story and photo by Janet I. Martineau
|Geoffrey Canada signs one of his books after his talk|
A free lunch for 600 Saginaw citizens was served up with a heaping helping of reality at the Horizons Conference Center on Thursday.
“We (the United States) lock up more people in prisons than any place in the world. The cost for each inmate is $37,000 a year. 20 to 30 percent of every state budget these days is for criminal justice.
"Yet we are slashing our education dollars all over America because, we say, we can’t afford the money.”
The speaker of those words was an impassioned man by the name of Geoffrey Canada, a 59-year-old social activist/educator -- specifically a black man born and raised in the rough South Bronx -- whose Harlem Children’s Zone is making headline-grabbing headway in the battle against a broken education system and inner city violence.
“It takes $5,000 a year to educate a child in the Harlem Children’s Zone,” Canada said. “You get nothing for that $37,000 a year spent for a person in prison. For $5,000 I get an education leading to graduation from college.”
Canada was brought in to speak by the the Saginaw Community Foundation and United Way in hopes Saginaw can somehow pattern a program after his Harlem Children’s Zone.
The lunch and his visit was paid for by Dow Chemical, Hemlock Semiconductor, Nexteer and Spence Brothers in, apparently, their hopes too.
“If this crisis in education continues, I don’t see us continuing as a great country,” Canada warned. “It will cripple America. And the whole country is in peril, not just the black community.
“It is a question of how much we care about our kids. China is No. 1 in the world in reading, math and science skills in its students. They reinvest in their kids. They are building smarter kids.”
Spanning 97 blocks in Harlem, the non-profit Harlem Children’s Zone headed by Canada was begun in the 1990s and offers free parenting workshops, a pre-school program, charter schools, and health programs. Its yearly budget, it reports, is $75 million; serving 10,000 children and 7,400 adults.
“We start with the kids at birth and give them support all the way through college graduation,” he said. “And we don’t tolerate failure in our students or in our teachers, because when you don’t tolerate failure you end up with success.
“Excellence is the expectation of people working in law, in medicine, in business -- why not in education. My teachers will tell you it is stressful working for me, but we have them asking to teach for us. If you get paid to educate kids and are lousy at it, then you should change jobs.”
Canada has taken his message to “60 Minutes,” “Oprah,” “Charlie Rose.” He played a prominent role in last year’s award-winning documentary “Waiting for Superman” -- its title taken from the fact that “if you think anyone is going to come to your town to save you and your kids, well, ain’t nobody coming. There is no plan in the government. In fact, they often ask me. ‘What do you think we should do?’
“You have to save your own kids, city by city. We have to do this ourselves. You have to rebuild the WHOLE thing. We all have to take personal responsibility -- and raise private dollars from businesses, the wealthy, foundations.”
Getting back to the fact it is not just a problem in the black community, Canada conceded that the statistics indicate the nation has lost more black people to violence since the early 1980s than were hung during slavery and reconstruction; that there are more African-Americas who cannot vote today because they are felons than who could not vote during slavery.
But he also held up in his hand a Ready, Willing and Unable document signed by legions of military leaders saying that 70 percent of ALL young American adults cannot join the military because...
...25 percent are drop outs with no high school diploma, which you need to join.
...“30 percent cannot pass the entrance exam they have to take
...“10 percent are felons.
...“27 percent are too obese thanks to our supersize mentality that saves you money the more food or pop you buy.
“We have allowed all this to happen. This is an adult problem. I question how much we care about our kids. I used to think think this was just in Harlem, but it is every place I go.
“And even with a college degree our kids will have to compete fiercely for jobs. What it takes to get a job is increasing, but our education is not adapting to that.”