“Education in our country is the social service equivalent of Katrina,” proclaimed renowned education activist Geoffrey Canada to the assembled crowd in the Memorial Chapel on Friday evening. “Part of the challenge that we face in this nation is that we have to confront the fact that we have [created] systems that are designed essentially to fail kids.”

Canada has devoted his career to counteracting what he sees as a fundamentally flawed education system. As President and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), a non-profit organization in New York City, he has created a wealth of educational resources as well as a model for similar projects nationwide. His speech was held in celebration of the life of Martin Luther King Jr. and served as the keynote address for the Social Justice Leadership Conference, which took place over the weekend.

The HCZ, founded by Canada in 1990, serves over 10,000 children in Harlem through its three charter schools and various family workshops. Canada, who grew up in the South Bronx, attended Bowdoin College and Harvard School of Education. He believes that fundamental imbalances in the education system call for grassroots educational reform projects.

“There is no level playing field. That field is stacked against certain kids from the moment of birth and gets worse and worse and worse,” Canada said. “I started to go to school 53 years ago. It was a lousy school then, it’s a lousy school now, it’s been lousy every year since then.”

The organization provides services to the community that range from parenting workshops for parents with young children to standardized test prep classes for high school students. In his speech, Canada spoke about the importance of educating parents not only on childhood development, but also prenatal care.

“Even in the womb, our kids tend to be less healthy than kids from a college educated family,” he said.

Canada also discussed the link between education and violence. His book, “Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America and Reaching Up for Manhood,” which was available for purchase at the event, chronicles his own experience with violence as a child and provides suggestions of how to counter it in inner-city neighborhoods.

“We have a virtual war going on in certain places in our nation,” Canada said. “Certain places in our nation, kids are being killed all the time.”

He compared government prison funding with school funding, citing statistics that the United States jails more people per capita than any other country.

“No one’s thinking, ‘Why did you spend all that time jailing people when they could have been giving them an education?’”

President Michael Roth, who introduced Canada, praised his holistic approach to education reform.

“Geoffrey Canada long ago identified the connection between poverty and violence and education,” Roth said. “He knew that in order to promote education you had to defeat violence.”

The event began with an excerpt from Dr. King’s Baccalaureate Address on June 7, 1964, followed by a song performed by Associate Director of the Career Resource Center Persephone Hall, a Welcome Address by Vice President of Diversity Sonia Mañjon, and a speech by Chantaneice Kitt ’13.

“A good education should not have to be based on chance. It should be expected. It should be the one thing a child should know they deserve and have every opportunity to receive,” Kitt said.

Canada said that he believes failures in the U.S. education system will compromise the nation’s ability to compete globally.

“Unless we do something different about how we educate our kids in this country, how we live up to the ideals that Dr. King talked about here and across this nation, America is not going to remain a superpower, we’re not going to remain in the top ten,” he said.

Nonetheless, he remained positive about educational activism in the United States.

“There’s some good stuff happening in America,” he said. “There are some talented people who are out there making a difference. I believe that we have an opportunity to get this really straightened out.”

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