Geoffrey Canada’s Early Biography
Geoffrey’s passion for helping children goes all the way back to his childhood. Born in the South Bronx in 1952, Geoffrey was the third son of McAlister Canada, a day trader; and Mary Elizabeth Williams, a substance abuse counselor. Geoffrey’s childhood was not something that you can call okay; in fact, Geoffrey’s life was very difficult owing to the financial problems they faced.
When Geoffrey was only four, his parents separated after his mother, Mary, decided to leave McAlister. McAlister was suffering from chronic alcoholism and despite Mary’s best efforts to try and get him to straighten out, he instead got worse. Because of this, she decided that it was best for their children to leave McAlister and raise Geoffrey and his siblings herself.
Although Mary was hardworking and very devoted to her children, her income was insufficient to sustain them properly, driving them to poverty. His father played very little role in Geoffrey’s life and did not even provide any financial support.
Life was tough and difficult for young Geoffrey back then. In an interview made many years later, Geoffrey recalled how he grew up in a neighbourhood among the “abandoned houses, crime, violence, and an all-encompassing sense of chaos and disorder.”
He also described how his life was like:
"We were too poor to dress properly. I had thin socks, thin pants, no sweaters and no boots. It wasn't until years later that I found out you could remain warm in the winter if you had the right clothes."
Making it to Harvard
In spite of these difficulties, Geoffrey’s mother did bestow something in him that was far greater than any material wealth he could get—love. Amidst the turmoil and unrest in the neighbourhood, Geoffrey and his siblings were fortunate to have a mother like Mary, who constantly nurtured her children by tutoring them, limiting their television watching, teaching them how to read, and bringing them to museums and civil rights marches. Mary was a very ambitious woman, even earning a master’s degree from Harvard University later on.
Although Geoffrey did not have proper schooling, he exhibited how exceptional he was at a young age. He was bright and intelligent for most kids of his age and had no problems catching up with his studies. Being educated on the streets of South Bronx, however, as he learned, was far more than having a reputation for being brilliant and smart. He realized that he also has to be physically strong and so he learned how to fight by sixth grade. He was able to complement his wits with fighting skills so no one would bully him on the streets.
Although his mother paid a lot of attention to his well-being by having a strong presence in his life, this did not stop Geoffrey from learning the realities and pressures that he had to face outside his home. At a young age, Geoffrey already had a negative view of the police; he started to believe that the police cared so little for the things that were happening in the neighbourhood and could not be depended upon in times of trouble.
He also had the mentality of how it was better to fight than to be labeled as a coward. In fact, in order to be ready for a fight at any time (which was common in his neighbourhood), Geoffrey would carry a knife which he kept in his pocket. In one incident, he cut his finger badly while playing with the knife. He never got his finger restored so it would become a valuable reminder of the lesson he learned growing up in South Bronx—never become a victim. In the book that he wrote later on, Geoffrey stated:
"The finger keeps the urgency of the work my colleagues and I do with children at the forefront of my mind. The slight deformity is such a small price to have paid for growing up in the South Bronx. So many others have paid with their lives."
Because Geoffrey was a very bright child who excelled in school and living in South Bronx would only shift his interest to bad things, his mother decided to take him out of that troublesome place and sent Geoffrey to live with her parents in Freeport, New York. Geoffrey was 15 years old at that time and showed a promising future.
He entered college at Wyandanch Memorial High School and kept on remaining at the top of the class, gaining the favour of his classmates and teachers. While in school, he also joined the Fraternal Order of Masons and received a scholarship from them to Bowdoin College during his senior year.
Geoffrey’s maternal grandparents had a great impact on his life during his middle years. Both his grandparents were ordained ministers, his grandfather even serving as the pastor of the Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church in New York. And although Geoffrey often found his grandparents’ morality and integrity to be “out of sync” with the realities of his world, they eventually helped restore Geoffrey’s faith that he thought he lost due to the kind of life he grew up in. For the first time, Geoffrey found out that life was not all that bad; there was more goodness than evil in the world.
Geoffrey graduated from high school in 1970 with high marks. He went to Brunswick, Maine to attend Bowdoin College, where he majored in psychology and sociology. At Bowdoin College, he found himself at an entirely new environment; while it was an all-male school, it had a very small African–American population. In fact, the city of Brunswick had a small percentage of African–Americans and Geoffrey lived and spent most of his time around white students.
While in Brunswick, Geoffrey met his high school sweetheart, Joyce Henderson, and rekindled their relationship. They married during Geoffrey’s sophomore year and soon after, welcomed their son, who they named Jerry. However, they divorced and Geoffrey met another woman, Yvonne Grant, who is currently his wife. They have five children. Even after their divorce, Geoffrey still took active interest in his son Jerry’s well-being, often visiting him and attending his school and community activities.
Geoffrey received his bachelor’s degree from Bowdoin College in 1974 and further pursued his education by applying for a master of arts at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. While studying, he spent his free time as a supervisor at Camp Freedom in New Hampshire, teaching people on how to engage and instruct children with severe emotional disabilities. Geoffrey earned a great deal of respect in Camp Freedom, both from its members and the students.
Upon receiving his master’s degree in education, Geoffrey applied at the Robert White School in Boston and became part of the faculty. Robert White School was established to reach out to the troubled inner city youth and, therefore, hosted the city’s “worst” group of students.
The atmosphere in the school closely resembled Geoffrey’s neighbourhood—poor, estranged students that had massive anger issues and had a predisposition to violence—although the student body was mixed with white boys who had a racist attitude deeply ingrained into them. This initially posed quite a challenge to Geoffrey, but after realizing that he was able to actually connect to the children due to his own childhood experiences, he got used to the atmosphere and developed techniques to get the children’s attention, even taking responsibility for the most troublesome students in the school.
His work with these children developed his compassion further. Eventually, Geoffrey was respected and liked by most of his students. By 1977, he was appointed to be the director of Robert White School, where Geoffrey poured his time and effort into changing the school’s culture and establishing violence reduction programs.
In 1983, after nearly six years of serving as the Robert White School’s director, Geoffrey stepped down so he can go back to New York. His experience at the Robert White School intensified his desire to help the youth, saving them from a lot of trouble and pain, or worse, even death due to the kind of society that they have been used to. Geoffrey took residence in Harlem and applied at the Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families, where he was appointed the program director for the Rheedlen Institute’s Truancy Prevention Program. In an interview he had many years later, Geoffrey recalled the very reason why he took the job:
"I want to be a children’s hero… Children need heroes because heroes give hope; without hope they have no future."
The Rheedlen Centers were established by Richard Murphy in 1970, and were initially a truancy prevention program for children aged five to 12 years old. Throughout the course of their growth, their mission also grew—first addressing the issues of poor children and their families, eventually incorporating the needs of entire neighbourhoods. Richard established the Rheedlen Centers to provide a safe environment for the children among those adults who would offer a sense of protection and security.
Geoffrey’s position at the Rheedlen Centers’ Truancy Prevention Program enabled him to work with the abused or neglected children. He also counseled at risk and other neighbourhood children who wanted to have an after-school destination. His personal beliefs, work background, and academic experience fit very well with the philosophy of the program, giving him much comfort in working.
His co-workers would often describe him as someone who “never left the hood” because whenever he saw the children, he kept on seeing himself in them. Geoffrey took seriously the problems posed by drugs, poverty, broken homes, gangs, unsafe playgrounds, poorly funded schools, hopelessness, and abusive parents.
One consequence of helplessness is underprivileged children become violent, mostly for self-defense. Geoffrey poured out his time and effort into ensuring that he can help as many children as possible through the Rheedlen Centers. His solution was very simple: to have educated people work with these underprivileged children to show them that there is a much better life ahead of them.
Aside from counseling and teaching the children academically, Geoffrey also focused on teaching these children a means of defending themselves—martial arts. These martial arts programs were a continuation of the violence reduction programs that he started in the Robert White School years earlier.
A third-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, Geoffrey firmly believed that teaching martial arts was the only way he can reach some of these children. He also hopes that the discipline of the art would bring forth self-control in the children instead of violence. Geoffrey made sure that he kept martial arts an essential part of his violence prevention programs and yielded favourable results.
In 1983, with the support of Richard Murphy, Geoffrey Canada was able to open his martial arts school which he named the Chang Moo Kwon Tai Kwon Do Club. In interviews, he would often talk about the benefits of martial arts:
"Tai Kwon Do teaches a lot about values, about violence, about hope. I try to build within each one a reservoir of strength that they can draw from as they face the countless tribulations small and large that poor children face every day. And I try to convince each one that I know their true value, their worth as human beings, their special gift that God gave to them."
Harlem Children’s Zone Includes Charter Schools
In 1990, Geoffrey Canada was appointed president and CEO of the Rheedlen Centers. By then, the Rheedlen Centers have already reached 2000 students, offering homework help, tutoring, and offering recreational programs. Geoffrey’s approach to society’s problems involved blending education, community rebuilding and social services, in contrast to the normal expansion of police forces and jails.
Geoffrey designed programs that would train those who participated in the centers about basic life skills such as punctuality, reliability, attendance, appearance, respect, attitude, and job expectations. He commissioned social workers to provide drug counseling and advice to patients and established a stockpile of food and clothing that could be given to families in distress in emergency situations. He expanded the program and renamed it the Harlem Children’s Zone and by 1997, it had 11 sites all throughout Manhattan. According to their history, Harlem Children’s Zone was established to provide “providing free support for the children and families in the form of parenting workshops, a pre-school program, three public charter schools, and child-oriented health programs for thousands of children and families.”
Geoffrey also transformed the program into a center that actively followed the academic career of the youths by ensuring that they are led by caring and nurturing men who set an example of a father who play an important role in raising children. They bought a 24-block area of Harlem and constructed their headquarters and soon enough, it grew to 97 blocks.
Geoffrey Starts Baby College
One of the novel things Geoffrey started through the Harlem Children's Zone is the Baby College program. In their website, it says that "The Baby College offers a nine-week parenting workshop to expectant parents and those raising a child up to three years old. Among other lessons, the workshops promote reading to children and verbal discipline over corporal punishment. Over the past two years, more than 870 people graduated from The Baby College." (Source: HCZ.org)
Geoffrey Writes a Book
In 1995, Geoffrey published his first book entitled “Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America,” which contained a recount of his childhood experience in the restless neighbourhoods of South Bronx and his exposure to violence and provided a series of recommendations on how to lessen or completely remove violence in inner cities. His book became a bestseller and was regarded by many as a very compelling story. Publishers Weekly, one of the most famous magazines, commented on the book:
"A more powerful depiction of the tragic life of urban children and a more compelling plea to end America's war against itself' cannot be imagined."
One of the things that Geoffrey emphasized was teaching the children about real manhood. In a few interviews that he gave, Geoffrey stated that boys, in growing up, get various messages of what it means to be a man and most of the time the message gets skewed a lot. Basing on his experience, he told how young men, at an early age, learn that the essentials of manhood entails giving and receiving pain, distancing oneself emotionally from the rest of the world, and doing everything that they can to avoid being labeled a coward.
He encourages fathers to develop a strong bond with their boys, as Geoffrey believes that having a close father–son relationship is essential to reaching manhood safely. Geoffrey stated:
"The real problem is not single women, it's men who walk away from their families and leave them without support, emotionally and financially."
In the midst of the growing educational issues, Geoffrey kept on expanding the Harlem Children’s Zone and establishing several educational institutions such as the Beacon School. Based in the Countee Cullen Community Center, the Beacon School offers various support services, constructive activities, safe shelters, and recreational activities for the children and their families in Harlem.
Geoffrey also initiated the Harlem Peacemakers Program, where he taught children negotiation skills in order to reduce violence by not immediately resorting to fighting. He was concerned about how the media portrayed fighting back as the best way of settling disputes and instead taught children on the importance of communication as a means of resolving disputes between two parties.
Since its establishment, the Harlem Children’s Zone has received numerous supporters from the community and from various groups that promote children’s welfare. In 2004, the Harlem Children’s Zone was profiled and described as “one of the biggest social experiments of our time” by Paul Tough, a writer for the New York Times Magazine. Four years later, Tough wrote and published a book entitled “Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America,” which continued to praise the work that Geoffrey has been doing over the years.
The American Life Contribution
In 1997, Geoffrey guested in The American Life and talked about gun ownership. He related how they had to fight their way on getting accepted by peers. Growing up in the Bronx, he was surrounded by bigger boys who taught him and his brother how to fist-fight so that kids from other blocks won't "take advantage of them." You may listen to his interview here.
Geoffrey Gets Interviewed in 60 Minutes and Many More
Due to his efforts in the establishment of the Harlem Children’s Zone, Geoffrey has been featured in many print publications and has appeared in a number of popular television interviews, such as “60 Minutes,” “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” and the “Colbert Report.” He even appeared in an American Express commercial that was premiered in the Academy Awards in 2010.
Although Geoffrey has done a very good job in helping improve the lives of the children of Harlem, he continues to further improve and develop new programs and reach more children. In the late 2000s, Geoffrey started to take initiatives to bring his work on a national level. He established partnerships with Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, to help in her nationwide effort to save African–American children and to assist in solving the issues and challenges that the African American community has been facing all throughout these years.
In 2009, President Barack Obama made a declaration about the United States government’s plans on emulating Geoffrey’s work into 20 other cities across the country. The following year, Geoffrey was featured in “Waiting for Superman,” Davis Guggenheim’s award-winning documentary on the status of the American public education.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg Reportedly Contacts Geoffrey
More recently, reports have surfaced that Geoffrey was offered the position of being the Chancellor of New York City Schools by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but Geoffrey turned it down and instead chose to continue his work in further expanding the Harlem Children’s Zone.
Geoffrey Canada has faced numerous challenges in his career, and has even witnessed horrors that would cause many in his position to quit. However, despite the numerous obstacles that he is continuously facing, Geoffrey continues to remain hopeful, believing that his dream of a peaceful and harmonious society will be fulfilled as the next generation is nurtured into becoming loving and passionate citizens.
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Harlem Children’s Zone
- Children’s Defense Fund
Awards and Achievements
- 1992: Received the Hero of the Year Award from the Robin Hood Foundation
- 1993: Received the Common Good Award from Bowdoin College
- 1995: Received the Heinz Award for Human Condition
- 2010: Received the “Local Hero” Honor at the BET Awards
- 2007: Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters at Bowdoin College
- 2010: Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters at Tulane University
- 2010: Honorary Doctor of Laws at Columbia University
- 2011: Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters at Tufts University
- 2012: Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters at the University of Pennsylvania