Geoffrey Canada, a national leader in education reform, said that a new generation must stand up and increase the quality of education when he delivered the keynote address for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Celebration at Rockefeller Chapel last night.
Since 1990, Canada has been president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), a nonprofit organization that serves low-income families living in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. HCZ has worked toward ending the cycle of generational poverty for children across the country through public charter schools and other services.
Canada said that he believes that all children can be held to the same level of expectations and reach the same goals.
“You don’t know what’s in the heart of anybody,” he said. “If we take Dr. King’s dream seriously, we will insist that all of these young people reach their full potential. We won’t let anyone say [that] based on where you live, the color of your skin, or how much your parents make that it is going to limit your ability to have a full and fruitful life.”
Canada said that those who participated in the civil rights movement did so not for fame, but out of a sense of duty. He said that adults today should feel that same duty to reform education.
“I think the message of what makes this a great holiday is that there are standards every one of us can live up to,” he said.
Continuing the theme of duty, Canada said that a new generation had to stand up for those without a voice.
“Dr. King didn’t call on us to do the easy stuff. Question is, who’s going to stand up and do the tough stuff? In this complicated time of shrinking budgets, economic crisis, and the belief that America can’t afford to save everybody, somebody is going to have to stand up for the most vulnerable,” Canada said.
The programs that Canada and HCZ use have served as a model for schools across the nation and in Chicago, including the Woodlawn Children’s Promise Community on Dorchester Avenue and 63rd Street.
Ronnie Rios, an Office of Multicultural Student Affairs (OMSA) director and chair of the MLK Planning Committee this year, said that Canada’s accomplishments were an influential factor in his selection as this year’s keynote speaker.
“Mr. Canada was chosen largely because of the great work he has done related to education, especially the success of HCZ,” Rios said.
Canada closed his address with an original poem entitled “Take a Stand,” in which he encouraged every person to resolve to help children everywhere: “To say to the children of this land,/ ‘Have hope, we’re here,/ we take a stand.’”
This year’s MLK Celebration theme, “Intelligence Plus Character,” was chosen by members of the MLK Planning Committee, which included representatives from OMSA and several community and service organizations. Koon, a Korean percussion RSO, and Soul Umoja, the University’s gospel choir, performed at the event.
The theme of this year’s celebration comes from King’s 1947 essay “The Purpose of Education.” In the essay, King argues that intelligence alone is not enough for a complete education.
“Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education,” King wrote.