The increase in handguns and the breakdown of the family has created an "American tragedy," Geoffrey Canada told a crowd of 300 graduate students and educators at Longfellow Hall last night.
In an hour-long talk sponsored by the Harvard Education Forum, Canada, author of the book Fist Stick Knife Gun, mixed humorous anecdotes with an analysis of violence in America, earning a standing ovation from the audience.
The founder of the Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families in Harlem, a celebrated after school program, Canada said that when he launched the initiative to help inner city kids in Harlem 1987, he had no idea of the severity of the difficulties facing these children.
"It is a slaughter. It is literally a slaughter," Canada said. "When we began we thought we were trying to help kids with their geometry homework. Then they began to die. One at first, then another nine months later, and then one three months after that."
Canada said parents can help solve urban problems by better preparing their children for the realities that surround them.
"One of the most critical issues is that many adults are abdicating their responsibilities," Canada said. "They send [children] off in the morning with Barney, which is not adequate when the children are entering a war zone."
A 43-year-old native of a poor section of the Bronx, Canada said an increase in the availability of handguns has escalated the crisis.
"When we were young, there was a code of violence and we knew the terms so we could negotiate around it," Canada said. "But now it is impossible to predict what the other will do."
"In some places you will get shot for a physical confrontation, in others for a verbal confrontation, sometimes for a funny look and sometimes for no reason at all," he said.
Canada's book, subtitled A Personal History of Violence in America, is based on extensive research in a score of major cities and his experience as the president of the Rheedlen Centers, he said.
According to Canada, another cause of the "American tragedy" is the decision by legislators to fund prisons over education.
"Last year, for the first time in American history, we spent more money on crime than education," Canada said. "It seems to me that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy."
Canada left his audience of educators with the message that positive change must come in small increments.
"Sometimes we get overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems," Canada said. "You have to remember that something you say, even in passing, could have an effect on a child's life forever."