Teaching Hope


The big map of Harlem was mounted like a battle plan, an appropriate display, since the mission was a war on despair. The map divided the poor, drug-ridden area into three zones, and on one corner, a circle marked the building where the Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families hopes to relocate.

The only problem was, the CEO heard his staff report, the place has no roof. OK, he said, we'll build a roof. And by the way, the staff continued, all the floors fell in. Fine, said the CEO, we'll do the floors. He paused, and with no trace of irony at all, inquired: Does this place have walls? The staff nodded yes.

"Walls!" Geoffrey Canada exclaimed, and his face lit up with delight. "That's great! We've got walls!"

As usual, with an almost impossible spirit of resilience, Canada refused to be disappointed. His life's goal is salvaging young lives. A small obstacle like urban devastation was not about to stand in his way.

This is the kind of energy that propels the 46-year-old leader of a nonprofit organization founded almost 30 years ago to combat truancy. Rheedlen is an invented name devised by the group's founder, Richard L. Murphy, who now runs the Academy for Educational Development in Washington. Canada began working with Rheedlen 15 years ago, and under his stewardship its agenda has grown to include almost any issue that affects children and families in Manhattan's toughest neighborhoods. From Harlem to Hell's Kitchen, Rheedlen operates 43 school-based centers known as "beacons," open 17 hours a day.

"What we're doing here--here in the most at-risk neighborhoods there are--is building a sense of hope for children, a ladder for young people," Canada explained. "We're providing a sense of expectation, and a way for them to reach it."

Across the country, thousands of community-based intervention efforts are battling social erosion. Experts say that almost without exception, those that succeed rely on the presence of a charismatic leader. With his graduate degree from Harvard, his black belt in karate and his roots in the South Bronx, Canada has emerged as one of this country's leading advocates for urban youth. He was among the first winners in 1995 of the $250,000 Heinz Award, presented to "masters of achievement" who are effecting social change. Canada immediately earmarked much of his winnings for cash incentives for kids who do well in school.

Jonathan Kozol, author of "Amazing Grace," about life in the South Bronx, regards Canada as "one of the few authentic heroes of New York." Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children's Defense Fund, calls him "one of the most gifted and powerful voices for children today."

Canada--with prominent ears, the mandatory street goatee and hair cropped so short that the incipient gray barely shows through--is a one-man tornado. Recently, in the course of a day, he met with a wealthy philanthropist, strategized to bring low-cost school supplies to area residents, helped plan a substance-free dance for middle-school students, brainstormed to create a Harlem community services handbook, taught a karate class and faced off a very scary guy who threatened the life of a Rheedlen employee. The young man making the threat was himself a former member of the Rheedlen family. Canada disowned him in no uncertain terms.

"We will not tolerate violence or the threat of violence," he declared. "Never, ever. Under no circumstances."

In between everything else, Canada chaired a teen youth council meeting at P.S. 194 on West 144th Street. With a frame so tall and skinny that one boy mistook him for a pro basketball player, Canada still somehow managed to look dignified on a spindly little library chair. Here is the deal he made with the dozen or so kids who met with him:

"If you go away to school, you'll always have a summer job. You'll always have a job when you come home. And when you graduate from college, we'll make sure that all of you have a job."

One more part of the deal. He let his 20-year-old son Raymond describe this feature: $100 for every A earned in college. Raymond is not his biological child, nor his child via marriage. Canada calls all the boys he is close to his "sons." Rheedlen's in-school, after-school, weekend and evening programs reach 3,500 children, ages 5 to 20. Canada cares about all of them, but these days, he is targeting special attention at young males.

Too many boys mistake violence for manliness, Canada maintains. "More and more I have become concerned with what boys think they should be, and what they believe it means to be a man," Canada writes in his new book, "Reaching Up for Manhood" (Beacon Press).

Part memoir, part social improvement treatise, the book is reminiscent in style and tone of Canada's first book, "Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America" (Beacon Press, 1995). Using his skill as a storyteller, that book employed personal anecdotes to explain how weapons became ordinary objects for children in urban America.

Canada reports that at least one of every four African American males has an arrest record, and in 1995, upward of 1.3 million arrests were made for boys under 18. He contends that 15-year-old African American boys in Harlem are less likely to survive to age 45 than their white counterparts elsewhere are to reach 65.

For Canada, the numbers are highly personal.

"They were dying again," he recounts in his book, referring to the alarming cluster of his male friends who encountered eternity well before their time. Then last fall, his 20-year-old "son" David was shot and killed while bike riding at 97th and Riverside Drive.

"He was for me sort of what every parent wants their sons to be," Canada said. "He sang in the choir. He was headed to college. He was a martial artist. Out of all my kids, he was the last kid I'd expect to have died like this."

David was killed the same week that Canada's wife, Yvonne, gave birth to Geoffrey Jr. A son by a youthful first marriage, Jerry, is a lawyer with a child of his own. Two stepchildren round out his official family.

It is to his original family--his mother and his three brothers--that Canada traces his activism. Canada's father was a hopeless drunk, he writes. When he abandoned the family in the South Bronx, his mother was left to raise four boys who wanted brand-name sneakers as bad as any other kid. They were poor, and they hated it. Mary Canada--who went to college, and to Harvard for a master's degree of her own after her boys were grown--cut no slack with her sons. She monitored their TV viewing, dragged them to museums and marched right alongside them in civil rights demonstrations.

Early on, said Canada, his mother identified his life's calling card.

"She told me I had a gift with people," he said. "And she said, 'Geoff, if you turn this gift that you have to evil, you will be a dangerous person, and I will disown you.' "

When Geoffrey began sloughing off in high school, his mother packed him off to live with her parents in the suburbs. He was a strong student, but when it came time for college, he had one thing on his mind: party, party, party. His mother thought otherwise, and the next thing Canada knew, he was headed for Bowdoin College. He was unprepared for rural New England. Brunswick, Maine, must be the coldest place in the universe, Canada decided. It also had to be the whitest.

"So," he said upon arriving in this frostbitten bastion of Yankeedom, "so, uh, where's the black part of town?"


At P.S. 194, Canada made relentless fun of himself as he told this story to kids he hopes will follow his path to college, and to opportunity. Everybody laughed, especially Canada. They were all sitting around a library table, Canada and a dozen or so boys and girls. Life on these streets is little more than "a factory for failure," Canada contends. Families are in "very, very rough shape," and even some of the kids who to outward appearances look like they're doing well, he said, are not. As he does in his books, he offered himself up to the kids gathered around him as an example of someone who beat the odds.

"You know why I wanted to go to college, don't you?" Canada asked. "To pull girls, that's what I wanted." He turned to Chiffon, a high school junior. "Why are you thinking about college?" he asked her.

"Seems like that's the only way to survive," she replied.

Then he called on Raymond, who works at Rheedlen when he is home on school breaks, to talk about his college experience. Raymond attends Bard College, where, like Canada at Bowdoin, he is on scholarship. Raymond is a walking endorsement for Canada's efforts, a kid who latched onto the foundation's after-school programs--a kid who chose Canada's prescription of community involvement over the temptations of gangs and drugs.

For a while after high school, Raymond confessed to the kids around him, he left Rheedlen and was "hanging out." Two of his friends were shot within a block of each other in bad drug deals.

"I realized it wasn't getting me anywhere, hanging out on the streets," he said. With Canada's encouragement, he applied to college.

"I'll be honest. It's hard. It's really, really hard," Raymond told his small audience. "But one of the really good things is just being away. At Bard, I don't have to worry about bumping into nobody, somebody looking at my chain, gunshots. But sometimes it's weird, sitting next to these people talking about their private schools and their polo. I'm like, polo? Some of us hardly had basketball."

For Canada, that sense of social disconnection is all too familiar. He pursued a master's degree in education and dug into urban reclamation work because he had been there, too.

"When I was 8 and 9 years old, living in conditions that parallel the lives of many of our children at Rheedlen, I often wondered why no one seemed to notice why so many young people in these settings had talent and promise. I was terribly hurt about it," he said. "It's that sense of abandonment that allows so many young people to say, 'To hell with you. You'd think that people know I live like this, with rodents, with vermin.' I never forgot that."


Now, as he sits in an office smaller than a rich person's closet, a building with no roof and no floors looks good. He exudes calm competence, but he runs at warp speed, convinced that "all of this, all of what's out there, is just too much to handle at once. But if you begin to chop away, you begin to bring solutions." Sometimes, Canada is so busy hewing that he forgets where his car is parked.

"I think he's the real thing," said Nancy Roob, director of the New York Neighborhoods program at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. "He's really grounded, and he brings his personal life experience into what he does. He's about personal connections--and that could be a resident on the block, or it could be someone from the mayor's office."

In addition to prodigious drive, Canada brings values that he lives as well as preaches, Roob said.

"Like mentoring. That's something he puts into practice himself," she said. "That goes for a young kid on the block or the assistant director of Rheedlen."

Mentoring from Canada was part of what motivated Harlem native Shawn Dove to set his sights on Wesleyan College and, for a time, a career in corporate America. Now 35, Dove came back to work for Rheedlen not long ago. Dove runs one of Rheedlen's "beacons," the Dome Project, housed in P.S. 194. He likens his program to "a human services shopping mall" and says that by establishing a presence in schools, Rheedlen provides support for teachers and the community.

"We're able to allow teachers to just be educators, not truant workers, not social workers," Dove said.

Along with information and encouragement, the school-based centers offer entertainment, recreation and even refreshments. Rheedlen--with a $7.4-million annual budget drawn from public and private funds--recently launched a community newspaper, Harlem Overheard. Rheedlen-trained Peacemakers are installed in schools and in neighborhoods throughout the city. Rheedlen also runs a Community Pride program that helps tenants in city-owned housing obtain quick attention to their problems.

In each case, the secret is individual relationships--Canada's unpatented theory of personal connection. "There's no way you're going to save a kid if you don't know him personally," he said.

He thought for a moment, then added, "I think people need to know that there are things that do work with children. They do get better. Even the toughest kids can change. Even a kid that people have given up on can turn around."

He paused, and his face broke into a big, determined grin as he added, "I'm always amazed not at how much it takes to turn a kid around, but how little."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World