Geoffrey Canada addresses education inequality

A leader in school reform addressed the troubled state of American education in his keynote speech at the University of Chicago’s Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Thursday evening.

Geoffrey Canada, who turned 60 on Friday, is President and CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), a non-profit organization dedicated to providing Harlem youth with effective educational, social, and medical services. According to UofC President Robert Zimmer, Canada’s work embodies King’s belief in the value of “intelligence plus character.” Canada’s speech, delivered before a full house at Rockefeller Chapel, highlighted the consequences of America’s current education crisis.

“I am convinced that if this country continues to treat the children of this nation the way they do, we are going to destroy our great country,” said Canada over an eruption of applause.

Canada sought to underscore the severity of the crisis by discrediting the misperception that only inner-city children are facing challenges.

“When I travelled to the Midwest, Deep South, West Coast, [I saw] the same thing. I saw not some kids, but huge numbers of kids failing, unemployed, with no hope.”

America’s incarceration rate–the highest in the world–particularly troubled Canada.

“Who do we compete with on this? China, India, Europe. Do you think they’re spending their own money putting their kids in jail? Of course not,” said Canada, his voice rising to a shout.

In a refrain heard throughout the evening, Canada asked his audience, “What’s going on here?” For Canada, the issues that plague young Americans–particularly incarceration, obesity, and unemployment–are symptomatic of an ineffective school system.

“I’ve met a few Presidents, a few Secretaries of Education, a few Directors of Domestic Policy. They don’t have the answer.”

In place of a federal solution, Canada advocates for immediate community action.

“No one’s coming to save your kids. If you’re going to save kids, you have to save your own kids.”

HCZ is Canada’s attempt to save his own kids. Canada, a native of the South Bronx who went on to graduate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, joined the organization in 1983, serving as President and CEO since 1990. The group works with children in a 100-block area of Harlem, providing a safety net of services from birth to graduation.

HCZ has provided a model for other urban neighborhoods, including Chicago’s Woodlawn Children’s Promise Community. Canada and HCZ have received widespread acclaim. Last year, Canada was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by TIME magazine.

Despite his success, Canada’s policies have also received criticism.

“People find what I’m doing to be really controversial because I believe in some radical things,” said Canada. “I think if you’re educator, you’re a teacher, and you can’t teach, then you should get a different job.”

This remark and many others throughout the night were met with applause. Iman Taylor, a CPS high schools student, found no controversy in Canada’s speech: “It was beautiful. He made it out of a rough area and he knows how to save a rough area.”

Shane Evans, who was singled-out by Canada for his success as Director of the University of Chicago Charter School, said, “The most salient feature of the speech is that education is an American problem, not an inner-city one.”

Canada ended his speech by reciting a poem that encapsulates his plan for a better nation: “So you and I we must succeed/In this crusade, this holy deed/To say to the children of this land/Have hope, we’re here, we take a stand.”