Empathy is his superpower

Geoffrey Canada's initiative, Harlem Children's Zone, has grown to reach 8,000 children across nearly 100 city blocks.

Kristen Olson / Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Geoffrey Canada, CEO, Harlem Children's Zone.

Geoffrey Canada still remembers the saddest day in his first nine years on earth. Back then, Mr. Canada clung to superheroes – and to Superman especially. He liked the guy, but he especially liked the idea he symbolized: immediate and dramatic salvation. In his earliest days, Superman was a social-justice hero, saving a man from a lynch mob, fighting fires, stopping robberies – rescuing people from the same kinds of dangers that seemed to lurk, in the 1960s, in Canada's rough South Bronx neighborhood. Superman, Canada had decided, was just the guy to fix a neighborhood full of poverty and drugs, to rescue Canada and his friends, to bring a little optimism to the merciless streets.

So when his mother broke the news that Superman didn't exist, Canada burst into tears.

"She thought it was because I loved Superman so much. It was because I thought he was real, and one day he would get around to coming in and saving us."

Canada, today an animated man with a gentle voice, grew up with a strong extended family that valued education; his mother, he remembers, "preached reading," which he says made him more successful in school than many of his classmates. Most of his neighborhood friends didn't have it near as good; their homes were often places of poverty, depression, and substance abuse.

In his early teens, drawn by the temptations of the street, Canada says he was losing interest in the classroom. In the nick of time, he says, his grandparents moved to Long Island and took Canada with them; he credits the opportunity to attend a higher-achieving suburban high school with his future success. "The odds of ... going through all 12 grades in New York City at that time and coming out ... the sort of student I ended up being were slim to none."

Canada went on to college, then graduate school at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., and eventually became president and CEO of Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ), an initiative he's transformed over the past 10 years from a single program serving 1,000 children to a full-scale community project, covering 8,000 children and 97 city blocks. The program made big news earlier this year, when its charter school, the Promise Academy, eliminated the achievement gap for math between average black students and white students in New York City. Among other strategies, the academy has an extended school day and year and Saturday classes for those who need extra help. President Obama wants to replicate HCZ in 20 "promise neighborhoods" around the country.

Canada says he has been determined, since the Superman revelation, to change the lives of children born into disadvantage. He calls the empathy behind that vision at so young an age "a gift and a curse."

The gift? "It meant that I reflected on and really worried about the kids I knew.... It didn't mean I was always a good boy; it didn't mean I was never cruel or mean."

The curse, he says, is that it doesn't get any easier with time: "As I have gotten older ... I haven't become more callous to the pain of others, and it sometimes makes this work very difficult."

He acknowledges, too, that the work made his home life difficult. In his early days as a professional, he was also a first-time father.

"The pressure around family is tremendous. I think mostly the world thinks about that in terms of ... how hard it is to be a working mother."

Canada thinks fathers face a similar pressure – perhaps especially those in do-good jobs: "It's almost guaranteed if you're in this field and you have children, your children will need you, and they will need you sometimes as much as the children that you save, and trying to balance those issues is really complicated and difficult."

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