Reducing poverty? “It’s Not Rocket Science. It’s Harder than Rocket Science.”
Geoffrey Canada, very charismatic, threw away his notes at the beginning of the talk. Notes serve to comfort the audience, but the speaker didn’t need them.
His topic? “Changing Lives, Changing Communities.” It was my NYU college reunion on Saturday (25 years since undergrad, and 20 years since grad). I’m interested in what makes for community and how to uplift people caught in the multi-tentacled beast of poverty.
Canada is the genius behind the Harlem Children’s Zone. Their slogan? “Whatever It Takes.” The zone is a 100 block radius to lift about 15,000 Harlem kids socially, educationally, medically. The zone promises to stick with a child through college.
Goals for Children
“We have to have the same goals for poor children, as for our own children. We aspire for college, not technical schools or the military, for our children. Because, at different times, people have break throughs,” Canada said. The one kid that no one thought would amount to anything continues through college and earned their Master’s degree in education. “So, we don’t know.”
Do Lots of Things
“The U.S. is a rogue nation. We lock up more people than any other country. There’s a school to prison pipeline… You believe that children are our future and you love America.” So do something. But, Canada said, we have to do lots of things.
“Growing up in the ’60s, we always thought there was a conspiracy. The government had a plan. I’ve talked to presidents. There is no plan. There is no answer…. We keep thinking we can do one thing. We have to do everything,” Canada said.
The cure for poverty is like the current treatment for AIDS, he said. You can’t give one pill – like better schools – you have to provide many antidotes – “hold people’s egos in tact while getting them to work harder.” What you need is an AIDS cocktail of pills, not just one anti-viral.
How We Talk to Children
“Poor parents use far more negatives when talking to kids. ‘Stop. Don’t. How dare you!'” Canada acted out an example of this. When a child with educated parents, dumps his juice on the floor, the parent gently corrects, coddles, maybe even uses the spillage as a teaching moment about gravity. When a poor child does the same thing, the family yells, “Stop that!”
The guy is engaging. The speech was a part of NYU Silver School of Social Work as it kicks off the new McSilver Institute of Poverty Policy, Practice and Research in a week or two.
At NYU, I attended the English department for grad and undergrad. I believe writing is a form of advocacy and social work. In college, I loved abnormal psych, anthropology, drama, literature, and writing.
Having written about reducing poverty through the Circles Campaign for Global Ministries, I have begun to learn what works, what doesn’t, and what the average person can do to help dig another person out of entrenched poverty. It seems to me that the Harlem Children’s Zone is digging deep and well in its attempt to reduce poverty.