.

Does replicating the Harlem Children’s Zone model through President Obama’s Promise Neighborhoods diminish the visibility of other antipoverty models?

I didn’t have anything to do with Promise Neighborhoods. The President, he was still the Senator, said he was going to announce this [antipoverty initiative]. I think it’s a great idea. Obviously, I’m going to do anything I can to support it, but I didn’t tell him, “You should do this versus doing disconnected services.” The President, not at my request, decided this is something he wanted to celebrate as a strategy.

… There’s a sense that, well, Geoff is driving the Harlem Children’s Zone project across the country, going to places that are desperate for a solution. There is some concern that there has been this strategy, that we’re pursuing this as an issue versus some other options for young people. Absolutely not. There are some places where we believe this is a solution; not every place. Since Promise Neighborhoods, the interest has mushroomed. If there’s money involved, even folks who weren’t interested want to find out about it.

The President has put a huge amount of money into Race to the Top, into education. In my opinion, that’s absolutely right. HUD has Choice Neighborhoods; they’ve got the Innovation Fund. That’s all exactly right. Promise Neighborhoods as one part of that strategy doesn’t necessarily crowd anyone out, in my opinion.

… This is the deal that people have misunderstood: There is nothing new about what we’re doing. There is no brilliant concept. …You ask people, “Should we provide poor kids with comprehensive services?” Show me the person who’s gonna say, “No.” Should you stay with kids long enough to make a difference? Show me the person who’s gonna say “No” to that.

There’s nothing radical about what we’re trying to do. It doesn’t undermine anything anybody else is doing. It doesn’t crowd anybody else out of the field. It simply says, we took private dollars and we decided to do what everyone else is talking about.

The Harlem Children’s Zone is your life’s work. Do comparably dedicated and experienced leaders exist in cities nationwide, if Promise Neighborhoods are to replicate the HCZ model nationally?

One of the things I think is happening now is that you need to be smart and talented and I think as good as anybody else in the country to do this work, which had not been the case [decades earlier], when people thought about coming into this field. This was not the field that needed the smartest and the brightest. “If you’re really smart, go and be a lawyer, go be a doctor, go to Wall Street.” That’s what people believed. “If you weren’t so good, go and get into the nonprofit world.” As more of the business schools have started to focus on nonprofits and social justice, I think it’s becoming a lot more salable, that you’re going to bring some of the best and brightest in the field. I have a lot of hope.

… The thing that people don’t understand—and I spend a lot of time thinking how to train leaders—most of it is whether or not people are prepared to work harder and be more strategic than others. I’m surrounded by A students, all of them come from elite institutions, all of them very very smart, talented people; there are like 50 of us. And that’s what it takes to do this work. When people think you can be an inspired leader and do this yourself and get anything done, they are totally mistaken about what happens behind the scenes. I don’t save any kids, it’s not what I do—I don’t care how good I am, if the people saving the kids are lousy, nothing happens.