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whatever it takes

September 1, 2010

A couple of years ago I read a book that blew me away.

Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America.

As I turned the pages, I found myself nodding, and saying, “Yes!” out loud in an empty room. There is a way – this is a way – to make a difference.

Canada’s philosophy is this: by the time inner-city children get to school, too much has already happened in their lives for them to get a good education in a broken, inefficient public-school system.

We must start with babies and moms and dads: give them parenting classes, tools, and support; help them develop life skills and build expectations; change the culture of the neighbourhood to support the long-term goal of higher education.

Harlem Children’s Zone started with a few blocks in Harlem.  With limited resources, Canada had to limit the scope of his program – he couldn’t meet the needs of every kid he met.  He had to prove the viability and then success of the program for those few blocks – without diluting the results by trying to do too much for too many at once.

Saying No was gut-wrenching.

The program has hit more than a few roadblocks along the way  – funding issues, space issues, school-district politics.  Geoffrey Canada would not give up.

Harlem Children’s Zone has expanded to include more blocks in Harlem.  It has grown from parenting classes, to toddler programs, to pre-school classes, to elementary, middle, and high school programs that prepare kids for the next step, while providing support and safety where they are.  500 students from HCZ after-school programs are in in college.

500 students.

That’s 500 kids many people would have written off years ago.

This book is powerful.  Not everyone will agree with Canada’s methods.  But his commitment to these kids is unparalleled.

Geoffrey Canada gave this 20-minute talk at Gel Conference 2006.  He is a charismatic, passionate speaker – worth the time.  Make a cup of tea, pull up a foot-stool, and give him a listen.

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