Four decades ago, Geoffrey Canada came to Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families with nothing but a dream — a dream to transform a neighborhood and change the odds for young people residing there.
What a difference 40 years makes. Through the work of Mr. Canada and Harlem Children’s Zone (formerly Rheedlen Centers), the organization he founded, thousands of children in Harlem — and now, across the country — are building bright futures for themselves and their families. Mr. Canada had made his dream a reality.
We were thrilled to honor Mr. Canada for his 40 years at HCZ with a celebration at our Geoffrey Canada Community Center in November 2023. Hosted by our CEO, Kwame Owusu-Kesse, the festivities brought together hundreds of Mr. Canada’s family, friends, and colleagues. They included Pharrell Williams, the Grammy Award-winning musician and entreprenuer; Mr. Canada’s wife, Yvonne; his four children; and HCZ Board members, alumni, and staff.
Keep scrolling to discover more about our celebration of Geoffrey Canada on his 40 years with HCZ!
‘Why not save them all’?
Standing before a crowd of family, friends, and colleagues, Mr. Canada reflected on the past and future of HCZ.
The organization has had an outsized impact in Harlem. Now, through William Julius Wilson Institute (WJWI), co-founded by Mr. Owusu-Kesse and Mr. Canada in 2020, HCZ is supercharging its vision to scale that impact across the country. Our north star: put one million young people on the pathway to social and economic mobility.
It’s a worthy goal. But, Mr. Canada wondered, why stop at one million?
“In the back of my mind, I’m always thinking, ‘Why not save them all?’” Mr. Canada asked.
HCZ has a committed leader in this endeavor: Mr. Owusu-Kesse. After becoming CEO in 2020, he catalyzed the organization’s national work. This includes leading our National COVID-19 Relief and Recovery Effort that impacted 250,000 individuals in Black and brown communities disproportionately hit by the pandemic.
“I am honored to carry the leadership torch for the organization Geoff founded,” said Mr. Owusu-Kesse, who became HCZ CEO in 2020. “With Geoff’s guidance, we will continue growing HCZ’s impact — and transform the lives of young people and families everywhere — for many more years to come.”
Educational renaissance in Harlem
Following Mr. Owusu-Kesse’s remarks, none other than Pharrell Williams praised Mr. Canada for starting an “educational renaissance in Harlem.”
“I can’t thank you enough for opening my eyes to what education can mean for Black and brown children,” said Pharrell, who previously spoke at HCZ Promise Academy High School graduation in 2019.
Richar faced personal obstacles. But Mr. Canada and his HCZ Promise Academy teachers never gave up on him. He enrolled in college, and this year, Richar was proud to graduate from Syracuse University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
“Mr. Canada was always larger than life, a real-life superhero,” said Richar, who as a young scholar appeared on an episode of CBS 60 Minutes about HCZ. “As I’ve gotten older and learned more about life, I completely understand why. To create something like this that has helped as many people as it has is magical. It inspires me to do the same — to help people, to change the lives of those who need support.”
Our Board has stuck by HCZ for decades
None of this work would be possible without the commitment of our HCZ Board members — particularly Mr. Canada’s long-time friend and partner in this work, Stanley F. Druckenmiller.
Mr. Canada and Mr. Druckenmiller both attended Bowdoin College as young men. But they didn’t actually meet until years after graduation, when Mr. Canada invited Mr. Druckenmiller and fellow members of the Robin Hood Foundation Board of Directors to visit Harlem.
Mr. Druckenmiller wanted to build on the impact he was making in the education and anti-poverty spaces. Mr. Canada had the blueprint to do that.
“In the hour I spent with Geoff, I was totally smitten,” Mr. Druckenmiller recalled. “I was certain I had just met an incredibly dynamic, visionary leader without parallel in my experience.”
Mr. Druckenmiller has been a committed champion of HCZ and our work ever since.
HCZ Board Treasurer Mitch Kurz shared a similar experience of when he first met Mr. Canada.
“When my wife of 44 years, Sandy, and I first encountered Geoff, our lives were changed forever,” he recalled. “The sheer power of his commitment and vision was infectious.”
But perhaps Mr. Canada’s big supporter is his wife, Yvonne. In 1988, when the two met, they shared an instant connection. The couple has been together ever since — supporting each other through the most difficult hardships, the greatest triumphs, and everything in between.
“He saved this Black girl right here, out of Harlem,” Yvonne recalled. “And, I know, if it wasn’t for Geoff and for Jesus, I wouldn’t be here.”
For Mr. Canada, the feeling is mutual.
“Visions are powerful”
With the support of our talented HCZ team, the Board, and partners from place-based organizations across the country, Mr. Canada has no doubt we can reach our North Star. But, he stressed, our work will not stop there — “we can save every child in the country,” he said.
Mr. Canada couldn’t promise he would still be at HCZ for that phase of the work. Whether or not he’s still around, he was confident the work can and will continue for another 40 years and beyond.
“Some visions are so powerful,” Mr. Canada said. “Once they’re spoken into existence, you can’t stop them.”