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Biographical Details of Leadership
Contemporary Lens on Black Leadership
Historical Focus on Race
BOND: Geoffrey Canada, welcome to Explorations in Black Leadership.
CANADA: Thank you.
BOND: I know you were only two years old when the Brown decision came down in 1954, but when it became — you became known about it and what it promised, what did you think would happen?
CANADA: Well, this is really fascinating because I grew in the south Bronx in New York City and we saw that issue as having to do with being across the Mason-Dixon Line. Now, you ask, were we totally segregated? Absolutely, we were. Did I go to schools that were totally segregated? Absolutely. But in my mind, this had nothing to do with me. This was happening some place else and it was a while before I started really becoming aware of how significant this was. It was a piece of history that I heard glimmers of, but I think my grandparents who had come from North Carolina to Harlem and later to the Bronx to get away from the oppression and to try and find work, we thought we were living the good life. I think later on we began to realize that there were real limits and this major decision was as critical for me and those of us in the North as it was for those people in the South.
BOND: Do you remember how old you were when this dawned on you that this affected me, affected us?
CANADA: Yeah. I was probably twelve or thirteen and the first part of my life, I, you know, like a lot of African Americans at that particular point in time, I wasn’t necessarily too thrilled being black, right, or being Negro as we called ourselves. I was very brainwashed by the culture I was living in and we used to tease one another about having big lips and a big nose and dark skin and I remember I used to constantly argue with my brothers that, no, no, no, no, I’m yellow, I’m not black, right? There would be this thing and that was like almost an insult and that’s the culture that I grew up in.
I’ll tell you what changed it. I was standing on a corner in the south Bronx and a couple of people from the Nation of Islam — we didn’t even know who these were guys were — came and they began to talk to us about being brainwashed and the older guys sort of, you know, they laughed, they just sort of blew them off, but they started saying things, like have you ever thought about why everything bad is black and they began to say black that, black Monday, but and I said there and I said, oh, my goodness, there may be something to this and then I — it feels like the veils were sort of removed from my eyes and I began to look around and I said, oh, my goodness, what’s going on here and the place that it impacted I think in my own consciousness the most was at the schools. I began to look to see what was happening in the schools and I began to look at a system. I was in sort of the number one class and they called it — I was in 41 and 51 and then the classes went back and it was all based on what someone thought was your ability and kids even in one grade, I mean, one class behind, so I was in 61. The kids in 62, no one thought that those kids would go to college and they didn’t pretend that they thought. They were hoping they might be able to finish high school and kids who were in 65, no one even thought they could finish high school and so I sat there and thought this is not the way other people are living. There’re other places in this country and race seemed to have a primary sort of impact on how people thought about your life expectancy and suddenly I became very interested in Brown v. Board of Education and what I think it was trying to do which was not just equalize the I think the funding and, say, integration but to actually allow African Americans to get an education so that they could improve their lot in life and that wasn’t happening for those us in the North.
BOND: Do you think those kids in 62 and 63 absorbed this expectation that other people had for them?
CANADA: It was totally absorbed. I am still even to this day absolutely devastated by the generations of young people who believed that they were not going to be successful, so this is — you know, in my family, I’m one of the first ones to go to college, but there were about four of us who went to college. I was fine because I was the kind of kid that I was always very gregarious and teachers — the other three, each one of them were told — my aunt, my brother and my uncle, each one of them were told that you should not even think about college and so these were the ones who luckily just sort of somehow fought through that. It doomed almost all those other kids because that’s — you internalize "I’m not smart enough," and it made you not want to work hard, it made you not think you could do the work so you didn’t bother studying. You didn’t do the homework because you thought, "What’s the point, where am I going with this thing," and I think there were generations who were destroyed by that system.
BOND: Do you have a sense now all these many years after Brown in ’54, all these many years ago, how it did affect your life, even though initially you thought it didn’t touch you at all?
CANADA: Well, there were some really I think important ways that it impacted my life. First of all, I think that it really said that there was something going on in this country that allowed those of us who weren’t part of that initial generation of the civil rights movement, that there was some doors that were being opened and we had better take advantage of it. And, by the way, I think this was a generation — I think my generation, so I was born in ’52, so right now I’m fifty-six. I’ll be fifty-seven in January of 2009, so my generation was the first generation that actually got some benefit from Brown v. Board of Education but it allowed us to think there’s an answer and you know what the answer is. The answer is education and you get a good education and you go out and you just open up this thing so everybody else will come charging in behind you and it really focused me on saying people fought, people died for this. Now, I’ve got to take advantage of this opportunity and try and change what’s going on in my community and I think a lot of us felt that the competition, the absolute pressure on us to prove that we deserved to be sitting next to white students, that we could compete at the same level, drove a lot of us to actually strive for excellence and I think there’re a group of people and I look and I see this group that’s from my generation, that’s sort of in the top places in America.
I was in the school at the same time Ken Chenault was and there’re just a number of us from that generation that thought that this battle is about getting A's and about showing folk that we are just as intelligent and smart as whites and that was part of the I think culture of our growing up because it wasn’t at that time — it seems — now people think, oh, that’s such a racial thing to say. There were actual studies where people were trying to prove the inferiority of races when I was still in college. There were people who were writing about this why this was really genetics, this was not — so, we felt that we were in the vanguard of that struggle and I think Brown v. Board of Education was the first thing that opened up the doors and allowed us to really get quality educations all over this country.
BOND: I remember when I was young saying that Jackie Robinson broke through with the Dodgers because he was better than all of the other baseball players and that therefore we black people didn’t have to be as good. We had to be better. Was that part of your coming up years?
CANADA: This was exactly how we felt, that in the end, if you were not better, you were not going to be able to get the same opportunity that someone would say, oh, no, no, it’s not race, we just don’t, you know — you just didn’t reach that threshold so we really did grow up believing that. By the way, I think a generation later that was not the case. I think that people actually began to underachieve because that same pressure wasn’t on the next generation because I think my generation was part of the generation of firsts. The first one to do this and the first one to do that and the first the one to do this and so we were always sort of breaking through these barriers and then once the barriers are broken through, everybody said, ah, so what’s the big deal, right?
BOND: So was that what stopped this breakthrough barrier impulse that we’ve broken that barrier so therefore — what made it stop?
CANADA: I think that for a lot of us we thought that the biggest challenge we were going to face was just getting access and, boy, if you just gave us access, we could just go out and do anything. Now, we understood that because you had to be better and you’re going to have to work harder, but you know what, that’s the kind of preparation you need for leadership. Right? You end up working harder and longer and being more focused and more determined than anyone else. We were doing it because we were trying to prove that we could do it. I think that for a lot of kids this pressure to be the best, to prove that you can do what other people haven’t been able to do, that that pressure really lessened. Now, there are lots of reasons. It’s not like suddenly after my generation the schools got better, the inner city suddenly became wonderful. Everybody got great jobs, so all of those barriers remained the same, but I think this sense of that we were in a sort of a race to the top, that we had to get there and just tell the world — oh, no, we can be a surgeon or I can be a businessman or I can be the first woman that runs the law firm, that those kinds of pressures we felt intimately growing up in school and we felt that it was an obligation to our race to do that, that we had to continually knock these barriers down so you couldn’t say we couldn’t do this, so no matter what it was —
Look, the first time we saw those Williams sisters playing tennis. Oh, there’s another barrier. Oh, we got another one. We said, oh, they’re scared now because we’re coming after them in tennis. Next thing, we’ll have them in ice hockey, right? I mean, it’s just like — it was just this sense that we had to say to the world we can do all of these things at an equal level and therefore this issue about whether or not there’s some genetic predisposition for any of this stuff, we can throw it out the window and we thought at that point, we’d be seen just as human beings.
BOND: But using the Williams’ sisters as an example, after them, with, say, Tiger Woods as an exception, we haven’t seen the black ice hockey star. Where is he and why hasn’t he shown himself?
CANADA: I think that some of this has to do with where we are growing up and there’re communities and most of the communities I’ve been in, ice hockey is not something — you would have to go out of your way to find it, so that meant that even if you were talented, you were probably — the chance of that one family or two families would end up with a talented young person who could do that I think are probably rare.
I’ll tell you this — but I think once you break through, I would bet, and I don’t know this for a fact, but I would bet there are a thousand young African American tennis players hoping — they’re playing right now thinking that maybe I’m the one, right? That I can — but before them, I don’t think people felt — it just wasn’t our sport. It was like if you put a tennis court there, there was no one to really tell you how the game went, where’re you going to get the rackets, so I think that every time we do one of these, we open up the door. I certainly know and if you play golf, and I’m a real hacker at golf because I learned it really late in life, but I loved it, and I know it’s had an impact on all kinds of folks, the fact that Tiger Woods was there, but people forget. Now, so Tiger Woods is young, not from my generation, but from a younger. People forget. There were actually discussions about whether or not they were not going to let Tiger Woods in certain clubhouses because they were still restricted. I mean, I’m not talking 1800s. I’m not talking Brown v. Board, I’m just talking yesterday this was still part, so we’re still breaking through these doors even today which is a little sad, but I think that there’s, you know what, did he have to be better than everybody else to do it? Yes, he did.
BOND: Yes, he did.
CANADA: Yes, he did. And was he? Yes. And would it allow some other black professionals to just come up? I think so. I think so.
BOND: You mentioned a moment ago having to be better than whites. Being as good as wasn’t good enough. Did people tell you that? Did you hear that being said by family or teachers or others? How’d that come to you?
CANADA: Around the Sunday dinner table which was a formal dinner in my grandparents’ house. You had regular dinners, but Sunday was formal. The conversation would come up and it would cross generations. So for my uncles who were ten years older than me, the message would go out. No, but, you know, you’ve got to be better. If you want to just get a break, you’ve got to be better. You’ve got to be the best. You can’t be — you’ve got to be the best or they’re not going to let you in. We heard it at every level — if you’re not the best, they’re not going to let you in and we believed that, so this was coming from I think people who loved us, cared for us, but also understood that we didn’t know what we were facing. We didn’t understand that prejudice and racism really existed because we were so cloistered in many ways by living in these segregated communities that as they began to prepare us to leave those communities, that then we would face it.
Now, by the way, so I never faced this until I went to college, right, because I stayed and my elementary school was all black, middle school all black, high school was all black, so now I go to Bowdoin up in Maine — 90 percent, 95 percent, white, and then I understood. I was stunned because I was the best. I was the best in my high school, right, so I went up to Maine. Wait until I go up there — I’m going to show these people something. I was at the bottom and then I said, "Wait a second, this separate thing is not working for us," because if I’m at the very bottom at a place like Bowdoin, then that means all the other kids who were below me, they don’t even have a chance and what we thought was a good education was not a good education and, again, Brown v. Board of Education came to my mind, because this issue of separate but equal — see, even, there was no one for us to integrate with per se because I think in places like New York City, it was all based on where you lived and geography and, you know, and to some degree, if you got into one of the specialized high schools, you would be mostly the majority of folks in those schools would mostly be white, but you had to take a test to get in those places and every other school was a neighborhood school, so we didn’t come in contact with this very often and some kids never came in contact with it if they didn’t get out of their community and end up at a school like a Bowdoin or another school that was mostly white.
BOND: You mentioned your grandparents’ Sunday dinner table. Who else was it that has been significant in your early life? Who in your family and your school teachers, in your neighborhood, who touched you?
CANADA: Well, I have to start with the two people — my mother was one. She, you know — it’s funny, my mother always told us the key to this whole thing was reading. She just keeping saying the key to this is reading. And I would answer, no, no, no, the key to this is reading. You just have to read and she allowed me to read all kind of stuff. I was reading adult books when I was still in elementary school and she didn’t care if the books had curse words. She was like, no, the key is reading, all right? And I’d say, oh, let me read that book. So this idea that the key was reading and this is another thing — we were very poor, very poor, and my parents used to tell me stuff which I hated to hear them say it, right, because we couldn’t afford stuff like hair cuts and so your hair is not cut. Everybody else was laughing and teasing you. My mother would say, it’s not what’s on your head, it’s what’s in your head, that’s what matters, and I’d be like I don’t want to hear that. Could I just get a hair cut? But, you know what, years of those kinds of messages began to really seep in and suddenly I started saying that to myself, so that was initially I think what’s began to prepare me to work hard.
There were a couple of key people in my life separate than this. One was a young man who was growing up in the south Bronx who himself had dropped out of school and he just decided he was going to save me and I don’t know why. I don’t know why it was me and not any of the other kids, but he just grabbed ahold of me and he said you are not going to end up like himself. He said you’re going to school. You’re going to be successful and everybody looked up to him. His name was Mike. Everybody looked up to him and he actually stopped me. He wouldn’t let me drink. He wouldn’t let me smoke, right? Now, it’s not in the nice soft way that people might think. The things he told me he would do to me if he caught me, I couldn’t repeat, but the idea was he decided some of us have got to get through this thing and I’ve decided you’re one of the ones who’s going to do that so you wouldn’t see him in any of the formal education. He wasn’t a teacher, but he actually helped me navigate my way through the south Bronx and then after that, there were a couple of teachers who just decided that they would not accept sloppy work from me and I could write better than the other students and the teachers would come and they’d be furious at the writing and I said this is the best stuff in the class, what do you — and I knew it, right, and I was like so what are you getting on my case for? Why don’t you bother Paul? Look at his and they were like, no, no, this is nonsense. And they really could — made me because I had gotten lazy, simply because there was no competition around. They would not allow me to do sloppy work or work that would not sort of stand up outside of the neighborhood I was growing up in. Now, I think those kinds of folks really shaped my life.
BOND: What about your grandparents and your first grade teacher?
CANADA: Well, people know that my grandmother is a woman that I loved. She passed away some time ago, but she was probably one of the most unique people that I ever met because even as a five-year-old, she would talk to me like a real person. People don’t usually see children and so they don’t ask you really important questions. My grandmother would ask me questions like "Do you really believe in God?" And I would have a conversation. "No, I don’t, Grandma, and let me tell you why," and I’d go and I’ll explain stuff, and she’d listen to me and she’d say, "Well, you know what, let me tell you," and would have these really deep conversations. Now, if someone came in the room I would have to stop and she would stop, right, because people would’ve thought that’s not appropriate. Kids don’t talk like that. You weren’t supposed to speak your mind but she treated me as if I really had a brain and it was working and it was worth listening to even when she didn’t agree with me and that kind of opportunity really propelled my own I think cognitive development because she allowed me the freedom to speak my mind, to explore boundaries which we were just told, "No, because I told you so, that’s why it is," and she would say, "Well, why do you think that?" And then she would come back and say, "This is what I believe," so that really had an impact on me. My grandmother—
The biggest impact was I thought the key to everything was money. We were poor and if we could just get money, that everything would be okay and my grandmother was the kind of woman and people may know someone like this. If you ever hear of the Brinks truck, right, the doors pop open and the bags of money pour on the highway and some person always takes the bag into the police station, even though no one’s around. That’s my grandmother. We would sit there and say, "You would take it — " "Why would you — " "Because it’s not mine." "But if no one could see you take it — " "No, I would never keep something that —" And we would sit there and say, "But we don’t even have any money, you don’t have a dollar." It didn’t matter. She told us it’s about values and these values — you don’t steal, you don’t lie, and she honestly meant that and her job was to try and save my soul because she knew I listened to her and I was like, "Yeah, if I ever got that my hands on that money, it’d go right underneath my bed and I would — " and she really believed that was wrong and so it took years. I would love to say that she got to me in a year or two. It took years and my goodness, this same grandmother who I then, after I really got grown, I was in college, and I was planning my whole life how I was going to pay her back, right, because I realized what she had done for me and how much time she had spent with me and she was always available to me and she got cancer and it was really painful and bad and she had a pretty painful death, but she was a real believer in God. I mean, she really believed in Him and she was trying to live by a set of principles that she felt like were Christian principles and I used to always—
This is now, you know, I’m talking, I'm talking, this is 1972 and we had all of these sayings about religion being the opium of the masses. We were really rebelling. There were preachers and we were — and I remember I went in to her because she was a good woman. She lived her whole life and I always asked her if God exists, why is that good people have to suffer, right, and so why is it that the bad people always seem to get the money and have all the fun and we would have these conversations. I remember going in and she was on her deathbed and I said her, “Grandma, you’ve lived a good life. You’ve never lied. You’ve never stolen. You’ve done everything right by God and now this. It’s painful. It’s really terrible. Do you believe?” And she said, “I believe more now than ever.” It never was about believing when things were going great.
And I never understood faith until then. And people sometimes say just don’t you — how is it you always keep this attitude that — but I remember what she told me — faith is really when things are tough. It’s easy to believe when you’re getting everything you want and so she really had an impact on me that lasts till this day.
BOND: And what about the first grade teacher?
CANADA: Well, first grade — I had this wonderful teacher in the first grade who was trying to connect with me because I was a kid who was easily distracted. I had learned sort of the ABC's and stuff like that and first grade to me was just very boring, and I just wasn’t focused. And she kept trying to get me focused in the class, and she tried everything—painting and I wasn’t really into painting, and she tried poetry. She just got a book and she started reading this book and I remember sitting in the back of the classroom and she was reading. It was about this guy who had these eggs and the eggs were green and he didn't eat them on a house and he didn't eat them with a mouse and he didn’t eat them here or there, and I had never heard Dr. Seuss before and I just remember thinking, well, that is most amazing thing I’ve ever heard. It was just amazing to me and I said, "Excuse me, could you read that book again?" And she read it again to the class and I just — it was so great. I had to hear it again. I asked her to read it again. She was like, “Geoff, we have to move on." She said, “Take it home and read it at home.” So I took it home and had my mother read it and the next day I came back to school, hand was up the first thing, “Teacher, could you read the — “ And she said, “No, no, I can’t read it.” And I was crestfallen and I just — and she said, “Well, go, in the back and you read it,” and I went in the back and I read the book. It was first grade. I had never been taught to read.
And when I tell this story, people said, "Well, don’t you know what it takes to teach a kid to read," and I said, "Yeah, when I was at the ed school at Harvard, I taught reading." That was one of the things that I really took classes in, but I learned to read because this wonderful teacher just kept trying to connect with me until she got to me and just opened up a whole new universe and when people sometimes say, you know, "All children can learn," but they don’t really mean it, I know, no, absolutely all children can learn. This is really about whether or not we’ve found the right key to unlock that sort of I think great potential that people have inside of them and this teacher did it and changed my life and I read — look, by the end of the first grade, I had read every single Dr. Seuss book in the school, everything, and I was absolutely convinced that my life was over because I went crying to my mother and said, “I’m only in the first grade, I’ve already read all the great literature in America,” and I was just really — and she turned me on to Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and I had poems and I always had a book of poetry and I was sort of tough growing up in the South Bronx, this really tough inner-city neighborhood, and I was reading a little Geoffrey Chaucer or something, some Canterbury Tales, and it was all because this teacher sort of opened up my eyes to literature and poetry in the first grade.
BOND: Tell me about your grandfather. What effect did he have on you?
CANADA: Well, my father left when we were infants and so we grew up — my mother was raising four boys by herself and the only man in my life as a role model was my grandfather and I remember he was a big man who always had a car which was in the south Bronx was like a luxury and I used to think we were rich and it took me a while to find out that we were poor. Now, he said that the reason his whole career ended was because of John Kennedy, that President Kennedy during his inauguration didn’t wear a hat and my grandfather was a hat blocker and men wore hats and they had to be blocked and that’s what he did for a living. He made hats and he blocked hats and the business fell off a cliff and he just literally lost his job and I don’t know whether it was really because of President Kennedy or if it was just a change in men’s style, but that’s how he always told the story and he didn’t have more than I think a fifth or sixth grade education, so he wasn’t going to be able to enter into the labor market, so he did all kinds of things.
He sold fruits and vegetables and he just made sure he always worked for his family and he taught me how to work, I mean, how to really work, and it didn’t matter what we were doing, that we had to do it well. You had to deliver quality to people and you had to have, I think, the tenacity to get the job done, so I got my work ethic from my grandfather. Sometimes he picked me up, six o'clock in the morning, we’d go down to the lower part of Manhattan to get the fish. We’d sell fish all day, cutting them and cleaning them and everything else and, you know, come home that night, I’d get a dollar, I was thrilled, like a whole dollar, and after a while, when I first started working, people would say like, wow, you work long hours, aren’t you tired? I said, no way, cutting fish all day on your feet traveling around, I mean, that’s a tough job. You’re smelly. It’s, you know, fish all over everywhere.
It prepared me at nine, ten. I was used to working all day and I’d work with him all summer and I loved it and I just loved it and the idea of working for a living was something that — I never was without a job, by the way, after I was ten years old. I always had some kind of job that I was selling newspapers, walking dogs, and I always loved — no matter what the work was, I always loved the idea of working and providing and helping my family with the money so that work ethic I think I got from my grandfather.
BOND: Back to your family. What about your siblings? What influence, if any, did they have on you?
CANADA: I had three brothers and my oldest brother, Dan, was just the most — he now is a manager in a nuclear facility in South Carolina but he was one of them I said that the teachers told him that he wasn’t going to be prepared for college and I remember how hard academics were for my brother because they had convinced him that he was not bright. They just said, ehh, he’s really on the dull side and it wasn’t until he went away to college that he found out he was smarter than almost everybody and so Dan was a nature lover and he taught me to love nature in the Bronx. We had chickens. Oh, I don’t know how the neighbors stood us. We had a snake which got away and an alligator and he just loved nature and he always made sure that I was — he was two years older than me — that I was involved in nature and those kinds of things.
My second brother John was just a phenomenal athlete and he taught me something about talent which I believe — that everybody has potential but it’s not easy for everybody to realize what their talent is and their talent might be very different. John was an absolutely phenomenal athlete and started playing with the older kids, the seventeen-, eighteen-year-olds, when he was nine and ten. I could barely play with the eight- and nine-year-olds and he was playing with kids who were almost grown and was a star and he was talented. He worked hard at it. He loved it. He died when I was a sophomore. He was in the Air Force and died and it wasn’t war-related. He died of an overdose and he didn’t really even use drugs. He took some barbiturates and drank and he just passed out in his sleep and died, but he did teach me something about talent and he had it and I understood that all of us have talent and you have to really figure out what your talent is.
BOND: And your next sibling?
CANADA: My youngest brother, Reuben, is just an absolute genius with his mind and hands and can put together anything and take apart anything and he was the first one to actually teach me anything about math because we used to learn these mathematical formulas that were totally meaningless, numbers that ran on and on and Reuben started working in radar and defense and all of those numbers meant something to them. They were really using I think tools which had such specificity that you had to measure things. So he brought math alive to me and I think allowed all of us to understand why I think these subjects really were important because if you didn’t learn them, it cut off these careers for you and I actually have never had to figure out, you know, the third side of a triangle or how many degrees were in an obtuse triangle. I’ve never had to use any of that stuff. He used that stuff every day and so he could have a career. I had to learn it and then forget it but he actually used it and helped us understand and appreciate math.
BOND: Do you remember as you were coming along, both before you entered school and after, as you went away to college, or before even when you were in high school, historical events that had some impact on you? What do you remember from these years?
CANADA: There were a number of things. I was in the sixth grade when President Kennedy was assassinated and I remember my teacher just burst out in tears and this was a time now when — again, this is history, it’s so interesting — when we used to have these drills preparing for the Soviets to drop an atomic bomb on us where we used to get up underneath the desks and the idea was that you would get up underneath the desks and you would stay there and they used to practice this sort of stuff and so we were always worried that something was going to happen and when she broke out in tears, we were all thinking could this be it and then she explained that the President of the United States had been assassinated and I remember just being devastated and we all were, and the enormity of it because I wasn’t —
The thing that my parents and grandparents told me about President Kennedy was that he liked us, us being African Americans, that he really liked us and I was thinking, "This is — he really likes — no, he really likes us." And so when I found out that he was killed, it really I think devastated me.
Now, the next — so, from sixth grade through high school I lived in one of the most turbulent times I think in this country’s history because we had not only the assassinations taking place where you’d get Bobby and you’d get King and you’d get Malcolm X, all of that happening in the next eight years or so, but you also had the cities burning in the summertime. We had the long hot summers where there were riots in the street and each — I remember by the time Martin Luther King was killed, I remember thinking that we would never — we, meaning African Americans — we would never see anything that looked like equality in my lifetime. I really— and I don’t think I was the only one that felt that way.
I felt after President Kennedy I was trying to explain to people why President-elect Obama was so powerful for so many of us because the last person that looked like they were really listening to the cries from the disenfranchised was Bobby Kennedy and right in front of our eyes, they killed him, and with that, I felt, well, there it goes, that’s the end of that. All of this stuff about, you know, we’re going to make sure there’s equality, that it’s equal playing field and really opportunity — it’s all over. They’ll murder anybody who says that stuff again and I just thought this country will never allow African Americans to reach their full potential because it seemed clear.
Now, at my age, and at that time, we thought it was one big conspiracy. There’re just a bunch of them. They’re killing all of the leaders and if you say certain things in this country, you will be killed and we just believed that and then, you know, you look at history and you figure out who and there’re some people who still believe it and some who don’t, but it was just, among me and my friends, we all believed that if you crossed a certain barrier in this country, you would be killed and so you could not say certain things and we thought they were symbols of those kinds of things, so how do you juxtapose that feeling, that they’ll never allow us our true opportunity. With my previous statement, that a bunch of us felt it was our duty to smash through these doors —
BOND: How do you balance those things?
CANADA: Because we said we’re going to smash through every door they’ll let us smash without killing us. That was it. How far could you go? You’ll never get the president. That one, they’ll kill you. So leave that one alone, but could you maybe run a Fortune 500 company? Maybe. We thought that was getting a little dicey, but maybe. Could you be the president of a university that wasn’t all African American? No. But if you were smart enough, maybe. Work for a major law firm? Maybe. So, we thought — we didn’t know how far. I thought maybe my children, right, could continue to push this and then maybe we could get something like an African American president or something, but we never thought it would happen for us, so we just thought we’ve got to open as many of these doors as wide as possible so that we kind of advanced the cause another couple of steps and all of that I think was from —
This was a time and I don’t think anyone’s done really good writing about this time. You had the Black Panthers. You had folks actually talking about armed revolution in the country. You had the Nation of Islam, so you had all of this agitation going on where some people were saying let’s get guns and take it and other people saying, no, it has to be non-violent and there was this huge debate that involved both African Americans and whites. You know, it’s one of those things — no one really understands about the Weather Underground, Bill Ayers is sort of a relic — oh, I remember that group, and I remember we thought, no, we’re not messing with those guys. They’re radical and they’re out there so there was all of this debate right now about how we could change America and how far you could go before you crossed this sort of danger threshold and that really influenced my life very early on and some of us felt that if we did not push that envelope, we would actually be letting our race down.
BOND: Let me take you back a little bit to the time when you realized and you’ve said that there were monsters in the world, when a young kid Malcolm was shot down. Tell us about that. What did that do to you?
CANADA: Yeah. Well, you know, growing up in the south Bronx, we really — we knew we were poor so that was fine and we knew it was tough and that was fine, but we really did not know that there was evil lurking around us. There was a certain inner sense about growing up in a city and when they killed Malcolm, this young boy who was really poorer than the rest of us and it was over nothing, and I remember my youngest brother Reuben was there. They were rolling a tire. We just made games out of anything. We’d find some piece of junk and we’d use it and play with it and a guy opened up his window and just yelled out the window, “Hey, you guys, cut out all those noise.” And they laughed. Didn’t pay him no mind, until nine o'clock, ten o'clock. And they kept playing. The guy came downstairs with a handgun and just shot and killed Malcolm, just right there in the street in front of everybody and after it happened — you know, if we had been doing something really terrible, right, if we had been breaking people’s windows, you could put it into sort of a Gestalt that made sense. No, you can’t go this far, but this just said, boy, something could just happen that could change your life instantly and you have no control over it at all and we realized that there were monsters. There were people around who looked like regular people but at certain times, if you got on their bad side or crossed them or ran into them at certain times, you could really see that they were dangerous and they could kill you and one of the reasons —
So, this is now I’m talking maybe ’66. There weren’t a lot of kids being killed by handguns then. When the handgun issue really became serious in the ’80s and handguns began being pumped into urban centers all over America, the idea that these monsters — see, to me, the monsters were grown men, right? These were grown men who might — these weren’t your friends. This wasn’t a guy that you met around a corner. When the monsters become a guy you grew up with who lived around the corner, a guy you saw every day, I think it began to really change the way you think about your life in this country. We knew there were monsters. We thought there was some slight possibility we might run into one of them and they might kill us and I always thought that I wanted to come back in a community and say, well, there are monsters but there are heroes, right? There were people who were there to fight, so don’t be scared, right? Don’t be scared. We’re going to be here.
When handguns came out, I began to see this issue of, you know, who’s going to protect the kids and the adults sort of not being in the forefront of protecting kids as a huge problem in poor communities, particularly African American communities because it has a real impact on African American boys and if you look at the murder rates and if you look at the incarceration rates and if you just look at the level of inner sort of personal violence that happens in so many of these communities, you see the end result of what I was afraid of in like ’66 that the monsters would become real.
BOND: Now this is a natural segue. How did you come to choose your career, to do what you do now? How did you get from these earlier feelings to where you sit right now?
CANADA: It’s all so personal with me and most things I do in my life — you know, so I told you about the tracking, so I had these friends and we were really — this is at a time where a friend — you would say to a friend — watch my back and what that meant was if I got into a fight and somebody tried to jump in, would you stay and help fight that person or would you run, so a person who would run could not be your really good friend, but someone who would watch your back was a good friend, so friendship was a qualitative thing that we could measure by how close you were and how willing this person was to possibly get hurt with you, so I had these good friends. They were terrific. They never had the chance. No one ever thought they were smart. Pretty soon they didn’t think they were smart and I watched these young people end up dying and getting arrested and going to jail while I went on this other trajectory and I always thought that, and this is —
I knew I was going to do this work when I was eleven or twelve because it became very clear to me — one of the things about reading, one of the things about reading was that I found that out the way we lived, a lot of people didn’t live that way. There was a whole different world out there that you didn’t grow up living with roaches and rats and having to worry about people shooting you and robbing you. That that was for some reason this was in our neighborhood but if you only went fifteen blocks away, people were growing up with a totally different view of what childhood looked like and I just thought to myself, why did this happen to us and where are the adults to come in and save us. One of the things that — this sounds silly now — but one of the things that really depressed me and it’s hard for anything to depress me — I don’t get depressed, was when I found out there was no Superman and I used to read comic books and, you know, when you read them at that time, we thought Superman was really—
And then I remember one of my friends, he didn’t know Superman and I used to argue — "Superman is, he’s coming." They said, "There’s no Superman." I remember I asked my mother and she had no idea what I was asking her because she thought I was asking her, "There’s this mythical — is this cartoon real?" And I was asking her, “Isn’t there somebody who can come in and save us?” And she said, “No, no, Superman’s not real,” and I thought, "There’s no one coming. It’s just like they’re just going to let us live like this and this is just how — " And I thought, you know what, there ought to be someone coming in to these communities and saying to kids, "No, I’m here, I’m going to make sure the monsters don’t get you. I’m going to make sure you get a good education. I’m going to make sure that this system works for you," and I knew that at eleven or twelve that that’s what I was going to do with my life and if you look at my academic career, you’ll see every single course I took was designed to try and help me figure out what I should be doing to help these kids have success in their life.
BOND: So you chose your education, that I’m going to study this and this and I won’t study this, I’ll study this and this and this and I’ll learn about this and this, this, and this, because there’s going to come a time when I want to be able to help kids, help children, and these things will prepare me to do that, but could you say then that you had the idea of all this that we see around us today? Was the Children’s Zone a notion in your mind then or has that developed over time?
CANADA: Well, you know, it was a fantasy but it was purely fantasy and I never thought that we would ever get an opportunity to do something like this. This year we’ll spend about $68 million in Harlem and so in a couple of years we’ll spend a couple of hundred million dollars here, and if you’d asked me back in ’76 when I first began teaching—is anybody ever going to trust you with that kind of money, I’d be like, are you kidding, don’t they know where I come from? They’re never going to trust me to do something like that, so it’s a part of what I think we’re doing different and one of the interesting things I think about my own role in this work is that I actually decided I’m not going to play along the margins. I’m going to actually try and figure out how to fix this, right?
So I want to fix it. So every time you try and fix it, people tell you all the things, the reasons you can’t. Well, you got housing. You got health. You have mental health. You got education. You got childcare. You got poverty. I mean, so I kept saying, okay, okay, so we have to solve each one of these areas. We have to figure out what we can do and then we’ll be able and every time you begin to try and sort of peel one thing off, there was another thing and another and after a while, people threw up their hands and said, "Well, I can’t do all of that. I’ll do this, but this is all I can do, and I’ll do it for this group of kids." So when we began to say, "Well, why don’t we figure out how to go into a community," and we decide it’s going to be 97 blocks and help all of the children from birth straight through to graduation. Why don’t we just figure out what that looks like and what kind of supports would they need and what would we have to do with their parents? How would we build a team to do that? That was a very liberating thought.
I never knew where the money was going to come from and when someone said, well, how you’re going to pay for all this. I never knew where the money was going to come from, but I decided, you know what, I got too old. I said that I haven’t really been honest about what it would take to really I think stop this generational poverty. The group of kids that I grew up — the same community I grew up in, their people are as desperately behind today as when I was there in the ’50s. I go once a year. We have something we call Old Timers’ Day in the south Bronx and I go back and I just say why. We could fix this. We know how to fix this. It's not everywhere, it never was everywhere. New York City — it’s not everywhere in New York City. The same pockets, the same issues, they’ve lasted all of this time and I said we could figure out how to do this and so, no, I never thought at the time when I began this work — I wanted to be a teacher and I wanted to save twenty kids. I said if I could save twenty and then when I had done that, I said, wow, maybe I could save two classrooms.
Then I couldn’t teach anymore. I said, well, I’ll run the school and then maybe I could save all two hundred kids and then I said, "Well, so what if we — " And so it started from there and it really became as I think as I opened up the possibility that it could be more. It sort of made me think about then what is it that you’re really trying to do.
BOND: For my own curiosity, when you’re going through this list of thing you have to fix — the housing, bad housing; the schools, school’s not good; health, not only physical health but mental health, was there something you did not think about that later you had to say, boy, we left this out?
CANADA: Yeah. One of the areas we hadn’t thought about in our community was asthma. It was the number one reason for school absences and the number one reason that young people end up in emergency rooms and when you looked at school and attendance, so much of it was being driven by asthma that we actually had to create a program.
The new one for us today is obesity. It is just — it’s an epidemic in our community and we’re doing all of this work and spending all of this money and it’s going to create a group of people if we don’t tackle this which are going to bankrupt the nation because we’re going to have to spend so much money on their health care as they get diabetes and hypertension and it just goes on and on and on and so this was a new thing for us. We said, "Okay, look, we’ve got to figure out how to do this," but by and large, if you asked me twenty-five years ago what do you think the key ingredients of this is to be successful, I could’ve laid out the same menu, right, so there was nothing that was sort of revolutionary.
We didn’t know handgun violence would be as big an issue, but we knew violence would be but we didn’t know it would be handgun violence, so those kind of changes that are kind of subtle but basically it gets back to Brown v. Board. It gets back to education. It gets back to — are we making sure these young people have an education where they can compete and what’s stopping that from happening? And to me, that’s what this whole thing is about and for some poor kids, there’re a lot of things stopping that from happening. It’s not just whether or not the schools are equitably funded and whether or not the schools are integrated. You’ve got all of these other barriers that you have to remove before these young people can get an education. This is America and we can do it.
BOND: And they’re all interconnected.
CANADA: They’re absolutely all interconnected and people keep thinking somehow you can do this one and not have to worry about that one and I think the research all says no, you’ve got to make sure that you remove these barriers and by the way, this is the part that I think bothers me. So people come and they say, "oh, you provide health care." We have a health clinic. Mental health, we have psychiatrists, social workers. "You do education?" Yes, we run our own schools. "You do all the social— recreation." Yeah, we have great recreation, great culture, great arts, and they’re like "isn’t that great," and I think, no, it is simply average. That’s what the average middle class kid gets in America. There’s nothing great about that. Nothing great about that. We haven’t figured out some great thing, that we’ve created some new way of educating. No. This goes on all over America. It just doesn’t happen in poor communities and so what we’re trying to do is just simply provide for what happens in other places in the country that no one thinks anything particular about. You go into, you know, a nice upper middle class place, there’s health care services, great schools. No one thinks anything about it. The streets look nice and I was like, oh, yeah, I’m fine, you know, because I’m in so and so and you say whatever the name is, right? I’m in Scarsdale. Say, oh, of course, what would you expect in Scarsdale? Well, you know what, we should have that for poor children and no one should think that that’s like some great big thing that we’re providing for them because that should be their right as Americans, in my opinion.
BOND: Yes, it should be the average.
CANADA: It just should be average. It just should be average.
BOND: Let me read something to you. You said, “When I graduated from Bowdoin, I was a different person than when I entered. I knew my vocation would be to work in the poorest communities this country had to offer. It was my calling when I came. It was my calling when I left, but being at Bowdoin was like being plunged into a brave new world. The people had changed me.” What do you mean by that?
CANADA: Well, you know, this is one of the great things I think about education. So I grew up poor. I had never been around even middle class African Americans so I went to Bowdoin and I found middle and upper middle class whites and I found middle and upper middle class African Americans and I had never seen anything like it before and very quickly— So, here’s one of the first things. In the south Bronx when we were growing up, we had a certain culture of toughness, right, that was just the way we — so if we met somebody for the first time, it’d be like, "Yo, how ya doing?" And, you know, it was just like everybody’d be cool. You had to be — and so I was meeting these kids — "Hi, how are you?" And I was like, whoa, and I was saying, "Yo, what’s up, how’ya doing?" And no one talked to me for the first six months and I was wondering, so later I asked my friends, I said, “Look, when I first got there, you guys treated me so bad.” They said, “You were the most hostile person we had ever met, right? Always acting like you were — ” But it was just the way we were sort of brought up and so suddenly I had to confront all of these issues. I’d never been around white people before. I’d just never been around white people before and so suddenly I’m surrounded and I’m finding out, hey, they’re just people. They’re just good, bad, individuals, people.
Didn’t know that — the thing that really got to me. I met some of the most brilliant African Americans I’d ever seen in my entire life and I looked at them and I said I want to be — I mean, I could barely understand what they were saying, right? These were like seniors and they were talking about dialecticism and all that and I’m just sitting around, never heard these words, what are they — and I just said, I want to be like that and as a role model, it inspired me to take academics serious and to want to become a scholar and they sat us down as freshmen and said, you know, all of that’s cool, whatever happened, but here you’ve got to be a scholar and you’re going to have take this seriously and I know if I had gone to another school that had I think less rigor to it, I would have been happy to party my four years away and pass my classes with C's and thought that that was great.
Here, there was a bar that everybody said you have to get to that bar and everybody around me was trying to do that and there was no escaping that and after a while, I just accepted that that was the cultural values of that school and I became that myself and then after a while, this was about how many A's you received in your classwork and not about whether or not you made the varsity basketball team or you were playing football or some of those other things and that — when I left Bowdoin and came back — I still understood the streets and I still understood — but I was also a changed person. I was just as comfortable being in the company of educated men and women who had a difference in their culture values than I did growing up.
BOND: So you didn’t think as someone might’ve thought that the change in you was a loss, that you were losing something, that you had left something behind of yourself? You just added something to yourself.
CANADA: It was that, and you know, the wonderful thing about it was that I’ve always worked in inner cities and with poor children and I started out working actually in Boston and I was working with all white children. They weren’t African American, but they were poor and they felt neglected, they felt everybody was singling them out because they were poor. They didn’t feel like they belonged and I was like, well, I know people feel like that, that just feels like, you know, y’all are just white, y’all don’t understand. There’s a whole bunch of people who feel just like that and the ability to bring the experiences growing up poor to that group and to be able to connect with them because I understood what that felt like was something I’ve used my whole life, so I actually thought this was an addition and not a subtraction, that the change allowed me to move from talking with a group of kids in the projects, be they black or white, and feeling comfortable walking through that neighborhood as well as it did going into a boardroom and talking to people about budgets and finance and those kinds of things and I think that that change happened while I was at Bowdoin.
BOND: Your decision to go to college in Brunswick, Maine, far away from the south Bronx, very different from the south Bronx, could’ve been put down to chance.
CANADA: It was chance.
BOND: What do you think — how much do you think of your life has been chance? Luck? Something fortunate that had happened as opposed to deliberate planning and strategy?
CANADA: Oh, this is the reason that I believe we’ve got to allow poor children real opportunities because without that luck or that chance, my life is over. I’m not graduating college. I’m probably ending up in jail or on drugs or something and that happened to all the rest of the kids who didn’t make it out and I always thought it was unfair. See, in some communities, if you’re not lucky, you don’t get into Harvard. Right? You can’t go to Harvard, I have to go to the state school, so, oh boy, you weren’t lucky. In some communities, if you’re not lucky, you end up in jail. You end up dead. And part of the challenge I think as is for us to level the playing field.
There were two things that turned out to be just luck. When middle school— I went to junior high school my seventh, eighth, and ninth grade. By ninth grade, I was interested in girls. I wasn’t interested in studying. I just wasn’t focused on it at all and the hormones kicked in and there it was and I didn’t know how important this time was because you had to test to get into the best high schools in New York City, right? It was Bronx High School of Science, Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. All of them had tests, so there was test prep and I was in a really good class but I wasn’t going to test prep. I wasn’t interested in that and if you didn’t get in those schools, then I was going to end up going to Morris High School in the south Bronx. I knew if I went to Morris it was over for me. I wasn’t coming out. This was like a gladiator school. That’s what kind of school it was, but you think at fourteen that I could wrap my brain around how important. No, I could not. Right?
I’ll get to the story, I'll get to the story. Well, if I take the test, I don’t get in. Now, I’m sitting there thinking — "oh, my God, I’m going to Morris," and so what I better do is get tough because forget being smart. You don’t make it in Morris if you’re smart. You make it in Morris if you’re tough and so now I’m thinking, "Oh, my goodness, I’ve got to really get tough now because I’m going to Morris." My grandparents moved out to a little town in Long Island, all black, called Wyandanch. Never heard of it before. And out of desperation, I asked if I could come live with them and go to school there and it was a quiet school with no violence, no drugs, and they said yes, and so there was the second.
I got luck for Bowdoin, luck not to go to Morris and my whole life is changed and I think that that’s one of the shames of this country, that it wasn’t whether or not I ever had the potential. It was just whether or not I was trapped in a place where I was not going to have an option to run into quality experiences which would give me an opportunity to reach my own potential and I think there are millions of young people who are trapped in these kinds of places where unless something lucky happens, they’re simply not going to make it out and I think that that’s a shame.
BOND: As you look back over your life, when did you begin to think of yourself as a leader?
CANADA: Well, interestingly enough, it started when I was about maybe twelve or thirteen which sounds so strange now, but I’ll tell you why. We used to travel around New York City on the trains by ourselves and I have grown kids, but my wife and I also have an eleven-year-old and when I think about how much freedom we used to have in New York City at eleven. I was able to go blocks. I could get on the train. I could travel anywhere I wanted to go. Well, my mother really showed us how to use public transportation and showed us how in New York City you could get anywhere once you got in the train system and so we used to just go exploring. We would just get on the train, get off at some stop, me and my brothers, and we would just wander around New York seeing sights and the other kids on the block just — they weren’t allowed to even leave the block much less get on trains and so we used to do tours for the kids. We’d take 'em to the Bronx Zoo which was to them like going to a different country. But we knew how to take the trains and it all so mysterious to them and I realized that I absolutely loved opening up New York City to other children so that they could get a chance to explore it with us, so this issue of leadership to me — these were younger kids so they were like two years younger than me — I think in my professional career my leadership grew out of the fact that people, and people are always asking me about this issue.
When I worked at the school, there would be things that would come up that needed to be done and they would ask, "Look, will anybody stay to help to do so and so," and usually people would say, "No, I’m not getting paid," and I always thought if you’re about the mission, then you — so, I learned how to do all of these different things and then one day the director of the school said, "Well, I’m leaving and, you know, we need somebody in the number two position who can do budgets." He said, "Geoff, we asked you to do those budgets a couple of times, how do you feel — " So, the next thing I know, I was the number two and then the number one guy left and then I — this was now — I had to be all of twenty-seven, twenty-eight and they said, "Well, you know, do you have any interest in running the school?" Now, the truth of the matter, I was thrilled to be number two and the idea of being number one and sort of being the principal of the school was something that I hadn’t wanted to do anything else, but there was no one else who really felt like they wanted to do it and I thought I could do a good job and then I became the leader and the thing that helped —
I had a wonderful professor from Harvard named John [M.] Shlien who mentored me for the next two or three years in that leadership role and helped me I think develop my own leadership style which then I think continued over the next few years, so there was this early time when I loved doing it but even in the later parts of my life, when I became a professional and I ran the school which was my first professional leadership role, I found that I absolutely loved being able to organize I think good people around a mission and try to help kids and that’s what I really like to do.
BOND: But in addition to this early experience in leading your friends in the neighborhood around the subway system of New York City, what about the organization Brothers Through Unity. You’re young then, too. What about that?
CANADA: Yes. Growth Through Unity, I was very young when these African American guys who were in from business so this had to be — I was in middle school so this had to be maybe ’67. They decided they were going to come back into the hood and help some guys because we were struggling and it was like these guys came from a different world. They’re wearing shirts and ties and their shirts were white white and their shoes were gleaming and they came in and they said, "Look, we want to help you guys." And my best friend, one of them was his uncle and he asked me to come and I kind of thought they were corny, well, these corny guys, they’re coming into the ghetto. Ah, yeah, this is really cute, but they said we could have a basketball team and I said, “Well, does it come with a uniform?” And they said, “Yeah, we’ll get you a uniform,” and then they had me. So, now I’m in it and they actually tried to teach us leadership skills and it was amazing because it was years, years later that I understood these guys were really doing a kind of work that I always hoped to be able to do. The difference I always wanted to I think have was they really sounded like they came from a different world and so when we saw them, we didn’t see ourselves in them, right? We saw them as coming from some place else into our community. We didn’t see them as people who came up through our community and therefore were role models for us and I thought that was one of the things that I always wanted to do.
I always let kids know, no, we were on welfare, we were poor, we had all the same stuff and that can’t stop you. There’s no sort of secret thing happening outside that prevents you from becoming something great yourself which I think is really an important message for young people.
BOND: How would you describe the difference between your vision, your philosophy and your style or how do these interact with you? Vision, philosophy and style?
CANADA: Well, you know, the vision I think I told you grew over time because I was afraid to really articulate the full vision which was to go into a place and save all of the kids and do whatever it takes to save them all. I mean, that’s the vision we have and we’re in the process of doing that. The philosophy — now, my philosophy has really undergone some real changes over time. I grew up in a time when we were trying to figure out whether or not capitalism could work for poor people. Would it just destroy people and sort of grind you up and spit you out while certain groups of people got rich and I was very ambivalent about sort of being in America which is a capitalist country and it taught me — it took me a while before I began to see that there were tools here that are very very useful in the work that I want to do, that the ability to I think motivate people, to bring people together, and reward hard work differentially was something that it took me a while to develop and so if you looked at my early style which talked a lot about sort of egalitarian, we’ve got to all pull together and you deal with me now which says people who deliver the most should be paid the most and I want to make sure that people know how you get rewarded, I think that philosophy has developed over time and I think matured somewhat. I think people —
My style is — it's interesting, I think I have one view of my style but people who work for me might have another, but let me tell you what I think that what my view is is that I like to bring a lot of people together to hear ideas. I am never one to pretend I don’t have very strong opinions and very strong ideas but I’ve learned to be more patient about suspending my own beliefs long enough to really listen hard to what people have to say and so when we want to do work, I try and get ten or twelve of the closest people in the leadership roles in the organization together and have a conference. I don’t care. It could be in fiscal or development, it doesn’t matter what their — I just want to hear — what do you think about this issue and what do you think about this problem and then to try and encourage people to come and solve it.
Now, ten years ago I felt the need to solve everything myself, right? Because I know what to do. Let’s go out and do this and then charge off and come on, everybody, let’s go. Now, I don’t think that’s such a great leadership style anymore. Can you get things done? Yes. And if you’re really good, well, can you get good things done? I think the answer is yes. But are you teaching anybody anything about sort of how you solve problems, how you deal with complicated issues. No. No. You’re sort of lining people up and saying I’m in charge, follow me, which I don’t think allows leadership to spread in other areas, so as I’ve become older, I’ve become much more I think aware that my style needs to be more collaborative. It needs to allow people to have more of an input. Believe me. If you talk to folks, they’d say, yeah, that’s what he thinks he’s doing, but I’m not sure he’s really doing that because he is off charging —
It is tempered by time, right? That I don’t feel like I’ve got a lot of time to waste. I can’t sit around and let people figure this out for the next five years, right, but we do have time, if it’s going to take us a week or a month, to come up with a good idea. I want people to really I think have a chance to grow and develop but this issue of time I think impacts my style because I’m impatient and I think we can do it and I think we can do it now and the only question is — how do we get organized and focus so that we can do it?
BOND: Is the focus on time the difference you describe when you began describing your style, saying you would say one thing and people who saw you from the outside would say something different?
CANADA: Yeah, I think that there’s a certain pressure that people feel to deliver that really comes from me. I think that people know that I think that we are going to fix this whole thing and we’re going to do it in another three— I think we’re close. I think we’re about 70% there and I think in the next three or four years, we’re going to fix the whole thing and I am trying to gather folk with this mission that says come on, we can fix it; come on, let’s think about it. This is just a matter of us not having thought this through hard enough so I want you all to think harder on this. You have to juxtapose that with we’re also saying and could you do it tomorrow, could you get it done by tomorrow because we got to get this thing going. I think that that’s become part of the style which is let’s all think, but come up with answers so that we can get working on this thing right away.
BOND: Is the vision you described just a moment ago, does that guide your work? Does that keep you on a sort of single track?
CANADA: Yes. It’s easy to get drawn off in lots of different things and I think that people worry that when we say we have to do everything for kids, they say, oh, you can’t do everything, right, and so you have to be really strategic about some things and some things you’re simply not going to do. I think that for me, this issue of can we really get this generation of kids and this community to a place where they are going to I think reach their full potential, that that vision has to stay paramount and it becomes frustrating in a time like today. Why? Because we’re in the midst of an economic crisis. Why’re you saying that, Geoff? We have to cut back some. We have to be realistic. I know this is a big vision. It was bold and now, you know, reality is coming in and we’ve got to rework this and I’m not prepared to do that. I think that—
And it’s not like I’m not going to be realistic and understand that without the resources we can’t— But I’m not prepared to back away from the vision and say that this vision now has to become somewhat minimized because these external realities are going to sort of limit who we can reach and how many and the depth of that reaching and so I think that that in the end, if the vision is to fix it, then that has to stay the vision and even when external things, which are really powerful forces, come into play, you’ve got to keep focused on your vision. I think the vision ought to be last thing to go and that ought to go kicking and screaming, right, when people often make it the first thing to go. They’d be coming in and say, Geoff, be realistic and you say okay, okay, yeah, you’re right, where’re we going to get the money to do this and, okay, let’s change that. If it happens, I’ll go kicking and screaming. I’ll tell everybody, no, we absolutely can do this and we’re going to do it and I think that we’ve got to hold onto that vision.
BOND: Some people characterize the making of leaders in three ways: (a) great people cause great events, (b) movements make leaders, (c) the confluence of unpredictable events creates leaders appropriate for the times. What about you? What was your path to leadership?
CANADA: This is the thing that I think young people who often want — they ask me if I have a couple of hours to mentor them and what they really want to know is can you tell me how to get where you are and what the secret sauce is in doing that and I remind people that I’ve been here twenty-five years. That’s the first thing and I say, you know, for fifteen of those years, ain’t nobody know who I was. That wasn't — there never was a plan that somebody would say, well, how do you get from here to there. That was never the plan. My leadership really was focused around an issue and trying to solve that issue and just staying focused on that issue and by the way, I never thought that anyone would ever necessarily take any notice of this work which is part of — I’m still with some guys I went to school with from Bowdoin and they work here with me now and we’ll get in the office and we still laugh. Can you imagine? Anybody ever thought that anybody would care about this stuff? It’s just hard for us to believe, so the first thing I think is that this was all around mission. We saw something that we cared passionately about and we said that we’re going to try and figure out how to solve this and we were prepared to work on this until we died and we thought it was important and it was worth doing and no one ever — no one thought you were going to make any money. No one thought there was any fame, and by the way, most of us didn’t even think the people we were helping were necessarily even going to like us that much. It wasn’t like they were going to applaud for you. We are doing tough stuff. That work, I think this focus on can we solve this problem, is I think, in the end, how I would describe the leadership.
Now, for us to get here, there had to be some opportunistic things that happened that we had to be prepared to take advantage of. That’s absolutely true and so when opportunities presented themselves, we tried to grab those opportunities to sort of leverage our work and move forward with that work, and I think we’ve been good about doing that but if I had this program and no one knew anything about the program and no one knew who I was and no one even came to look, I would like to think that I would feel no different about this work than I do right now. It never was for any of those other kinds of things. I had a young person who I’ve known for many — I knew her when she was a little girl and she now is a teacher and she’s going for her master’s degree and we had lunch the other day and I was just looking at her remembering when she was eleven and her being so scared that she didn’t have the right stuff, that she just wasn’t going to make it and she was talking about she was going on a trip to Africa and she was going with a friend and they were going to go on safari. I’m just looking at her thinking and this is what I was telling my wife, my wife knows her also, and we just got the biggest kick out of knowing that that’s the promise of this work, that after a while no one knows anything about that. She doesn’t have to tell that story with her life, but she’s having a good life and, you know, for some number of kids we’ve made a difference, so I think that if you’re looking —
There are some people who want to be leaders, right, and they want to take leadership development because they want to be leaders and that’s a path to leadership that I am somewhat doubtful about and the reason I’m doubtful about it is that when we bring young people into the organization and they ask about leadership, we say the leader is usually the one who works the hardest, the one who works holidays, the one who works weekends. When we’re doing something Christmas, they’re the ones who work on Christmas and they can do that year after year after year and people want to take my job because, oh, I’m going to be the leader leader. I want to be in the room, in the office, and we say, no, no, no, no, we don’t think that’s the way to leadership. Leaders do what needs to be done, whatever it is, and they do it for as long as it needs to be done and they can outwork everybody else and they never lose touch with what the mission is and if the mission is, let’s move the chairs and make this place — then that’s what we do and the moment that you think the leader tells everybody else what to do, we think you’ve lost sort of the essence of the kind of leadership that we’re trying to do here and if you look at my agency, there’re people who’ve come up through the agency and one of the reasons I think we’re able to do the work is that the leaders have learned a set of academic and professional skills while at the same time doing that in tough, long, hard service to their community and I think the two of those of things —
So, they are now the guardians of the gate. So, if you want to be a leader, they're like, well yeah, well, how many weekends did you work and how many years have you — and I just think that that’s a different level of leadership because it’s leadership that comes not only from hard work and study but also from service and you never forget who the client is and the client is not you and your leadership skills or your, I think, celebrity. The client really are those young people or those families or whatever it is that you’re trying to accomplish, so I think that’s how we see leadership here in the organization.
BOND: How does race consciousness affect your work? Do you see yourself as a leader who advances issues of race, issues of society, or both? Are these different? Is there a distinction? Is there such thing as a race-transcending leader?
CANADA: Well, you know, it’s interesting. I told you I started my career working with poor white students and it’s probably one of the things that was the most eye-opening for me because I saw those kids as very similar to the kids I grew up with in many ways except for their skin color and after a while, they actually, because this was in Boston in 1974 and 1975 when Boston was going through busing and these kids were the shock troops for the busing. These were kids who had been brought up to be violent and racist. That’s how they were raised, so they get me walking into their classroom as a teacher and I tell everybody it’s the teacher’s equivalent of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. I walk in there. Those kids are looking at me. I’m like, what’s going on here. I have no idea sort of what this deal is, so what it said to me was that part of the problem in America is the issue of our children. We have categorized as being about black children and it’s not about black children. It’s about all children but people think it’s black children so they think it’s my children so whenever I go out and try and talk about saving children, they hear me saying I want to save black children which means Geoff’s children, not American children which means our children and I think that that has been a real challenge. Now, I used to take some comfort in the fact that people would recognize that black children had a particular set of issues and circumstances which we needed to deal with.
You can’t be in our work and not look at the plight of African American men and say it is different than any other men in this country and we need to focus on that, but as a leader, I think part of my challenge has been to get Americans to understand that we are saving American children who happen to be black and I wouldn’t care if children were in Appalachia or in Mississippi or in Seattle. If they’re poor and if the deck is stacked against them, I think as Americans we need to change that and we shouldn’t be worried if they’re Native American children or if they’re poor white children or they’re poor black children, that our job in this business is to really get Americans to think about their children.
By the way, here’s how complicated this thing is in America. Our new president is considered a black man, right? He’s going to be the first black president. So, this is what I wonder. So black people are very proud of him, right, because like, yes, we’ve got a black president and he’s ours. But we all know his mother is white, right, so do white people claim that? I mean, do they feel like, "He’s ours, too," or have we so brainwashed America that people reject the fact that he’s half black and half white and only see him as black and therefore they don’t feel the same kind of pride in this smart, intelligent person and I don’t care what race he was. I think people would say, wow, isn’t he interesting, this guy’s really smart and together, but I think that’s part of the dilemma around leadership is that so much of it is colored by race that sometimes people miss the issue.
As an African American, do I want to save my children and they are African American? Yes. But if they were all fine, all my kids were fine, would I want to save Latino children, the answer would be yes and if all of them were fine, would I go to the next group, the answer would be yes. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to save African American children if you’re African American, but if I just wanted to save them and I could say the hell with everybody else’s children, I think there’s something really wrong with that, so it’s complicated. I hope that we get one day in this country where we just save children and they’re equally at risk not based on race or ethnicity or religion which I think will make the issue easier. Now, you know, it’s not that there’re not — there’re more poor white children than poor black children but you would never know it in the way we think about children in this country.
BOND: There’s more poor white people in this country than there are black people, period.
BOND: Do you have a different style of leadership when you deal with groups that are all black, that are mixed black/white, or all white?
CANADA: I have something different for each one of those groups and one of the things I find with all black groups is that we have our own shorthand and I don’t have to explain a lot of what I’m talking about. Sometimes I can say, so you all know how it is and they know how it is and I’m talking about my grandmother or often I’m talking about — here’s an issue that we get into sometimes — corporal punishment, getting spanked, right, so I talk about how my mother, you know, if we messed up, she spanked us and my grandmother, she’d give us a whooping and we knew the difference between the two because we didn’t mess with Grandma, you know, and I’m talking to a black audience. Almost everybody has somebody they’re relating that story to that's in their own family and so I don’t have to spend as much time.
I think that in mixed audiences, you tend to have people often get it, get a comfort level if I’m talking about something by looking and seeing how another African American — so that’s okay. They’re laughing, they’re having a good time. I shouldn’t be nervous about it, because I can be very loose with my conversation and stories. I think that in white audiences, I think you have to spend a little bit more time connecting with them and saying I’m all right, you’re all right, and I want you to know I think you’re all right. I don’t want you to worry that I don’t think you’re all right and so that takes to me a little bit of making sure that there’s a connection that happens that’s not shorthand, that you’re not just jumping to a conclusion that I know who you are, what your experience has been or who’s in the room.
BOND: Is there a danger of further divisiveness if we focus on the concept of black leadership?
CANADA: Well, that’s a great question and I don’t think we have to worry about that danger yet and it’s because I think that there’s still some ambivalence I think in America about what black leadership really means. If black leadership becomes exclusive, so if Barack Obama, the president, is a black leader, then people are going to be petrified, right, because everybody’s going to think, well, isn’t that what they always wanted — black leadership and now that they’ve got it, aren’t we cut out of this deal and I think that there’s a fear that somewhere along the line, maybe it’s get even time. It’s like we know you all have been mad so now if you all get leadership — so I think that there’s some degree, people are ambivalent about this, but I don’t think that right now when I talk to people and it’s clear that your mission is to create a set of circumstances that levels the playing field, I don’t feel like people are really worried about that.
I did hear some talk that so many African Americans voted for Obama, right, it was like, oh yeah, he got more of the African American vote than anyone else, and so — but what I try to remind people was that early on, when people thought Hillary Clinton was going to win, he was not getting most of the African American vote. People didn’t just vote for him because he was African American. As people began to think, well, you know what, this guy is really talented and good, he won people over and I think people dismissed that and just assumed it was because he was African American and everybody decided to vote for him, so I think the country is learning. I think that as people are getting more and more used to African Americans in leadership positions, you know, Colin Powell, I don’t think anyone’s worried about Colin Powell in a leadership position. I think they believe he’s fair and even when he says what he says, people say, well, I wonder if he said that because he was black. I don’t think they then discount his leadership, so if he said, well, I want to go and lead Americans. I think people would say, yep, that’s great, because Colin is terrific, we understand that he’s going to be fair because he’s been in that position before, so I think we’re learning to be comfortable with African Americans who talk about black leadership and African Americans who are leaders who are also black, right, and I think there’s a difference that the country is still grappling with, right, because there’s some African Americans, they’re just leaders.
Ken Chenault’s a leader. He happens to be black. He runs American Express. People don’t think he’s a black leader, right, so that’s one issue. Well, someone will look at me and they say, now, Geoff’s a leader in the black community, he’s a black leader and then I think trying to figure out what that difference is is something I think the country’s still grappling with. I don’t think it’s divisive. I don’t think it’s divisive because I don’t think that people have felt that we wielded unfair power over their lives so that they’re excluded.
Now, affirmative action was one of those areas that people said okay, now you’re hurting me, so that’s going too far, right, and there may be moments like that again but I think that there was a leadership style in America that I would consider people who are from my generation which was really looking at the discrimination, the racism, the prejudice, and pointing it out and saying to people I demand you look at this that made people very uncomfortable. They said, oh boy, I don’t know about Jesse Jackson. I don’t know Al Sharpton. They make me nervous as black leaders. I think there’s a different group of leaders that people are saying, well, this is really about issues and if race happens to be an issue, they’ll mention it but it’s not their issue. It’s not the issue that they’re dealing with. They’re dealing with other issues, so I think we’re in sort of a transformative stage right now and everybody’s trying to get used to what this means.
BOND: And we don’t know how it’s going to come out.
CANADA: And I don’t think we know how it’s going to come out yet.
BOND: Do you think black leaders have an obligation to help other African Americans?
CANADA: You know what? I really do and I thought everybody assumed that we were on the same team. I’m just thinking it’s like football. Right, so you’re on my team so we’re all trying to score the touchdown and because you were black, I assumed you were on my team, and I hate to tell you how old I was before I found out that not everybody thinks like this. I was probably in my early forties and I was talking to family members and one of them asked me why do you do this. I said, “Well, I do this to help our people.” They said, “Why?” I said, “What do you mean why? You don’t feel any — ” They were like, “No.” And I was stunned. I’m like, “You don’t feel anything — ” “No, I don’t — I go out. I work. I do — ” I said, “But you don’t think you have to — ” And, so, then I thought, well, I’m assuming this and it’s not true, but do I believe it’s true. The answer to that is yes and I think that we have a responsibility to level the playing field to make America a better country and if you have benefited from being in this country, I think you have an obligation to level the playing field and if you’re African American, I’d like you start with African Americans. I don’t think you have to be limited there, but I don’t think you should ignore the plight of people who are oppressed, like if you’re a Native American. I would assume that you would try and help the Native American. If you’re Italian, I would assume — I wouldn’t see anything wrong with that. I think you would say, well, it’s a great country, I’m going to help my people. You extend it to other people so that was an assumption I had. It’s not a reality, meaning there’re a lot of people who don’t feel that way but I thought that’s how the game ought to be played.
BOND: But if the obligation exists, is there a point where the obligation ends?
CANADA: Yes. I think there is a point when the obligation ends and I think that’s when we’ve really leveled this playing field and I don’t mean that like that’s some lofty, you know, a hundred years from now kind of issue. I think that there are certain groups in this country that still don’t get equal opportunity and I don’t care if you’re talking about women, I don’t care if you’re talking about gays, I don’t care if you’re talking about African Americans, there’re these groups and I think we have to demand that America level this playing field and we are obligated to keep fighting that fight, in particular if we are from that group until this playing field is leveled.
Look, I don’t think we have to go outing people, right. In the gay community, a lot of time they say, well, I’m not going to let you keep that job and be gay and not say something about it. We’re going to out you. I don’t think that’s what we are doing. I don’t think we have to go and stand in front of Fortune 500 companies and say what have you done for black people lately, but in quiet conversation when we have to, I think we have to remind people that we need their need and their help will be important and that there’s an obligation and they can reject that but I think that people need to be reminded that the playing field’s not level because here’s one of the challenges: the better you do in this country, the harder it is to understand that others aren’t doing as well and why they’re not, because most of us who’ve done well, it’s because we’ve worked so damn hard. And you say, well, if they worked hard like this, then they would do well, too, so what are you bugging me for and I think that it becomes easy to look at them and say if you all just would get up and go to work and do this, everybody — you get your kids and your family in that same environment and then say the same thing and it’s a problem. And I think that people as you get wealthier and you live in these communities that are more and more exclusive, you forget how hard it is for some families growing up, so to remind people to say yes, I think that’s an obligation you have to do, that’s terrific. I don’t think it’s divisive yet.
There’s lots of things I thought wouldn’t happen in my lifetime. I would love to think that there’s a point before I die that I say, "All right, black people. Right, it’s over, we’ve done that. Now, everybody go do your own American thing," because this is one America and I do think other countries feel like that. I do think where people consider it their children. I was over in Norway and there were Norwegian children and they were concerned about Norwegian children and I looked at Norwegian children, they look like Norwegian children but people were concerned about that. I’d love to see America get to that same place and then I don’t think this issue of what race and nationality you are is going to be as important.
BOND: What do you think is your greatest contribution as an African American leader?
CANADA: I hope it’s going to be that we have proven without a doubt that we can take large numbers of poor, disadvantaged students and get them in and through college and on the path to success and I want to prove it so convincingly that this won’t be a question of whether or not it can be done. It’ll only be a question of whether or not we have the will to do it and if the country answers, "You know what, we could do it, but we don’t want to spend the money." Fine. Then I’ll feel like, well, look, I’ve done my part, let somebody else battle this next battle. Right now, people are still saying we don’t think this can be done and I’m hoping to make sure that no one will be able to be comfortable with that saying, well, there’s no real proof you can do this and so, you know, we don’t want to necessarily make these investments because we don’t know if we’re wasting money or we could probably do it smarter. I want to end that whole conversation and just get it down to do we care enough or don’t we and let people fight that one out.
BOND: Do you see a crisis in leadership in black communities today and if you do, what contributes to this?
CANADA: I think there is a crisis and I think that I’m part of the problem and maybe part of the solution and this is what I believe and I learned this the hard way. I mentioned Ken Chenault because we’re friends and he runs American Express and we both took over our organizations at about the same time and I go and occasionally once a year we talk about running organizations and business. Obviously, American Express is thousand times bigger than our organization, but organizations are organizations. There’re many similar things. And I was talking to him about leadership and he said to me, “You know, one of the first things my board demanded when I walked in here is that I have a leadership succession planning in place,” and I said, “Really?” He said, “Oh, yeah, they like me, but this was never about personality. This was about how much money you’re going to make and if I’m out of here, they want to know that the company’s going to be fine and so they’ve really thought about leadership and how — ” and I think in our community, many of us who were in leadership positions have not taken this seriously in thinking how are we preparing the next generation for leadership.
How is that we get out of the way and allow leaders to come up and one of the things that I’m convinced that I have to do is I just have to leave this position. I can’t stay here. I told my board. I told everybody, look, I’ve got another four or five years and I’m not going to, I'm not going to — I have to make space so someone else who’s younger can come in. We have to groom them and prepare them so that they can take the organization to the next level so that we have to intentionally create the next leadership and then you’ve got to get out the way so people have space to actually develop their leadership skills and I think part of the problem is that many of us who’ve gotten to these positions, we fought so hard to get here and every moment you’re here, you’re fighting, so you cling to the positions of power until you die, right, and you just protect your kingdom until it’s over and you never think I should make way for someone else to come in so that we continue to replenish the leadership well with our own organization.
And we're like, start your own organization, you know, if you want to be a leader, you create your own thing. Well, yeah, that’s great, but some of us who’ve had I think some success at this have to think about what we’ve learned from I think from the corporate America about leadership and how you bring in the next level and by the way, it’s not always successful. Many companies go out of business and I think that’s poor leadership from the first leader because they did not protect their company in a way that you could ensure that that company could even get through a lousy leader to allow another leader to come in, so I think we’ve got to do that all across America. I think my generation has clogged up a lot of the leadership positions and, you know, we don’t want to go anywhere and that we’ve got to start making room and we’ve got to start sending a message to others that there’s an opportunity here for you that if you’re serious and you’re committed, that we don’t plan to stay here and you don’t have to go out and start your own thing. There’s opportunities for you in existing organizations that are doing great work.
BOND: Geoffrey Canada, thank you for being with us.
CANADA: It is absolutely my pleasure.
BOND: Been our pleasure.
CANADA: Thank you.