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Penn Commencement 2012

May 22, 2012, Volume 58, No. 34

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Vincent PriceIn introducing the Commencement Speaker, Provost Vincent Price commented that, “Our speaker today, Geoffrey Canada, might urge you to take a look around. Surrounding you is a community of supporters: family members, who raised you; friends, who listened, and laughed; classmates who pushed you to work harder. And, of course, your professors: I hope they helped a little bit, too.

Like you, Mr. Canada understands the capacity for educational achievement. His life’s work has been building the supportive communities that enable it.

As President of the Harlem Children’s Zone, Mr. Canada is one of the nation’s most forceful advocates for a holistic approach to education. For children to do well, he has noted, their families have to do well. And for families to thrive, their communities must prosper. It’s a lesson he learned first-hand.

Geoffrey Canada was born in the South Bronx, a shattered community struggling to break the cycle of poverty. When he was in his mid-teens—his destiny seemingly assured—his mother made a change. She sent her son to live with his grandparents, on Long Island. The move altered the trajectory of his life.

He began to thrive academically, earning a scholarship to college, then a master’s degree in education, from Harvard, in 1975. He worked as a teacher, then for a Harlem non-profit offering truancy prevention programs. Yet, he grew frustrated.

What was the point in seeing one child succeed in school, while nine more continue to fail? Why give a hundred kids access to social programs, while thousands languish on a waiting list? He became convinced that Harlem had to try something different. Not simply its public education system but its entire communal fabric demanded re-imagining.

In 1990, he founded the Harlem Children’s Zone.

The organization builds a supportive community from birth. A workshop series for parents of children younger than three is called, quite pointedly, Baby College.

The pipeline goes on to encompass schools and initiatives for children of every age through college, including in-school, after-school, social-service, health, and community-building programs. When it began, Harlem Children’s Zone encompassed one city block.  Today, it covers nearly one hundred blocks, and serves eighteen thousand people—ten thousand of them children.

When you leave Penn tomorrow, you will begin constructing those communities of support, so that others may succeed as you have. I cannot imagine a better source of inspiration for that journey than our speaker: Geoffrey Canada.
Almanac - May 22, 2012, Volume 58, No. 34