Educator, social activist and thought leader Geoffrey Canada peered into his crystal ball Saturday and saw himself smiling profusely 10 years into the future.
That smile, he told the 2018 spring graduating class of Palm Beach Atlantic University students, stemmed from the happiness he felt knowing America’s future, in spite of current challenges, was in good hands -- theirs.
“Those kids were so smart and talented. The best we had,” Canada reflected in the 2028 snapshot explaining to his wife why he was so happy. “They promised they could do anything they wanted with their lives. They graduated from Palm Beach Atlantic University and they promised [that] my promise to my kids will be kept. I think they might be the greatest generation yet. You’ll see.”
That promise made years earlier Canada told the PBA graduates, was to do his part to challenge America to become a better place for its children.
And he’s been working to do just that for several decades through the nonprofit organization Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), where today he serves as president. The HCZ is striving to revitalize Central Harlem and eradicate the cycle of poverty in its disadvantaged communities by providing critical access to educational and healthcare programs.
Although Canada grew up in a poor neighborhood of South Bronx in New York, he was able to overcome those circumstances and rise to academic excellence achieving a bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology from Bowdoin College and a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Canada has written two books, “Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America” and “Reaching Up for Manhood: Transforming the Lives of Boys in America.”
His childhood however was marked by significant events that left an indelible mark on him, including the assassination of three of his role models: President John F. Kennedy, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Canada recalled how President Kennedy’s inauguration speech “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” and his fight for civil rights resonated with him as a young boy. He also drew inspiration from King’s “Mountaintop” speech, which challenged America to live up to its ideals.
The story of another role model Rosa Parks and her refusal to give up a seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 inspired him as a young boy to believe that an individual courageous act could change the world, Canada said. Parks’ story was a catalyst for his call to serve others, he noted.
“I have always been deeply moved by the sacrifices that others make to make our country the greatest nation on earth,” Canada said.” I’ve loved the idea of America even while grappling with its imperfect realities.”
It was in 1975 after obtaining his Harvard degree that Canada began to reflect on how his generation could make America better, even more than his mother’s generation had although they had achieved remarkable things.
“They had won the war, defeated the Nazis, ended the holocaust and launched an industrial revolution,” Canada said. Still he said he was convinced his generation could do better.
But in spite of some victories, which included eradicating polio, major technological advances and improvements in civil rights, women’s rights and protections for the disabled, his dream for his generation hasn’t been realized, Canada said.
“My generation has done real good and made real progress [but] we have also left you a real mess,” he noted.
For Canada that mess includes the country’s late response to climate change, its staggering poverty rate and its distinction as having the highest incarceration rate per capita of any country worldwide.
But even in the face of these societal dilemmas, Canada told the more than 500 graduates receiving bachelor’s, master’s and professional degrees Saturday that he’s not worried about his hopes for his generation not being fulfilled.
“The best of America is yet to come. The work we don’t complete that attempts to make this a better country, the next generation will finish.”
And that’s surely reason enough to smile.
Earlier in the commencement proceedings, Lillian Rogers and Sarah Murray -- outstanding graduates of the School of Education and Behavioral Studies and School of Communications and Media, respectively -- reflected on their PBA journey and how the experience transformed their lives.