I’ve been reading Geoffrey Canada’s books lately. The lanky, 67-year-old from the Bronx is a hero of mine and his books — “Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun” and “Reaching Up for Manhood” — are terrific reads for anyone interested in helping young people tap into education-based opportunities and form poverty-fighting plans.
I am not alone: Canada is a hero to thousands, maybe millions of people, including Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and the many Harlem residents who’ve benefited from his tremendous work over decades with the Rheedlen Centres for Children & Families and the Harlem’s Children’s Zone. (Google the TED talk “Our Failing Schools” and you’ll see that Canada has reached millions: 2, 162, 978 as of today, in fact.) The HCZ changes lives through a myriad of programs that are staggeringly well-executed. They also adopt the mantra “failure is not an option”, which Canada says applies more to employees of the HCZ than to those it serves.
Recently, the HCZ, through its “Practitioners Institute” gave me a 1-hour tutorial on the work they do and how they do it. It was a superb 60 minutes of questions and answers and ideas-exchange (thanks Yacine and Janet-Marie!). But here’s the thing: as impressive and successful as the HCZ is, there is no magic. The conjuring, I believe, happens when good intentions meet with great ideas and get irrevocably wed to a determination to see projects through to the bitter (and often sweet) end.
Of course, along the way shit happens.
A few weeks before I got on the line with Yacine and Janet-Marie, a local kid in Halifax was gunned down at 5pm on a Friday afternoon on residential street. He wasn’t an UP guy, but he was close to many young men who are UP ballers. In New York, the story was similar: as soon as we started to speak, the HCZ folks told about a young person had been murdered just the day before — “Right outside one of our schools,” Yacine said.
I’m not saying Halifax is Harlem. But I am saying that our city has race and poverty and violence issues. And I’m saying that kids are worth helping… that violence knows no boundaries… and that we must build each and every interaction on a foundation fashioned our of Trust & Respect.
Whether it’s HCZ or UP, it’s not about charity. Hell, it’s often not even about ‘helping’ someone. It’s about being human and showing your humanity. It’s about giving someone a boost up when they need it, including when they are tired or pissed-off or just scared.
When the HCZ staff asked about my motivation, I explained it that I started UP as much for myself as others. I put it this way: I decided years ago that could not continue life’s climb without reaching back and lending a hand to a few people who may have faltered or maybe just never had ‘decent footing’ to start with.
Don’t get me wrong, I am no Geoff Canada. And I want to reach life’s summit and enjoy the view.
It’s just that getting to the peak alone isn’t very appealing to me.