Geoffrey Canada


Geoffrey Canada is a social and educational advocate who was driven from his childhood to promote and better the lives of the whole community. Canada was born in New York City on January 13, 1952 to a determined mother who left their alcoholic father and supported the family through years of poverty. Although Canada grew up in a dangerous neighborhood plagued with poverty and crime, he learned the power of education from his mother’s dedication to tutoring her sons and ensuring that they went to school. After graduating high school, Canada received a scholarship to Bowdoin College where he earned a bachelors degree in psychology and sociology in 1974. Geoffrey Canada then went on to Harvard Graduate School of Education where he was assigned to work with some of the most troubled students in inner city Boston. Following his graduation, Canada began working at Robert White school with troubled high school students and ultimately became director of the school.[1]

After several years working in Boston, Canada moved back to Harlem where he became involved in working with students through counseling about nonviolent crisis prevention and negotiation skills through the Rheedlen program. His approach to educating these children in protection and negotiation ultimately led to the establishment of the Harlem Peacemakers Program that worked to bring peace and nonviolent approaches to conflict to Harlem. As he became more involved in the Rheedlen program, his ideas on education and the whole child expanded and he was eventually named the president of the organization. Canada renamed the organization the Harlem Children’s Zone, and began instituting an innovative community outreach and reform project. Canada recognized the need for reform in the Harlem community; yet, he theorized that educational reform could not occur without total transformation of the community. The Children’s Zone carries out his ideas and provides a whole person approach to education. They do this by providing tutoring, community outreach, counseling, parenting advice, and involvement of social workers in life skills for the community. A quote from the New York Times Magazine accurately describes the unique approach stating that the project “combines educational, social and medical services. It starts at birth and follows children to college. It meshes those services into an interlocking web, and then it drops that web over an entire neighborhood....The objective is to create a safety net woven so tightly that children in the neighborhood just can't slip through."[2] The zone project has successfully implemented numerous programs for drug counseling, parenting classes, recreational programs, in combination with pioneering charter schools that have transformed education in this community. Geoffrey Canada persevered in the face of doubt, challenged the educational system in America, and defied what everyone thought was possible.

The Challenge

Geoffrey Canada leads through his practice of community. His theory was based on an “ideological two way street” that you cannot fix the school without improving the community; nor can you fix the community without improving the schools.[3] Canada worked to reform and improve every aspect of the community. In his model, this included providing counseling, parenting classes, recreational programs, life skills tutoring, as well as effective charter schools. Inspired by his own childhood and motivated by his experiences in the community, Canada pushed through the stereotypes of poverty to make a plan that enabled the community to have so much opportunity, counseling, and education that they could not fall through the metaphorical cracks as they had been for years. Therefore, through his practice of community, Canada valued and pursued the internal goods of unity and social justice that arise from a well-developed community.

Personal Challenge
Growing up in the South Bronx, Geoffrey Canada himself is familiar with the effects that an environment of crime, poverty, and poor schooling can have on a young child. As he was growing up, he was surrounded by violence that plagued the community and forced children at a young age to learn to protect themselves. The response of many children living in this area was to join in with gangs for protection or carry knives and other weapons; the answer to safety for yourself was violence towards others. Growing up in this environment, Canada was faced with violence, poor school systems, and lack of motivation to succeed; however, he was one of the fortunate children in these neighborhoods to have the support of a mother who believed in her children and their education. As noted in his memoir Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun: A Personal History of Violence, Canada knew firsthand the experience of schoolyard fights and getting involved with the “older boys” for protection: your ranking of protection was determined by your success in a fight. Getting home safe was a daily struggle for Canada and he was surrounded by violence and crime that causes children to quickly lose their innocence and be taken in by that world of crime. Because of the support that Canada received from his mother, and his own personal perseverance, he broke free from this tightly woven community of violence and crime and eventually moved to live with relatives[4] . It was during this time that he found the inspiration to go to school and receive an education at superior colleges. Not only did Canada have the motivation and strength to move beyond that world that often suffocates children and forces them to think it is the only option, but his perseverance also inspired him to come back to the place that scared and harmed him as a child and commit to making it better for the next generation.

Standards of Excellence
In his practice of community, Canada strives to achieve certain standards of excellence. In general, a community is a group of people who share some common idea, way of life. In a well-functioning community, the members of the group support each other, work together, and are well established in a way of life that works towards the good of all members. Canada’s “pipeline” theory proves that he holds community-building, family, health, and education as the most basic elements of an excellent community. All of these aspects of community are well aligned with a well-functioning community in promoting the well being and togetherness of the group. His practice works to achieve these standards with the programs that he implements, beginning with recreational and community support programs, and expanding to family services, parenting classes, social services, and health services. All of these programs support a strong series of educational services that ultimately is the key to battling poverty and forming a successful community. A child can only be supported and develop through the support of an entire community. Canada epitomizes what he holds to be the standards of excellence for community in the following statement: “Children’s development is profoundly affected by their environment. The most important parts of their environment are, of course, the family and the home. But what children face once they step outside their home also matters greatly. Will their role models be drug dealers loitering on the corner or neighbors in work attire walking to the train every morning to go to work? Will children jump rope in safe playgrounds or congregate in vacant lots? Pride in the neighborhood and strong, thoughtful local leadership must exist alongside stable families and effective programs. It is residents, stakeholders, and local institutions that will, in the end, sustain the community.” [5]


As Canada led the zone project, he displayed the virtue of perseverance. Because this change revolutionary and all-encompassing to the community, he was faced with doubt, resistance, and administrative, and fundraising challenges. As noted in the pressures that Canada faced, he continues to be the subject of criticism, yet he perseveres in holding true to his beliefs as he continues to expand his programs.

Choiceworthy Good

Justice is a fundamental internal good that is promoted through Canada’s practice of community, in particular social justice. Social justice refers to the idea that everyone deserves equal economic, political, and social rights. [6] Through his “bottom up” approach to reforming the whole community, Canada establishes programs that ensure that everyone not only receives necessary services and education, but that they receive quality services. The people that live in Harlem, grew up in an environment plagued by poverty and crime and had poor educational systems. It was the goal of Geoffrey Canada to reform the community by bringing quality family, health, educational, and community support services. Not only do the people of this community deserve these services, but they also deserve the right to education and services equal to those in more affluent communities.

Though a main component of his reform focused on equal and appropriate education, a strong emphasis on economic and social rights supported that focus. Although the apparent goal of his leadership was the establishment and promotion of community, he was also a pioneer against poverty. In raising awareness and heading fundraising, Canada recognizes that widespread poverty is not a problem easily solved, but his program supports economic equality in giving the people of the community opportunity. Schools and child development cannot exist without a wholesome community, and opportunity cannot exist without equal and quality education, social services, and medical health that allow a person to pursue their desired profession. With appropriate schooling, counseling, and social services the people of the community are able to pursue opportunities that they would not have in the past. These opportunities may include going to college, getting a higher paid job, family planning, or simply receiving health care necessary to continue working.

Cultural Ill

In Geoffrey Canada's practice of community, he addresses the cultural ills associated with poverty. At the very basis of the community lacking in parental education, health education, opportunity and failing schools is the reality of poverty and its effect on the success of a community. Children who live and are raised in poverty are robbed of the ability to reach their full potential. Their parents often lack the education or resources to provide for them both in the womb and in their young lives, they are not provided with adequate health care, they resort to crime and violence and are trapped by this environment they grow up in. This is coupled with failing schools with under-qualified staff and lack of resources that leads to poor education and school dropouts. As clearly stated in the Harlem Children's Zone White Paper,
The U.S. invests too little in poor children and pays dearly for the results. With a smaller proportion of young adults who complete higher education than many other nations, and a greater percentage of incarcerated residents, the American workforce is not reaching its potential. Lost productivity, diminished economic input, exorbitant expenses for crime and healthcare—these are all the price of poverty. Together, they cost the U.S. 4% of its gross national product every year."
[7] Canada recognizes these ills that emerge from poverty as the source. His practice works to form a "bottom-up" approach that addresses each of these ills in order to not only help this community in poverty, but contribute to the greater success of America as a culture and community.

In the process of reforming the community, Canada contended with external institutions in administrative doubts, budgeting conflict, and general opposition or pushback from the community members. Geoffrey Canada also faced the fears of the community in offering them new promises. All this community had even known was a failing education system with little hope of improvement. Paul Tough addresses this in an article entitled “The Harlem Project” when he narrates the atmosphere when Canada rose in front of the people and proposed his project of reform. He states that for the people of Harlem “the new schools meant more possibilities, but also more risk: how were you supposed to know which promises to believe.” [8] Geoffrey Canada held that all members of the community needed to be given equal opportunity for success and did not falter from this determination to make this social experiment in education and community come forth. Canada was able to reach out to and transform the community because he showed the community he respected them and did not want to change them, but to help them. He was able to convey these ideas to the people in the area, and by doing this gave them hope that they could have a better future for themselves and for their children.

Institutionally, the proposition of new and reformed schools and the implementation of numerous school and community-building programs presented an idea that had a huge price tag with unguaranteed results. Even after gaining the support of the community, and implementing programs that revolutionized the Harlem area, some people and organizations still challenge the Harlem Children’s Zone particularly in regards to their charter schools. The Zone Project has expanded from a small area to affecting 10,000 children and demonstrating successes in college entrance and community building. However, some people are still skeptical of the all-encompassing reforms that Canada promotes in the zone. A 2010 article in the New York Times, critiques the praise of the Harlem Children’s Zone that encourages leaders to promote Canada’s ideas as a model for other schools. The critique is based on the high cost and the federal investment it would entail, as well as the assertion that more evidence of the effectiveness of the project is needed. They highlight deficits that the charter schools have shown in terms of student performance and improvement in the past year. In addition, they propose that there needs to be a less costly way to take these ideas into public schools in the state. Their concern lies in the statement that “Mr. Canada and his charter schools have struggled with the same difficulties faced by other urban schools, even as they outspend them.”[9] Though these reports are based on facts and assessments, Canada approaches these statistics with determination and does not falter in his goal of improving these scores and bettering the education of the children in his schools. Canada exemplifies his superb leadership in the face of external pressures by directly addressing these doubts and issues in many published articles in which he asserts that these schools believe in accountability, testing that improves teaching, and ensuring that the gap is closing. In a 2010 interview Canada states, "the criticial difference between Harlem Children's Zone and other comprehensive education projects around the country is that teachers in the Zone use the tests to improve teaching."[10] Canada believes in his schools and their methods and defends that even though the process is a struggle the gap is closing and all the steps will be taken as necessary to ensure students are learning and teaching is improving.


Canada, G. (1995). Fist, stick, knife, gun: A personal history of violence. Beacon Press Books.

Canada, G. J. (2010). The harlem children’s zone response to the brookings institute’s report: “The harlem children’s zone, promise neighborhoods, and the broader, bolder approach to education". Retrieved from Institute study response.pdf

Geoffrey Canada.Biography (2012). Retrieved from

Harlem Children’s Zone. Whatever it takes: A white paper on the harlem children’s zone.
Retrieved from

Murfin, C. A chat with Geoffrey Canada. Seattle's Child. September 13, 2010. Retrieved from

Otterman, S. Lauded harlem schools have their own problems. The New York Times. October 12,
2010. Retrieved from

Pines D. Thriving in the Zone. (Cover story). U.S. News & World Report [serial online].
October 31, 2005;139(16):86-88. Available from: Academic Search Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed October 30, 2012.

Tough, P. (2004, June 20). The Harlem Project. Retrieved from

Tough, P. (2011). Whatever it Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America.
Mariner Books.

Whitehurst, G. J., & Croft, M. (2010). The Harlem Children’s Zone, promise neighborhoods,
and the broader, bolder approach to education. Brown Center on Education Policy at
Brookings. Retrieved from
2010/7/20 hcz whitehurst/0720_hcz_whitehurst.pdf

Written By: Julia Turner
  1. ^ Geoffrey Canada. A+E Networks, 2012.
  2. ^ The Harlem Children’s Zone. About Geoffrey Canada. Harlem Children’s Zone, 2009
  3. ^ Paul Tough. The Harlem Project. NYTimesMagazine, June 20, 2004, p. 3.
  4. ^ Geoffrey Canada. Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun: A Personal History of Violence. Beacon Press Books, 1995.
  5. ^ The Harlem Children’s Zone. Whatever it Takes: A White Paper on the Harlem Children’s Zone. The Harlem Children’s Zone, p. 6.
  6. ^ Social Justice. National Association of Social Workers.
  7. ^ The Harlem Children’s Zone. Whatever it Takes: A White Paper on the Harlem Children’s Zone. The Harlem Children’s Zone, p. 9.
  8. ^ Paul Tough. Whatever It Takes. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, August 12, 2008, p. 12.
  9. ^ Sharon Otterman. Lauded Harlem Schools Have Their Own Problems. New York Times, October 12, 2010.
  10. ^ Cheryl Murfin. A Chat with Geoffrey Canada. Seattle's Child, September 13, 2010.