The scriptures identify men with divine vision as prophets, seers and revelators. This title is officially an office in the Priesthood, yet there are exceptions ~ as in the case of Miriam, sister of Moses, Deborah, the 'prophetess' and mighty Judge in Israel, and 'Anna' the 'prophetess' who recognized the infant Jesus as the Messiah. There are many other scriptural references to both men and women who, though not ordained to their callings, were nevertheless sustained in their divine gifts by the people anciently, and most importantly, by the Lord. It was not considered a remarkably unusual thing ~ that some holy person outside of official protocol should exercise their divine gifts to the benefit of the people. In fact, accounts of their social and political roles read with an acceptance that suggests familiarity.
A hero walks among us. He was not ordained to his calling, but he has answered it. His name is Geoffrey Canada. His vision is called The Harlem Children's Zone Project. His whole community concept is so revolutionary that it is actually working. It has rightfully been identified as a renaissance for the ghetto. Canada's original goal to save but some few of Harlem's children from gang slaughter has evolved into a massive effort to nurture all impoverished children from birth to college graduation. In so doing, he sees a future where parents support their child's rise up and out of the crippling generational poverty which every other government and private program has thus far failed miserably to do.
He drew a line in the sand around a 24 block radius in 1998 and began setting in motion what he called "the conveyor belt". Eventually Geoffrey's grand ambition realized integrated services free of charge in the form of 2 all day charter schools (to avoid the incompetence of public schools and the unions), a health clinic, a farmer's market, tax preparation and family counseling. With an equally dedicated team of hand-picked professionals, the South Bronx native and Harvard business MA grad has expanded that line to include nearly 100 city blocks and 10,000 children and their families. About 1/3 of his 40 million dollar budget is funded by
the state. The rest is acquired through donations. Children's Zone charter schools can and do fire teachers who do not perform. Everyone on board must believe in the vision that poor children can achieve and succeed. In fact, that's their promise.
A unique and critical aspect of his larger than life comprehensive plan, is the 9 Saturday mornings in a row parents commit to attend Baby College. With the instincts of an anthropologist, Canada minces no words in pointing out a devastating cultural flaw of the Black inner-city; parents do not know how to parent.
Likewise, parenting science (ie: 'Baby Einstein' style brain stimulation trend and parenting resources among middle and upper class society) had wholly failed to enter the decay and despair of central Harlem. An exploratory crew of 15 Canada case workers canvased the neighborhood like clipboard missionaries. Knocking on doors confirmed what he had already surmised; the classic and golden exchange between parent and child singing songs, reciting nursery rhymes and just playing together (taken entirely for granted in middle class homes), did not exist in poor neighborhoods. The vision could not begin if attention was not placed first with the real priority: children from birth to 3 years old. The dreamer told his team they MUST re-think their approach to the war against poverty.
His personal research hit pay-dirt when he consulted a psychological comparison study of childhood development in welfare homes vs homes with professional parents by University of Chicago economics professor James Heckman. He discovered why traditional programs designed to fight poverty (job training, GED training, etc.) don't work. Applicants had never learned the most basic of communication and problem-solving skills. Their non-cognitive skills were severely stunted; the ability to self-motivate, get up on time for work, exercise self-control, engage in open ideas and discussion. Heckman asked, "How are these skills formed?" Enter childhood development science. The results of the study were stunning. The biggest factor in a child's later success in school was not money, race or parental education ~ it was the sheer number of words spoken by the parent to the child. A middle-class child hears 20 million more words by the time they are 3 years old than a poor child.
The biggest obstacle parents of children age 0 - 1 who attend Baby College is the foreign concept of refraining from corporal punishment. Even within the circle of parents in class, the little children sitting at their feet with rattles in hand were "popped" with a chilling regularity. Baby College instructors engage parents in discussion about positive alternatives to hitting their children, and encourage them to speak more respectfully to them. The previously mentioned study also identified that middle class kids by the time they are 3 hear 500,000 encouraging words to 80,000 discouraging ones. For poor kids, it was the exact opposite. Canada said, "Everywhere on the streets, we hear harsh voices yelling at kids, 'Shut up! You get back here! Don't make me come over there to whup your sorry ass!' " Spreading his palms face up in petition, he says, "Who talks to a 2 year old like that?!"
Finally, to achieve the dream of successful escape from generational poverty - here is the winning technique Geoffrey Canada's Baby College is hinging everything else on: read to your child.
A young mother in the program, representative of multiple generations of teen pregnancy and school drop-outs, reported with great surprise the joy she feels to experiment with the Baby College way. She is genuinely and magically surprised her 11 month old son is excited to see his favorite story book again and again. She feels something else she didn't expect; pride. She is proud of herself for leaving the abortion clinic when she saw her boyfriend's tears. She is proud of her boyfriend's attendance with her to Baby College. And she is proud of her improved parenting to take the time to read 2 or 3 books to him every night after his bath, even when she is tired, because now she is beginning to see and believe in the Hope, and the beautiful promise that one hero saw for her son all along.
*see the Charlie Rose interview with a visionary man.