Changing the Odds in your Community

Geoffrey Canada describes his personal success story as “against the odds.”  Many of his childhood friends are dead or in jail, and others have battled lifelong addictions and chronic unemployment. Like him, most grew up fatherless and poor.

By the mid-1990’s, Canada had personally overcome the odds that still conspire against millions of inner city young people.  He graduated from Bowdoin and Harvard and was directing a multimillion dollar youth agency widely regarded as one of the most effective in Central Harlem.  But he had an audacious vision for his community would change the outcomes for a greater number of kids in urban poverty.

When “against the odds” was the only pathway out of poverty, Canada reasoned that the odds must be changed.  He rejected the de facto apartheid of 96th Street, where children living on the street’s south side grew up in one of the best performing school districts in the country, but children on the north side attended one of the worst.

Canada envisioned normalizing success for average children in the inner city, not just investing in kids that were deemed exceptional.  He believed entire neighborhoods could change by focusing energy and resources one block at a time, and launched a grand social experiment to prove it.

More than fifteen years later, Harlem Children’s Zone provides a comprehensive web of community support for 8,000 children and 6,000 adults in a 100-block area.  These dedicated educators start early and serve relentlessly from the womb through college graduation. Their goal: to create a “tipping point” in the neighborhood that surrounds children by an enriching environment of college-oriented peers and supportive adults, a counterweight to “the street” and a toxic popular culture that glorifies misogyny and anti-social behavior.

Harlem Children’s Zone has found that hope “tips” when 10%-20% of the people in a given community engage. As hope spreads, negativity moves elsewhere.

Process Questions

  1. What is your vision for your organization or community? Is it as grand as Canada’s?  Why or why not?
  2. Does your vision focus on people who are exceptional?  Or does it change the odds for ordinary people in your community?
  3. How can you create a “tipping point” for your vision?  What experiences or supports could you provide to help people engage with your vision in ways that would create tangible change in your community?

– Written by Jeremy Del Rio for the 2012 Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit conference notebook. Republished with permission.

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