New York Times Profiles Harlem Children's Zone

New York Times Profiles Harlem Children's Zone

Geoffrey Canada is a man on a mission, a mission to change the way America thinks about the problems of thousands of kids growing up in poverty, the New York Times reports.

In 1990, Canada was president of the Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families, a Harlem-based nonprofit organization that offered an array of not-so-unusual services — after-school programs, truancy prevention, anti-violence training for teenagers — to disadvantaged kids and their families. After a few years of running programs, however, Canada's ideas about fighting poverty began to change, inspired, in part, by a waiting list he was forced to establish for an increasingly popular after-school program. His frustration with only being able to serve five hundred children, rather than every child that could benefit from the program, combined with his growing knowledge of what worked and what didn't when dealing with the problems of disadvantaged kids and their families, made him resolve to find a new way to address those problems. Rather than helping a few kids to beat the odds, he wondered, why not change the odds altogether?

Three years ago, that's what he set out to do. Choosing as his laboratory a twenty-four-block zone of central Harlem (now expanded to sixty blocks) — an area with about 6,500 children, more than 60 percent of whom live below the poverty line and three-quarters of whom score below grade level on statewide reading and math tests — Canada reinvented Rheedlen as the Harlem Children's Zone and reached out to funders for help in creating a comprehensive, cradle-to-adolescence approach to addressing the problems faced by kids growing up in poverty.

The HCZ approach combines educational and social programs with medical services serving preschool children, grade-schoolers, adolescents, new parents, grandparents in parental roles, and others. The programs are carefully planned and well run, but none of them, on their own, is particularly revolutionary. It is only when considered together, as part of a larger, holistic framework, that they seem new. Canada believes that each child will do better if the children around him are doing better. So the organization's recruiters go door-to-door to find participants, sometimes offering enticements to parents who enroll their children in the group's programs. The result is a remarkable level of "market penetration," as the organization describes it, with 88 percent of the roughly 3,400 children under eighteen in the core 24-block HCZ neighborhood already served by at least one of its programs. The objective, as Canadea describes it, is to create a safety net woven so tightly that children in the neighborhood can't slip through.

Social scientists and poverty advocates are watching carefully to see if Canada can pull off his grand experiment. Many are skeptical; they've seen their share of ambitious anti-poverty programs collapse because of budget or administrative problems. Canada acknowledges that his work has just begun, but the scale of the project has created a palpable excitement among foundation officials, poverty scholars, and business leaders. Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund, told the Times that while there are other good neighborhood-based programs around the country, "none [is] as comprehensive as the Harlem Children's Zone, and none of them [holds] as much promise."

That view is shared by Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, one of the country's leading thinkers on urban poverty. "It is very, very important for policy makers to be able to cite examples of how you can improve the life chances of disadvantaged kids," said Wilson. "There are so many people who feel that whatever you do, it's not going to work. They want to say, 'Well, there's just a culture of poverty out there, and you can't really change it.'" But if Canada's project is successful, it will "provide the ammunition to policy makers who want to do something to address the problems of poverty," allowing them to say, "Here is a program that has been able to overcome the cumulative disadvantages of chronic subordination. So why not commit ourselves across the nation to try to duplicate what he's done?"

Paul Tough. "The Harlem Project." New York Times Magazine 06/20/2004.