Geoffrey Canada Ed.M. ‘75, founder and president of the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), sat down with Jennifer Gottesfeld MPP 2019 at the Center for Public Leadership to discuss his vision for the future of education and what his experience building HCZ has taught him about leadership. Canada visited the Harvard Kennedy School campus for several days in November, sharing his expertise with students as a Hauser Visiting Leader.


Q: Reflecting back on almost 30 years at HCZ, what do you think succeeded and failed? Do you believe in the model in the same way now as you did when you founded HCZ? Where do you see it going in the future?

When I was working full-time, I spent no time reflecting on what I had done. I was trying to figure out what I needed to do that day, that hour, that evening, that weekend. But I now have the luxury of thinking about what we've actually put together and the impact it is having: not just in Harlem, but in the way people think about this program.

I am more convinced that it is an answer–I won't say it is the answer, but it is an answer–to how you go into distressed communities long-term and rebuild them. You get a bite-sized piece of a problem, you provide a range of supports–academic, mental health, medical, social–and you improve that environment.

The research from people who are talking about place, and the impact that place has on community, and the research on early childhood experiences, all suggests that you need to get in early and you need to stay. You need to have that community become a positive support in that child's life. The thing I think is significant about what we've done is this: There’s a group of social scientists and educators who had argued for many years that we needed this comprehensive place-based model. They said this was one thing that would provide the impetus for change in these communities. Now we have an example with data that says, “You know, we actually can eliminate the achievement gap with these young people. We actually know how to do it, we know what it costs, we know what it takes.” I think it’s moving the field along.

It’s not the only way to do it, but certainly a way that on its own merits has been evaluated and discussed and can be improved on. I think that will certainly happen over the next period of time and will probably be the model for the next iteration of this, which will very easily look different than what we're doing right now. I think as a strategy, it's one that's continuing to gain acceptance.

“I think leadership means there's a problem you are trying to solve, which is going to require you to figure things out in ways that haven't been done before.”

Geoffrey Canada

Q: It’s been a few years now since you left your full-time position with HCZ. What are you up to now?

I still go into HCZ one day a week. I'm supporting the new CEO there in whatever way she thinks is helpful. I do some mentoring there. I am on a number of nonprofit boards I really care about, which are very much involved in the kind of work I care about. There are a couple of areas that I'm particularly focused on.

One is the heroin epidemic that's facing this country. I don’t think America has any real idea of how severe, how acute this problem is. I don't think they have any idea how chronic it is and how it destroys families and communities. And so I'm trying to get a more robust response from communities and from governments around this issue.

The other area I'm very concerned about is the world of work and the impact technology is going to have on jobs and employment: how we prepare this next generation for a changing landscape of employment opportunities. I want to make sure as that landscape changes, the most vulnerable populations are prepared to weather that change and be able to compete in this new economy as it moves forward. So that's what I've been up to.


Q: What do you see as the next revolutionary idea in education? How have you seen things change, and what do you think the future looks like?

There are folks who are trying to figure out how technology can assist us in education. I'm a huge believer that we will solve that problem. Learning is fun for kids up until they enter kindergarten, usually. In really good schools, first or second grade. And then learning for some folks becomes much more like work than like play.

The ability to have young people self-motivating around learning is something I think technology can help with. I don't think that you're going to replace teachers, that's not what I'm suggesting, because I think human interaction is going to really matter. I do think that in learning complex subjects, kids feel too intimidated to say, “I don't understand,” and to say, again, “I don't understand, you have to explain it,” or “I still don't get it.”

Whenever I talk to young people about this, I say, “You know, the third time that you say you don't understand, your teacher gives you that look and then you just learn to shut up.” I think that doesn’t happen with technology. It will take you back, it will not judge you, it will not hurt your ego, it will not say “Really?” It won’t do any of those things that make young people realize, “I'm going to be quiet even though I don't understand.” So I think there's some potential that is still not actualized when it comes to using technology.

Another area that we've totally lost focus on is our physical health. Sports and things we enjoy doing with our physical bodies. This has a huge impact on our mental, physical, and psychic health. The more we become worried about academic success, the less time we spend thinking about the physical maturation of the human body and how necessary it is to engage that body in areas of play that don't involve drugs or other harmful activities.


Q: Thinking about leadership, I would love to hear about your own personal philosophy of leadership and how that's evolved, maybe a story of how you watched that change throughout your career.

When I first began working, in Boston, I learned a lot about leadership by volunteering to do things. It was a school, and we didn't have a lot of staff, and I was a teacher. At some point, someone asked if I wanted to learn about the budget, and I said yes. So for six months, I did the budget for free and I learned about budgeting. And then a few years later they needed an assistant director who needed to know something about budgeting and they said, “Oh, who knows?” And I said, “Well, I know. I spent some time doing that.”

The challenge for lots of folks is that leadership is often a lonely position. You're often doing things that haven't been done before. You're taking a risk people haven't taken. You’re failing, sometimes very publicly, in ways that are sometimes humiliating and yet you're willing to continue to work and not to give up.

A lot of my leadership grew out of doing things that needed to be done that nobody else was willing to do, or at least they weren't willing to do well. It had nothing to do with what I had been trained in. I think leadership means there's a problem you are trying to solve, which is going to require you to figure things out in ways that haven't been done before. There’s something you cared about enough that you were willing to spend an inordinate amount of time learning and working on solutions. That’s what I’ve done throughout my career.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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