The South Bronx, where I grew up in the fifties and sixties, was the epitome of an urban ghetto. I hated living there. Housing was deplorable, rodents were everywhere, and crime came with the heroin epidemic in the sixties.
I wanted out but a way out seemed almost impossible. Many of my friends and their families gave up. They saw no way out.
With few jobs and little education, life was lived from moment to moment and surviving another day was cause for celebration.
I was fifteen in 1967 when the riots began. It started in Newark and spread to other cities like a contagion. The Riots went on to claim 159 communities that summer. We didn't know it then, but the riots of 1967 coined the term "long, hot summer."
At fifteen I didn't understand why people rioted. I remember thinking "What do they hope to gain by burning and looting in their own communities?" My best understanding of the why was, people had given up hope, felt things would never get better, and they had nothing to lose.
When I came back to Harlem in 1983 to work at the not-for-profit that would become the Harlem Children's Zone, I saw the same conditions there that I experienced in the sixties.
Harlem was a place that had lost its soul. Abandoned buildings and graffiti were everywhere, trash was piled up in empty lots and on the streets, drug dealing was done openly in broad daylight, and the public schools were a disaster.
I remember thinking "hope is gone" in Harlem and I learned as a teenager when hope is gone, people feel they have nothing to lose. People who feel they have nothing to lose often do things that end up being self-destructive.
I decided there was no "silver bullet" to fix the inner cities of America. We needed a comprehensive set of strategies that made rebuilding community and the ending of generational poverty the main objective.
Education was key, but so was cleaning up the parks, eliminating graffiti, and ensuring health services were available. Youth employment, arts programming and sports for the entire family were needed.
So, we created the Harlem Children's Zone and we decided to rebuild the community in a 97-block area of Central Harlem. Our focus was on the entire community of 30,000 children and adults in our Zone.
Today in America, you have Covid-19 bringing biblical plague to the black community. The job loss is already at depression level, and now you have civil unrest following the killing of George Floyd. If you want to know what I think the solution is to the crisis in the Black community, it's this entire community response.
We must build a cradle to career set of supports for children, improve housing and health care, and ultimately help support and strengthen families and neighborhoods. President Obama used the Harlem Children's Zone as a model to create "Promise Neighborhoods."
It is a comprehensive strategy to provide educational and social service supports to disadvantaged communities. If you want to bring hope back to our inner-cities, and push back against the despair and sense of abandonment, provide real community infrastructure plans and make meaningful investments in rebuilding our educational and social supports in Black America.
Geoffrey Canada is the president and founder Harlem Children's Zone