Photo: Jim Harrison
1st Heinz Awards - 1994
Geoffrey Canada received the 1st Heinz Award in the Human Condition category in recognition of his battle against what he calls the “monsters” preying on the children of the depressed inner city. As President and CEO of the New York-based Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families, he not only created model programs, he also set an example for all adults wanting to protect children from crime, drugs, lawlessness, and despair.
Mr. Canada knows life in the inner city first hand. It’s where he grew up, and he remembers what it’s like to be a child there. “I haven’t forgotten about the monsters,” he says. “I remember being small, vulnerable, and scared.”
Mr. Canada was one of those rare and fortunate young men and women who are able to rise above and move beyond the inner city. But, unlike the many who leave and never return, Canada did come back, motivated by a desire to save young people whose lives might otherwise be snuffed out by bullets or smothered by hopelessness. He settled in Harlem in order to provide the role model he so wished for in his own youth. He is optimistic in seeking practical answers to what others view as intractable problems and, as many have observed, the fact that he has no illusions is the very thing that makes him so effective.
Mr. Canada grew up on welfare, in a household headed by a single woman in the blighted tenements of New York’s South Bronx. Despite the many things he did not have, he realized what he did have. Mr. Canada’s childhood was blessed by a hard-working and loving mother who gave him a strong set of values, a deep sense of responsibility, a belief in the importance of education, and an almost ardent commitment to make things better ... not only for himself, but for those around him.
In 1963, having completed his graduate education, he joined the staff of the New York-based Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families and was eventually named its President/CEO in 1990. At Rheedlen, he was instrumental in creating or developing programs such as Rheedlen’s Beacon School, Community Pride, the Harlem Freedom Schools, and Peacemakers.
The Beacon Schools program uses public school buildings to provide inner-city families with safe shelters and constructive activities 17 hours a day, 365 days a year. There are now 37 Beacon Schools in New York. The program has been replicated in Connecticut, Chicago and California.
To combat the culture of violence in the inner city, Mr. Canada conceived of the Peacemakers program. Concerned by the media’s easy promotion of violence as a way of settling disputes, he set out to develop a program to teach children how to use communication to resolve conflicts. His Peacemakers curriculum trains young people in conflict resolution, mediation, and violence prevention and reduction techniques. He is the author of Fist Stick Knife Gun, a book on conflict resolution.
Geoffrey Canada believes that if today’s urban youth are to be convinced that a disadvantaged background does not demand despair or dictate defeat, they must have real role models and real heroes. And they need them on the spot ... successful, educated men and women who continue to live alongside them in their communities, shop at their stores, play in their parks, and ride the buses and subways just as they do. Geoffrey Canada’s life teaches by example.
Note: This profile was written at the time of the awards’ presentation.