I heard with some consternation that the selection of Geoffrey Canada as commencement speaker was met with some surprise and not a small amount of disappointment on campus. “Who’s that?” seemed to be a common refrain. My immediate reaction was disappointment, then frustration, then a bit of anger.
The man Michelle Obama calls her “personal hero,” the man Mayor Bloomberg hails as “the greatest living New Yorker”? And then I quickly realized that I, too, was driven by popular culture in my younger years. So, with your permission, allow me to introduce this exemplary American.
I met Geoffrey Canada one wintry afternoon in 1990 at the behest of the chairman of Sony Records, an important client of the advertising agency I headed. The meeting was the kind I usually dread: I would be asked to buy a top-tier table at the annual gala of his organization, the Harlem Children’s Zone. But that meeting changed my life — for the past 10 years, I have been teaching and counseling in public schools in the South Bronx.
To meet Geoff Canada is a transformational event. This man, who grew up in the South Bronx, escaped the streets to graduate from Bowdoin College and got his master’s degree of Education at Harvard University, to prepare him for a single-minded mission: to break the vicious cycle of poverty for young men and women of color.
By the time he came to Harlem, society had all but given up on these children. Cities began to insulate themselves and isolate these children through underfunding, underfeeding, under housing, limiting access to health care and most insidiously, reducing expectations of their value to American society.
New York City lost hope for Central Harlem, a place where graduation rates were below 40 percent, where 1 of 3 children suffered from asthma and where three families in four lived below the poverty line. Compounding the problem was a crack epidemic that was at its most virulent.
This was the crisis facing Geoff Canada — a teacher, a community organizer and a sixth-degree Tae Kwon Do black belt, star athlete — who proposed an idea: a fully integrated network of health, education, housing and social services for poor families in Central Harlem.
He was told: “Impossible.” But through sheer force of will and a steadfast refusal to compromise, Geoff became the visionary leader of a bold living experiment.
At that time, the Harlem Children’s operating budget was $200,000. In 2012, the annual budget of $95 million deploys more than 2000 professionals servicing the needs of 25,000 people in Central Harlem, including 11,000 children. The HCZ endowment stands at nearly $300 million. The Board of Trustees boasts several of the world’s most successful hedge fund managers as well as senior executives from firms such as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, American Express, CBS and McKinsey.
Money follows results and the results at the Harlem Children’s Zone thus far have been striking. A Harvard economics professor’s proprietary data analysis shows that the HCZ charter schools, the Promise Academies, have virtually closed the achievement gap between white and black children, results characterized as “stunning” by Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes and an adoring Oprah Winfrey.
Geoff’s vision was the lynchpin for the highly acclaimed 2010 film, “Waiting for Superman.” Geoff has become a television staple, with appearances on The Today Show, The Colbert Report, This American Life and even cameos on Jeopardy.
President Obama has created the Promise Neighborhoods initiative to replicate the Zone’s unique approach and more than 30 communities, including one in Philadelphia, have initiated work.
This is why Time Magazine named Geoff one of the “World’s Most Influential 100” people. He has hosted visits from Prince Charles and, speaking of princes, the artist formerly known as Prince dedicated a sold-out Madison Square Garden concert last April to, his “amazing friend,” Geoffrey Canada.
“Greatest living New Yorker”? Perhaps not a great moniker to Phillies or Eagles fans, but hardly an overstatement.
True, Penn’s commencement speaker has no platinum albums, holds no Olympic records, and isn’t even a billionaire (shame on him!). He’s just a man who has helped inspire Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, the Google guys and countless others to discover more meaningful ways to measure success … and fame. I suspect a similar transformation for the class of 2012 on May 14.
Mitch Kurz is a Trustee and Board Treasurer of the Harlem Children’s Zone. He’s the Academic Dean and Chair of the Mathematics Department at the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics. He is the former president of Young and Rubicam Advertising. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.