The New York Times has called it one of the most ambitious social experiments of our time. The Harlem Children's Zone grew out of a small truancy-prevention program that started in the 1970s, and today it provides educational, social and medical services to more than 10,000 young people and 5,000 adults across 100 city blocks. In the latest in his series of interviews as part of NEWSWEEK's partnership with the Kaplan University M.B.A. program, NEWSWEEK Chairman Richard M. Smith spoke with the group's founder and CEO, Geoffrey Canada, about leading a nonprofit. Excerpts: (Article continued below...)
SMITH: How did you wind up doing this kind of work?
CANADA: I graduated from Bowdoin College and went to the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Then I left and took a job teaching really poor inner-city white kids in Boston. It was interesting to me because I'd never been around poor whites before. I grew up in the South Bronx. It was very segregated, all African-American, a few Puerto Ricans. In college I was around more-affluent white young people. But now I was working with really poor kids from Charlestown and South Boston during a time that Boston was really polarized around race. But within three months those poor white kids and I had more in common than any one of us expected. They began to realize that I grew up just like they did, in a cut-off community, feeling like I didn't belong, not knowing how I was going to get out of the ghetto. They felt exactly the same way. And it was my first glimpse of the role that class plays when you're poor in this country. Often people think it's race, and it's not.
When you came to Harlem, how did you come to focus on specific neighborhood blocks?
It actually started in a building. In 1989 we saw families leaving their apartments and going back into the homeless shelters. And so someone said, "I wonder why." We actually moved our office into one of the buildings and found [dealers] were selling drugs around the clock. It was a dangerous place—any parent who cared about their child would never leave their child in an environment like that. So we realized this was not about social services, this was about fixing that building. We fixed the locks on the doors; we repaired the lights. We made sure those drug dealers could not do business in that building. Now, when we did that, the drug dealers moved three doors down, so it was great for our building, but lousy for the building three doors away. So we said, "You know what? Let's do a block." And we did the block. Of course they just went two blocks away. So we decided to do a neighborhood, and that led to the creation of the Harlem Children's Zone.
Is it harder to manage in a nonprofit setting?
I still feel like the thing I do the best is work with kids—I had zero interest in spending my time managing adults. It's been one of the tragedies in our work that if you're really good at working with children, there's really no way for you to advance in most organizations unless you leave that work and you become a manager. As I became a manager, I learned a lot by trial and error. It's very inefficient and wasteful—I was constantly reinventing the wheel. So we've started to send our staff off to management classes so that they don't have to learn by trial and error.
What do you look for when you hire people?
The biggest characteristic we're looking for is an honest belief that these children can learn. That's a little bit more complicated than it might seem, because at first blush everybody [agrees with] that. So then you ask, "Have you ever helped poor children who are behind catch up?" And people begin to become a little bit defensive. The person who says, "You know, I tried, I was young, I just wasn't smart enough to pull it off, but I knew I could do it; if I had just spent enough time to get the right technique I know it would've worked." That's the person that you feel like is still in search of the answer, who you want on your team.
What advice do you give to young people who want to work in the not-for-profit world?
This is an area that I think you do the best in if you have passion. And it's such an interesting business. When I began working in not-for-profits, it was taking a vow of poverty, which eliminated huge numbers of folks. Today the pay, while not comparable to what you'll get in business, is often [enough] that you can actually provide for yourself and your family. So that's one of the issues. But the real opportunity is you can find something that you are passionate about and make a real difference.
Last question: can you recall the single most satisfying day in the years you've worked with the Harlem Children's Zone?
One day my chief operating officer, George Khaldun, and I were walking to lunch. We were on Park Avenue at 137th Street, in kind of a beat-up area. We're in suits and ties and we see these other two African-American men in suits and ties, which is very unusual over there. And so we're just walking and talking, and George says, "Geoff, those are our kids." They were two of our college kids who were heading to their jobs down in midtown. George looked at me and he said, "You know, this is what we dreamed about." And we just watched those two kids heading towards a good life and thought, that's what this is about. We've leveled the playing field.