Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Community Outreach in Harlem

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.