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Promises were at the heart of Geoffrey Canada’s commencement speech at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) on Wednesday – promises made, promises kept, promises unfulfilled.
Canada is president and CEO of the Harlem’s Children Zone, a pioneering non-profit organization designed to help children – from birth through college – to succeed by offering a range of educational, social-service and community-building programs for neighborhood families. The Zone Project now covers 100 blocks and aims to serve more than 10,000 children in New York City's Harlem neighborhood.
Canada was born and raised in New York’s South Bronx. He described how he was moved from an early age by the ideals and sacrifices made by leaders like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., President John Kennedy, and Sen. Robert Kennedy.
“Who could not feel obligated to continue this work, to ensure their deaths were not in vain?” Canada asked the members of the HKS graduating class of 2013, many joined by their families.
“The promise I made as a teen,” Canada, said, “that I would get a great education and come back and rescue the children trapped in our urban ghettos, is something I took seriously, and I have spent my life trying to keep that promise.”
Canada has been nationally recognized for his pioneering work helping children and families in Harlem and as a passionate advocate for education reform. He was named one of "America's Best Leaders" by U.S. News and World Report in 2005 and was awarded the Medal for Education Impact by the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), his alma mater, in March 2012.
Despite the accolades, Canada reminded the audience that while much has been done by members of his generation -- in fields stretching from medicine to politics -- much more work remains. And even though he said his time as a leader was coming to an end, Canada said he wasn’t worried.
“We haven’t kept our promise to eliminate those places in our country where poor children don’t have a chance,” he said. “But I’m not worried about my promise – the promise I made to America’s children. Because, let me tell you what else my role models have taught me: The best of America is yet to come. The work we don’t complete, that attempts to make this a better country, the next generation will finish.”
Canada then appealed directly to the 564 members of the graduating class.
“Others will have to finish this work,” he said. “Someone else will have to pick up the mantle and say, 'No matter what else I do as a career, I will make sure I will leave my country a better place than was left to me.' I promised my kids. And now I’m asking those of you here to promise me.”
The graduation address, traditionally delivered in John F. Kennedy Memorial Park, was moved into the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum due to the threat of thunderstorms.
Geoffrey Canada delivers the 2013 Commencement Address at Harvard Kennedy School
“Others will have to finish this work,” Canada said. “Someone else will have to pick up the mantle and say, 'No matter what else I do as a career, I will make sure I will leave my country a better place than was left to me.' I promised my kids. And now I’m asking those of you here to promise me.”
Dean David T. Ellwood (L); and Geoffrey Canada (R), delivering the 2013 HKS Commencement Address