The Superman of Harlem: An Interview with Geoffrey Canada
When Geoffrey Canada launched his pilot school program in the late-1990s, it stretched just one block of East Harlem in New York City. Today, the Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ) covers 97 blocks and reaches over 8,000 children in one of the hardest areas of the country to get a decent education and escape generational poverty. HCZ's success, rooted in the belief that public education must be part of holistic community development, has made Canada an educational expert of our time, garnering praise from President Obama and a leading role in the 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman. Named one of Time magazine's top 100 in 2011, Canada recently spoke with Allison Althoff, reporting on behalf of the City project, shortly after the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit, where Canada addressed the importance of faith and education. There, he explained the mind, heart, and soul behind HCZ—and how Christians can play a part.
One of the founding principles of the HCZ is that children's education cannot be divorced from where they live. Why is "place" so central to educational success?
In our country, we've allowed some communities to become toxic for children. These are places where the schools don't work and young people don't feel safe. There's crime, drugs, and violence in the streets and often in children's homes. Without real support in a community, the kids who don't go to a "good" school will end up in trouble with really negative outcomes.
We thought one way of approaching this problem was to literally draw a line around our community and say: "All of the kids in this community, regardless of if they go to our school or not, will make it, and the community will begin to heal itself and become a safer and a better place." We want our community clean, without filth on the streets; we want the adults to have a sense of pride in their community, and want young people to learn a sense of service. We believe school is an essential part, but rebuilding community is really critical to our work.