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Biographical Details of Leadership
Contemporary Lens on Black Leadership
Historical Focus on Race
Undergraduate Education: Bowdoin College
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.