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Geoffrey Canada in Minneapolis: "Get Ready for Your Moment"

Can one individual make a difference in the lives of many? Convention-goers in Minneapolis heard a resounding "yes" to that question from one man who did it, and in a big way.

At the largest gathering of youths and adults involved in the service-learning movement--a teaching and learning process used to help students connect academics to real community issues--Geoffrey Canada, education reform leader and President and CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone, Inc., wasted no time in urging his audience to work toward improving the lives of children in their communities.

“There is no reason a child should be denied opportunity in this country because of the zip code they live in,” he told the more than 2,000 attendees of the 23rd annual National Service-Learning Conference and youthrive PeaceJam Leadership Conference. The Minneapolis conference, themed “Our World, Our Future,” included attendees from across the U.S. and abroad (including Qatar and Brazil).

The Past and the Future

Canada drew a capacity crowd at the Minneapolis Convention Center for a speech that blended reminiscences of his success at Harlem Children’s Zone and exhortation to the assembled youth to hold on to their dreams of making the world a better place. “America is a good country with real challenges,” he said, adding, “I’ve been doing this work for 35 years. At this point in my career, I’m trying to convey a set of values to the next set of American leaders, and that’s you.” He told the audience that he understood many of them might be thinking, “Who am I to make a difference?” But as Americans, he said, “We have an obligation to tackle the tough stuff, no matter how hard it is.”

Other highlights of the four-day event included recognition of Project Ignition by Ray LaHood, Secretary of Transportation; remarks by Congresswoman Betty McCollum; the announcement of Special Olympics project UNIFY Ambassador Lauren Alaina; and a day of service and peace-building work with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi.

The Snowstorm, the White House and the Stolen Napkins

“You never know when you will be needed to help out your community, city, state or country,” Canada said, “but you have to ask yourself, ‘will I be ready?’ and you always need to be in training for that moment.”

He told a story of being delayed by a snowstorm after a conference in Washington, D.C., and being invited by a friend, who worked for Hillary Clinton in the brand-new Clinton administration, to attend a movie-watching get-together at the White House. “The refreshments were deluxe,” Canada told the crowd, drawing laughs as he demonstrated how he piled his plate with snacks, and then confessed that he couldn’t resist pocketing a couple embossed White House napkins. “I knew they had cameras; I knew the Secret Service would be watching and would say, ‘There’s the black guy, stealing napkins,’ but I just had to have something to show everyone at work on Monday to prove I had really been there!”

Canada said that President Clinton struck up a conversation with him that, while awkward at first (“I said, ‘I’m glad you got elected’, and he said, ‘Me, too.’”) eventually lead to a discussion about the newly formed AmeriCorps, and the beginning of a friendship that endures to this day. “I tell that story just to illustrate that everyone has a moment, and you never know when that moment will be,” he said.

The Promise of Promise Neighborhoods

Canada’s work has been chronicled in Paul Tough’s book Whatever it Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest To Change Harlem and America and in the documentary film Waiting for Superman. His success inspired the government funding of Promise Neighborhoods, a Department of Education program to improve educational outcomes for students in distressed urban and rural neighborhoods. There are two Promise Neighborhoods in Minnesota--the Northside Achievement Zone in Minneapolis and a 250-block area in the Summit-University and Frogtown neighborhoods in Saint Paul.

The Harriet Tubman Factor

“People have confused what I do with celebrity, because they see me in documentaries or on television. But all I ever wanted to do was save my kids,” he said. He urged the audience “not to confuse role models with celebrities,” and then went on to cite some of his own role models, including Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery and then “went back for a purpose, when the penalty of failure was death--and she did that thirteen times.”

Another of his role models, he said, are 1960s civil rights protesters, “the ones in Selma who faced the dogs, the water hoses, and the billy clubs. You look at the pictures and you see all those faces. They were black and white, men and women, Christian and Jewish, and they put their bodies on the line. We don’t know their names, but what they taught us then I still believe today--that if you’re an American, you have to fight for what is right.

“I want to leave you with a challenge, but a new sense of optimism,” Canada concluded. “I always say that I can save any child who doesn’t give up. Don’t listen to people who tell you it can’t be done. Just be there--when people are looking around to see who they can count on in tough times, you have to be there in order to make a difference.”

Crossing It Off the Bucket List

Petrina Carter, Director for Career Services at Averett University in Danville, Virginia, had placed herself in the front row more than an hour before Canada was slated to speak. “Now I can cross this off my bucket list, after I got to see him,” she said. Noting that she’d grown up in Harlem at 117th  Street and Morningside Avenue (“Down the block from where they filmed Waiting for Superman”), Carter eventually moved to Virginia, “Because there wasn’t a Geoffrey Canada back then, and I had to get my four kids out of the city.” With one child having received a master’s degree from the University of California/Berkeley, one about to receive a degree in architecture next month, and two more currently attending college, Carter feels that she can tell herself “mission accomplished, almost.”

Canada is her role model because of his passion and commitment. “Kids can spot b.s., and they know if you really care. He cares deeply, and that’s why I admire him so much,” she says. With Canada as one of her inspirations, she hopes to incorporate a service learning movement in her community.

Sitting next to Carter was colleague Wendi Averson, Program Officer of the Danville, Virginia Regional Foundation. She had arrived early and taken a front-and-center seat, she said, because “he embodies everything we want to be in terms of passion and innovation.”

Student audience members were equally enthusiastic, with many having researched Canada and Harlem Children’s Zone before attending the conference. Cody Shields, a student at Graceland University and the youngest school board member in Lamoni, Iowa, said that Canada’s personal story resonated strongly with him. “He started something out of nothing, and built it from the ground up,” he said.

Navea Frazier, a senior at Freedom High School in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, had been one of those honored by Secretary LaHood the previous evening for Project Ignition, which helps high schools connect academic goals to teen driver safety through service learning. “Mr. Canada was just incredible,” she said, “and I think he helps everyone to understand the importance of service learning.”

A Full Slate for Service Learners

Service learning received a practical demonstration during the final day of the convention, when the attendees worked on a number of projects in the Frogtown neighborhood. Along with 2003 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, who earned her prize for advancing children’s and women’s rights in Iran, the participants worked in a variety of locations, from preparing the Youth Farm and Market for its planning season, to collaborating with artist Wing Young Huie in community interviews, to creating “birdhouse libraries” for peace gardens and community gardens.

“This event highlights and celebrates the year-round work of young people to address real community issues while meeting important academic objectives, “ said National Youth Leadership Council Marketing and Communications Director Amy Meuers.

The real-world work also underlined the words of another keynote-speech attendee, Camille Rodrigues, a student from the University of San Diego. Rodrigues said that she connected with Canada’s message that “it’s not about the giving-receiving relationship with service, it’s about being on the ground, in the mud and grit.”

Julie Kendrick's last article for The Line was an account of the Nerdery Overnight Website Challenge, in our April 4, 2012 issue.

Photos of Geoffrey Canada and his audience by Bill Kelley

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