Addressing soon-to-be Harvard Kennedy School graduates and their families at the School’s class day on Wednesday, Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of social service organization Harlem Children’s Zone, encouraged this generation to complete the charitable work of the previous generation and improve society for the children who need it most.
“My time as leader is coming to an end,” Canada said. “Others will have to finish this work. Someone else will have to pick up the mantel and say, ‘No matter what else I do as a career, I will make sure I leave my country a better place than it was left to me.’”
Canada, a social activist whose nonprofit serves approximately 100 blocks of central Harlem, emphasized that his generation of community leaders is reaching the end of its tenure, creating a pressing need for the youth to step up and carry out his mission of tackling poverty to promote opportunity and education.
Canada, who was raised by a single mother in the South Bronx, was introduced by Kennedy School Dean David T. Ellwood ’75. In his introduction, Ellwood called Canada “one of my heroes,” evoking the same words that First Lady Michelle Obama has used to describe the CEO.
In his remarks, Canada told the crowd that there are many paths to a career of service and that the potential wealth that follows a Harvard degree is just one start on that journey.
In the address, which Canada said was written for his “soul brothers,” he said that his achievements with the Harlem Children’s Zone have come with the financial and organizational support of the board, especially its Chair Stanley F. Druckenmiller, a former hedge fund manager.
“I could not have created Harlem Children’s Zone alone,” Canada told the crowd. “I want you to aspire to a higher calling, but you need not take a vow of poverty.”
Audience members, such as Kennedy School student Jamal A. Jones, were moved by Canada’s willingness to ask for help in his career.
“One of the things that stood out for me was the fact that [Canada] didn’t do it alone,” said Jones, who will receive his master’s degree in public administration on Thursday. “He had a lot of help. He had partners developing his organization. It’s always helpful to know that you need help and you should seek help.”
In his speech, Canada also referred to leaders who had inspired him to act, such as Civil Rights Movement pioneers Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., and former president John F. Kennedy ’40, a former Crimson business editor.
“As a young boy, [Kennedy] meant so much to be because he stood up for civil rights at a time in this nation where that very concept was debated and challenged openly in the press,” Canada.
Canada continued to discuss King’s famous oratory, in which King claimed that oftentimes the great work of making society a better place is an effort started and then left to successors.
As he approaches the end of his career, Canada, 61, expressed hope for the future.
“The best of America is yet to come,” Canada said.
Reflecting on the speech, Jones said he thinks Canada’s message is an important one.
“He’s done his part, and he’s coming towards the end of his career,” Jones said. “People need to pick up the baton and carry his mission forward.”
—Staff writer Cordelia F. Mendez can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @CrimsonCordelia.