Canada, Geoffrey 1954–
Geoffrey Canada 1954–
Children’s services administrator
Geoffrey Canada knows first-hand what it is like to grow up impoverished and scared in a world dominated by violence. However, rather than seeking to escape from his past, Canada has returned to the streets of his childhood. He has become passionately committed to helping the youth of today grow up in a happier and safer world.
Canada was born in the South Bronx of New York City in 1954. His father, McAlister, suffered from chronic alcoholism. His mother, Mary, eventually left her husband, believing that it would be easier to raise Geoffrey and his three brothers on her own. Mary was hard-working and dedicated to her sons, but life was nonetheless difficult, and Canada’s youth was marked by poverty. As he explained to Michelle Green of People Weekly, “We were too poor to dress properly. I had thin socks, thin pants, no sweaters and no boots. It wasn’t until years later that I found out you could remain warm in the winter if you had the right clothes.”
In a life filled with hardships, Canada was fortunate to have a loving mother who instilled in him strong values, a deep sense of responsibility, and a belief in the importance of education. She tutored her sons, restricted the amount of television they were permitted to watch, taught them how to read, and took them to museums and civil rights marches. An ambitious woman, she eventually even earned a master’s degree from Harvard University.
Canada’s maternal grandparents also greatly impacted his childhood. Both of them were ordained Baptist ministers, and his grandfather became pastor of the Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church in New York. Although Canada found their honesty and morality out of sync with the reality of his life, it was his grandmother who ultimately helped to restore the faith that had been so heavily distorted on the streets. As Canada recounted in his book, Reaching Up for Manhood, she was “older, wiser, and…willing to fight for as long as it takes for [my] soul.”
A bright child who excelled at school, Canada concurrently was educated on the streets of the South Bronx. He loved to read, and thus his studies came easily, but he quickly learned that he needed a street reputation even more than an academic one—or perhaps in spite of one—so that he would be left unharmed. By the time he was in sixth grade, he sought to balance being in the “smart” class with an equal adeptness at fighting on the street.
Despite the strong presence of his mother, Canada did not escape the pressures of the world outside of his home. The police, he quickly came to believe, did not care and certainly were not the answer in times of trouble. He learned that it was better to fight than to
At a Glance…
Born Geoffrey Canada in 1954; son of Mary (a substance abuse counselor) and McAlister; divorced Joyce Henderson; married to Yvonne Grant; five children. Education: Bowdoin University, B.A., psychology and sociology, 1974; Harvard Graduate School of Education, M. A., education, 1975.
Career; Supervisor, Camp Freedom, Center Ossipe, NH, 1974-75; teacher and counselor, Robert White School, Boston, MA, 1975-76, associate director, 1976-77, director, 1977-81; program director, Rheedlen Institute’s Truancy Prevention Program, New York, 1983-90; founder, director, chief instructor, Chang MooKwan Martial Arts School, New York, 1983-; president and CEO, Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families, New York, 1990-; East Coast regional coordinator, Black Community Crusade for Children, 1991-.
Selected memberships: Member, board of trustees, City Project, 1990-; member, board of trustees, Black Child Development Institute, 1992-; member, board of directors, Fund for the City of New York and Foundation Center, 1995-.
Selected awards: Heroes of the Year Award, Robin Hood Foundation, 1992; Common Good Award, Bowdoin College, 1993; Heinz Family Foundation Award for Contributions to the Human Condition, January 1995.
Addresses: Office —Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families, 2770 Broadway, New York, NY 10025.
suffer the ramifications of being labeled a coward. As a youngster he armed himself with a knife, which he always kept in his pocket. Once, while playing with the knife, Canada badly injured his finger. He never had the permanently bent finger repaired, so that it would serve as a constant reminder of a lesson he learned in the Bronx: do not ever become a victim. As he discussed in his memoir, fist stick knife gun, “the finger keeps the urgency of the work my colleagues and I do with children at the forefront of my mind. The slight deformity is such a small price to have paid for growing up in the South Bronx. So many others have paid with their lives.”
After completing high school, Canada enrolled at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine in 1970. At Bowdoin, he found himself in what was then an all-male environment, in a city with a very small African American population. For the first time in his life, Canada lived and worked with white students on a daily basis.
Canada completed his bachelor of arts degree in psychology and sociology at Bowdoin in 1974, and went on to pursue a master of arts in education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He also served as a supervisor at Camp Freedom in Center Ossipe, New Hampshire. At Camp Freedom, he taught others how to instruct children with severe emotional disabilities. After finishing his masters degree, Canada joined the faculty of the Robert White School, a private school for troubled inner city youth in Boston. While the overall tenor of the Robert White School closely resembled that of the South Bronx – poor, angry students estranged from society and preoccupied with violence – the composition of the student body was strikingly different: predominantly white pupils in whom racism was deeply ingrained. Canada quickly found that, by drawing upon his own childhood experiences, he could reach these children, and he was often assigned responsibility for the most troublesome, violent students. By 1977, Canada was appointed director of the school. He worked to change the very culture of the school, and established violence reduction programs.
In 1983, Canada left the Robert White School and returned to New York. Motivated by a desire to save young people whose lives might be brutally cut short by bullets or smothered by hopelessness, he decided to work and live in Harlem and to provide children with a role model. “I want to be a children’s hero,” Canada remarked in fist stick knife gun, “Children need heroes because heroes give hope; without hope they have no future.” He found employment with the Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families as a program director for the Rheedlen Institute’s Truancy Prevention Program.
The Rheedlen Centers were initially founded in 1970 by Richard Murphy as a truancy prevention program for children ages five to 12. Their mission evolved as the needs of their constituency – poor children and families – expanded, first growing to address issues of the complete family unit and then incorporating those of entire neighborhoods. At the core of Rheedlen’s mission is providing a safe environment for children among adults who will give them a sense of security and protection. Through the Truancy Prevention Program, Canada specifically worked with children whose parents had abused or neglected them. He also counseled at risk and other neighborhood children who needed an after-school destination.
Canada’s personal background, professional and academic experience, and core belief system fit well with Rheedlen’s philosophy. Patricia Smith aptly described Canada in the Boston Globe as “the brother who never left the hood because he keeps looking into the faces of the children and seeing himself there.” For Canada, the enemies that need to be defeated include poverty, drugs, gangs, broken homes, abusive parents, poorly funded schools, unsafe playgrounds, and hopelessness. He had witnessed first-hand how violence becomes ingrained in underprivileged youths, and how a culture of helplessness breeds one of destruction, often in the name of self-defense. Canada recounted this type of scenario in fist stick knife gun: “The child coming home scared, scarred, looking to [the parents] for protection that they could not provide. The parents feeling as if they had no alternative. Accept it, this is a violent world, so teach them to cope by acting more violently than the others.” The solution to this problem, Canada believes, is for educated men and women to live and work with these children to show them a more productive way to live.
When Canada first arrived at the Rheedlen Centers, he was determined to teach martial arts to his students as a continuation of the violence reduction programs he had initiated in Boston. A third-degree black belt, Canada firmly believed that this was the only way to reach some of the youths. He envisioned the martial arts, particularly the discipline of Tai Kwon Do, as an integral part of his violence prevention programs. In September of 1983, with the support of Rheedlen founder Richard Murphy, Canada first opened his martial arts school, the Chang Moo Kwon Tai Kwon Do Club, in the basement of Junior High School 54 in Manhattan Valley.
Through the martial arts, Canada has taught strong conflict resolution skills to his students. As he remarked in fist stick knife gun, Tai Kwon Do has provided the ideal forum to talk with students “about values, about violence, about hope. I try to build within each one a reservoir of strength that they can draw from as they face the countless tribulations small and large that poor children face every day. And I try to convince each one that I know their true value, their worth as human beings, their special gift that God gave to them.”
In 1990, Canada was appointed president and CEO of the Rheedlen Centers. Housed primarily in public schools, the Centers have expanded to offer homework help, tutoring, and recreational programs to 2,000 students. Canada’s preventative, constructive approach actively blends education, social services, and community re-building as a distinct contrast to expanded police forces and jails. Social workers provide drug counseling and advice to parents, and emergency food and clothing are given to families in distress. Canada has also designed programs to train participants in such basic life skills as job expectations, punctuality, attendance, reliability, appearance, attitude, and respect. By 1997, the Centers had 11 sites throughout Manhattan. Particularly concerned with the plight of young boys, Canada ensures that Rheedlen programs are led by caring, nurturing men who exemplify the ideal that males play an important role in raising children.
Manhood is a subject which preoccupies Canada. In Reaching Up for Manhood, he emphatically stated that boys receive a highly skewed message of what it means to be a man. They quickly learn that manhood entails giving and receiving pain, doing anything to avoid being labeled a coward, and creating an emotional distance between oneself and the rest of the world. The streets, in essence, comprise a culture that mistakes violence for manliness. “The greatest risk of being a poor black boy in the ghetto,” Canada wrote, “was that you would be robbed of the most sacred thing that you had, your manhood.” Compassion for others is viewed as a weakness, a weakness that can cost a boy his life. Strong father-son bonds are essential for helping a boy reach manhood safely. As Canada noted in an interview with Andrea Bernstein of Mother Jones, “The real problem is not single women, it’s men who walk away from their families and leave them without support emotionally and financially.”
Despite the enormous obstacles he faces daily, Canada remains energized. Not only has he further developed the traditional programming offered by Rheedlen, but he has also instigated many key initiatives during his tenure as president. For instance, he has been active in the establishment and implementation of Rheedlen’s Beacon School program. Housed in the Countee Cullen Community Center, the Beacon School provides a multitude of support services, safe shelters, and constructive activities to children and families in central Harlem.
Under Canada’s leadership, the Rheedlen Centers have also initiated the Harlem Peacemakers Program, a community-wide effort to reduce violence in central Harlem by teaching negotiation skills. Concerned by the media’s promotion of violence as a way of settling disputes, Canada has attempted to develop an alternative plan of action, one centered on communication as a means of conflict resolution. The Peacemakers work with Rheedlen staff members to design anti-violence programs and conflict resolution, mediation, and safety plans. Each year, the program trains an additional 50 Peacemakers. Concurrently, Canada has created the Community Pride Initiative to work with tenants in central Harlem to help them reclaim their apartments and, ultimately, their neighborhoods.
In addition to his efforts with the Rheedlen Centers, Canada has begun to tackle similar issues on a national level. He has partnered with Marion Wright Edelman and the Children’s Defense Fund on behalf of their Black Community Crusade for Children, a nationwide effort to make saving African American children the number one priority within the African American community. Such efforts reinforce Canada’s dedication to addressing and solving the problems that confront African Americans.
Despite the horrors which he has experienced and witnessed, Canada remains a man of hope. Through his writings and actions, he embodies the role model he once desired for himself. Canada strives to be a man of love and peace, the “visible hero” fighting to save children from the often brutally dangerous world that they have inherited.
fist stick knife gun: A Personal History of Violence in America, Beacon Press, 1995.
Reaching Up for Manhood: Transforming the Lives of Boys in America, Beacon Press, 1997.
American Visions, October 20, 1995.
Library Journal, May 15, 1995; December 1997, p. 129.
Management Review, November 1997, p. 40-1.
Parenting Magazine, May 1997, p. 185.
People Weekly, April 10, 1995.
Philanthropy News Digest, April 12, 1995.
Publishers Weekly, March 20, 1995, pp. 21-22; May 15, 1995; November 10, 1997, p. 61.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the Heinz Awards website; the Mother Jones website; the Mothers Against Violence in America website; and a Rheedlen Centers for Family and Children press release.
—Lisa S. Weitzman
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