In the 1980s, Central Harlem was falling apart by many standards – abandoned buildings lined the streets, sidewalks and streetlights were in disrepair, drug dealers openly conducted business in broad daylight, children struggled in school, and an increasing number of children ended up in foster care. Geoffrey Canada, the renowned founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), not only noticed all of that – he successfully transformed the community into the thriving business, educational and residential hub it is today.

“I wanted for my Harlem children what we all want for our own children. I wanted them to grow up in a safe community. I wanted them to have a decent education. I wanted them to have lots of sports and arts. I wanted their community to look beautiful. I wanted them to believe they had a future and I wanted to see them head off to college and come back with degrees, able to break that cycle of poverty,” said Canada. “That’s what I wanted, but how do you create such a thing?”

Canada shared the HCZ’s successes and challenges during a virtual Community Conversation hosted by the North Hartford Ascend Pipeline (Ascend), which was attended by Ascend leaders, Ascend partners, and community residents.

Canada and the HCZ team are advising Ascend leaders as they collaborate with partners and residents to create a cradle to career system of supports to enhance academic, health and life outcomes for North Hartford residents, similar to the system built in Central Harlem. Ascend is funded by a five-year, $30 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Promise Neighborhoods program, which was created by former President Barack Obama’s administration and inspired by the HCZ.

Harlem Children’s Zone: Then and Now

Determined to turn Central Harlem around, Canada shared how he began mobilizing community leaders and residents. They met often and consulted with experts from around the country, but struggled through many years to develop a plan.

“Our young people defined success by getting an education and moving out of Harlem to a good neighborhood because they felt that there was no way that you could successfully grow up and raise your family in Central Harlem,” said Canada.

Then, armed with inspiration from a comprehensive, cradle to career approach brainstormed during one of their planning sessions by professor Otis Johnson, who later became the mayor of Savannah, Georgia, Canada launched the HCZ and consulted with The Bridgespan Group, a global social change leader, to develop a business plan.

The HCZ’s strategy involved engaging the community to solicit ideas for how to address the health, mental health, education and social needs of children and families in Central Harlem. They sought to measurably enhance educational, health and life outcomes and transform the community.

Funded largely with private dollars, they went block by block throughout 97 blocks in Central Harlem to build tenant block associations, connect leaders with one another, and create programmatic supports starting at birth – all to ensure success for the community’s children. They followed those children through elementary school, middle school, and high school. They helped them not only get into college, but also graduate.

 “I was charting our progress and tracking our outcomes because this is all about outcomes. We wanted to see whether or not our strategies were producing the results we hoped for,” said Canada. “After a few years, I had maybe 40 kids in college. A couple of years later, I had 100 kids. A couple of years later, I had 300 kids. A couple of years later, I had 500 kids. Now, in any given year, we have about 950 of our kids in college and we’re graduating anywhere between 150 and 200 kids a year with college degrees.”

In addition, Canada notes that schools run by the HCZ have eliminated the achievement gap between white and Black children. Their students are performing as well as white children in New York City and New York State, he said.


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Harlem Children’s Zone Success

Now, decades later, the Central Harlem community is thriving – crime is down, development is booming, families and businesses are moving into the area, and it’s the norm for children to stay in school and head off to college. Some even return to Harlem to start their careers.

Brian McClendon is among those success stories.

McClendon first learned about the HCZ when he was a student in high school and a friend encouraged him to check out their after school enrichment programs and employment opportunities. He visited their offices, which were just two blocks from the housing development where he lived.

“I got introduced to a man named Geoffrey Canada,” said McClendon. “I didn’t know this guy but he looked so familiar to me. Come to find out he was my martial arts instructor when I was 11 years old.”

Canada asked McClendon what he wanted out of life. McClendon recalls expressing interest in criminal justice and becoming a federal law enforcement agent.

“He basically told me, ‘I’m going to make sure you finish high school. I’m going to make sure you get to college and you get through college,’” said McClendon. “I was happy to be in a place where folks cared about you because I grew up in a housing development in the projects and Geoff became like a second father figure to me in many instances.”

McClendon graduated high school two years later with a school-based AmeriCorps Peacemaker Program internship under his belt, which he landed through the HCZ. He worked with the HCZ through college. After graduating with a degree in criminal justice, McClendon decided to continue with the HCZ because he felt the work was making a difference.

“Harlem Children’s Zone continued to push me and continued to give me opportunities to grow with the organization,” McClendon said.

McClendon continued his education earning a master’s degree in public administration, operations and management. He is now a managing director with the organization’s William Julius Wilson Institute, which is dedicated to helping communities across the country replicate the HCZ model.

“My dream is to replicate the work I’ve been doing for the last 25 years in other cities across the country and change the lives of our young folks and our families,” said McClendon. “My journey here has been extensive. I am no longer living in the housing development I grew up in thanks to the diligence of Geoff and others.”

Leveraging Expertise to Transform North Hartford

Through it all, McClendon is grateful to Geoffrey Canada for believing in him and keeping his promise to ensure McClendon finished high school and graduated college. McClendon’s story represents one of countless successful examples from building the HCZ.

“Brian is exceptional. He is part of a group of young people who started with us from our community who play a major role in getting this work done,” said Canada. “If this work in North Hartford is done right, your role is to create hundreds of Brians, thousands of Brians.”

To help ensure that happens, Canada and the HCZ team have met with the Ascend team numerous times to inform their efforts, including the Ascend governance structure, their Community Conversations, and their priority to embed the voices of community residents in all that they do.

“The Harlem Children’s Zone is a national model of place-based innovation which the New York Times called one of the most ambitious social policy experiments of our time,” said Paul H. Dworkin, MD, Executive Vice President for Community Child Health at Connecticut Children’s, while introducing Canada to the Community Conversation audience. “Geoff and his team have generously and effectively supported our fledgling efforts and have committed to providing the foundational and programmatic supports that will inform and inspire our success.”

“Part of our mission at the William Julius Wilson Institute is to get the next million children on the path to social and economic mobility,” stated Canada to those attending his Community Conversation presentation. “You all have the opportunity to help us in our mission by making sure that when we count children who are going to be successful, we count the children of North Hartford.”

Learn more about the North Hartford Ascend Pipeline here and learn more about the Harlem Children’s Zone here.