This article was written by Gianna Colantuono

From September 20th-24th, the National Coalition of Promise Zones held their virtual federal convening. The keynote speaker was Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, the program that served as a model for Promise Zones.

Spanning 97 blocks in Harlem, the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) was founded by Canada as a place-based organization in 1997. It supports education, community outreach, and health and wellness. The Harlem Children’s Zone’s mission is to “end intergenerational poverty in Central Harlem and lead the way for other long-distressed communities nationwide and around the world to do the same.” The HCZ served as a model for Promise Zones, which began as a federal program through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2013.

Canada made sure to explain how vital this work is, stressing that “our children and families need us more now than ever.” However, he didn’t shy away from the reality that being a leader is not always easy and emphasized that if community leaders do not care for themselves and support one another, they will burn out and undermine ourselves.

The talk focused especially on why this work is important, what effective leadership looks like, and how leaders can learn from their mistakes. Canada stressed that place matters, saying that if we isolate people and deprive them of a decent education, we are going to end up with social and behavioral problems.

Lastly, the longtime social activist underscored that, although HCZ has made some serious achievements, it didn’t come without struggles. He was very open about the mistakes made along the way. It took twelve years for the HCZ to achieve the results people wanted to see. He encouraged listeners not to explain away failures or hide from them, but rather to continue to work toward improving things.

You can learn more about the Harlem Children’s Zone and watch the keynote recording and the recordings from all the sessions.