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Teaching Hope

In Struggling New York Neighborhoods, Geoffrey Canada Leads the Rheedlen Centers in Helping Young People See Opportunity Beyond Often Bleak Surroundings

March 06, 1998|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — The big map of Harlem was mounted like a battle plan, an appropriate display, since the mission was a war on despair. The map divided the poor, drug-ridden area into three zones, and on one corner, a circle marked the building where the Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families hopes to relocate.

The only problem was, the CEO heard his staff report, the place has no roof. OK, he said, we'll build a roof. And by the way, the staff continued, all the floors fell in. Fine, said the CEO, we'll do the floors. He paused, and with no trace of irony at all, inquired: Does this place have walls? The staff nodded yes.

"Walls!" Geoffrey Canada exclaimed, and his face lit up with delight. "That's great! We've got walls!"

As usual, with an almost impossible spirit of resilience, Canada refused to be disappointed. His life's goal is salvaging young lives. A small obstacle like urban devastation was not about to stand in his way.

This is the kind of energy that propels the 46-year-old leader of a nonprofit organization founded almost 30 years ago to combat truancy. Rheedlen is an invented name devised by the group's founder, Richard L. Murphy, who now runs the Academy for Educational Development in Washington. Canada began working with Rheedlen 15 years ago, and under his stewardship its agenda has grown to include almost any issue that affects children and families in Manhattan's toughest neighborhoods. From Harlem to Hell's Kitchen, Rheedlen operates 43 school-based centers known as "beacons," open 17 hours a day.

"What we're doing here--here in the most at-risk neighborhoods there are--is building a sense of hope for children, a ladder for young people," Canada explained. "We're providing a sense of expectation, and a way for them to reach it."

Across the country, thousands of community-based intervention efforts are battling social erosion. Experts say that almost without exception, those that succeed rely on the presence of a charismatic leader. With his graduate degree from Harvard, his black belt in karate and his roots in the South Bronx, Canada has emerged as one of this country's leading advocates for urban youth. He was among the first winners in 1995 of the $250,000 Heinz Award, presented to "masters of achievement" who are effecting social change. Canada immediately earmarked much of his winnings for cash incentives for kids who do well in school.

Jonathan Kozol, author of "Amazing Grace," about life in the South Bronx, regards Canada as "one of the few authentic heroes of New York." Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children's Defense Fund, calls him "one of the most gifted and powerful voices for children today."

Canada--with prominent ears, the mandatory street goatee and hair cropped so short that the incipient gray barely shows through--is a one-man tornado. Recently, in the course of a day, he met with a wealthy philanthropist, strategized to bring low-cost school supplies to area residents, helped plan a substance-free dance for middle-school students, brainstormed to create a Harlem community services handbook, taught a karate class and faced off a very scary guy who threatened the life of a Rheedlen employee. The young man making the threat was himself a former member of the Rheedlen family. Canada disowned him in no uncertain terms.

"We will not tolerate violence or the threat of violence," he declared. "Never, ever. Under no circumstances."

In between everything else, Canada chaired a teen youth council meeting at P.S. 194 on West 144th Street. With a frame so tall and skinny that one boy mistook him for a pro basketball player, Canada still somehow managed to look dignified on a spindly little library chair. Here is the deal he made with the dozen or so kids who met with him:

"If you go away to school, you'll always have a summer job. You'll always have a job when you come home. And when you graduate from college, we'll make sure that all of you have a job."

One more part of the deal. He let his 20-year-old son Raymond describe this feature: $100 for every A earned in college. Raymond is not his biological child, nor his child via marriage. Canada calls all the boys he is close to his "sons." Rheedlen's in-school, after-school, weekend and evening programs reach 3,500 children, ages 5 to 20. Canada cares about all of them, but these days, he is targeting special attention at young males.

Too many boys mistake violence for manliness, Canada maintains. "More and more I have become concerned with what boys think they should be, and what they believe it means to be a man," Canada writes in his new book, "Reaching Up for Manhood" (Beacon Press).

Part memoir, part social improvement treatise, the book is reminiscent in style and tone of Canada's first book, "Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America" (Beacon Press, 1995). Using his skill as a storyteller, that book employed personal anecdotes to explain how weapons became ordinary objects for children in urban America.

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