Aisha Norris and her father, William Norris, were at very different stages in their lives.
In his 30s, William was looking to rebuild his career and support his family after an extended period of unemployment. A teen, Aisha was hoping to nurture her passion for media production and, after coming out, find a community of love and support.
Though in very different places in their lives, William and Aisha both benefited from opportunities at Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) — ones that were as unexpected as they were life-changing.
The story of William and Aisha is a testament to the impact of HCZ — across 97 blocks, dozens of programs, and multiple generations. When given the support, the resources — and the opportunities — our scholars and families can achieve social and economic mobility and break the cycle of intergenerational poverty.
“HCZ empowered us to develop into who we naturally are: leaders and creators,” says Aisha, whose uncle and brothers also built careers at HCZ. “These opportunities, which came at different times and different ways, changed the trajectory of my family.”
William’s opportunity came during a chance encounter on a New York City bus. While riding the M104, Aisha’s stepmother, Geraldine Norris, met George Khaldun, HCZ’s first chief operating officer. Not one to let an opportunity go to waste, Geraldine told George about her husband, a teacher who was looking for work.
“George saw my father’s potential and who he really was,” Aisha recalls. “He gave him a job at HCZ, and he worked there for 10 years.”
Aisha’s opportunity came after she unexpectedly joined HCZ as a young scholar. At the time, she was a participant of Rise and Shine, a youth media production and literacy organization. That program, led by Aisha’s mentor, Laura Vural, was later absorbed into HCZ and became part of the newly formed TRUCE program.
“When Rise and Shine became part of HCZ, so did I,” Aisha says.
Growing her confidence
At TRUCE, staff members helped Aisha grow the confidence to own her identity and use her artistic voice to address issues confronting LGBTQ+ youth. She produced “Joshua,” a dramatic play about a boy who commits suicide after struggling with his sexuality.
“So many people have tragic stories of coming out or being in the closet,” says Aisha, who also wrote about her experience in our scholar-run publication, Harlem Overheard. “But because of the support I got, that wasn’t my story. I had pride in myself, I held my head high, and lived my truth.”
Realizing her potential
After graduating from high school (a year early!), Aisha seized another opportunity with HCZ — this time, to impact scholars the same way the TRUCE staff impacted her. She became a teaching artist at TRUCE (now Countee Cullen Community Center), and after earning her college degree with the encouragement of HCZ Founder and President Geoffrey Canada, became the coordinator of the program. She credits Laura Vurel with helping her to “believe in myself and build my leadership skills.”
“Laura brought me to the table, she respected my opinions, and she encouraged me to use my voice and speak up,” Aisha recalls.
Being at HCZ inspired Aisha to launch an education program with a co-worker at TRUCE. With locations across New York City, DREAM! brings media and arts programming to schools and youth education organizations that lack it.
“Starting your own organization is no easy task. But I wanted to do it and I believed I could because I saw Geoffrey Canada doing it,” she says. “I did it because I saw the impact of programs like this — for myself and so many young people at HCZ.”
HCZ gave Aisha and her father the chance to realize their potential. Now, she’s making sure more young people have the same opportunity.