Skip to main content

Transforming Place Through Neighborhood Leadership

Community-based leaders from around the country gathered at HGSE to share new ideas and guidance around closing the opportunity gap
Raj Chetty
Raj Chetty speaks at EdRedesign's summer institute, Transforming Place through Neighborhood Leadership
Photo: Jill Anderson

Inspiration and resilience were front and center at last week’s Transforming Place through Neighborhood Leadership summit at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s (HGSE) Gutman Conference Center. The three-day event, co-sponsored by HGSE’s EdRedesign and the William Julius Wilson Institute at Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), featured leaders of community-based organizations from around the country as they shared new ideas and guidance in closing the opportunity gap for youths nationwide.

“This issue of who makes it has something to do with race but also has a lot to do with place,” said Geoffrey Canada, Ed.M.'79, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone and the William Julius Wilson Institute. Canada’s rousing keynote address kicked off a series of panels, workshops, and community-building opportunities for leaders who share EdRedesign's mission of creating opportunity for all children, youth, and families through research and support for place-based, systems-level change in childhood education and development.

Doubled in size from last year’s event, the summit delved into research and on-the-ground efforts to create a “cradle-to-career” pathway for children who, in addition to a public school education, need personalized pathways to well-being, educational attainment, civic engagement, and, ultimately, upward economic mobility.  

“There is no shortcut to equity,” said Professor Paul Reville, founding director of EdRedesign, during the summit’s opening panel. Reville encouraged those attending to reimagine the educational landscape that, for too many children, starts and ends with traditional schooling.

“If we really want to shift the paradigm of the system in which we now operate — which is highly balkanized with the school at the middle and all these other agencies and opportunities and services supporting it — we need something that integrates it,” said Reville, advocating for Adult Navigator programs EdRedesign has developed in several communities over the years. “You need a navigator, someone to constitute a plan for each child, meet that child where they are, give them what they need inside and outside of school. And create basically a new social compart. That is what we as a society owe to our families and children.”

A number of “how to” sessions focused on topics such as elevating family and youth voices, integrating the built environment and housing into community planning, and securing funding and organizational finances. Harvard economist Raj Chetty, director of the Opportunity Insights project, participated in a data-driven economic opportunity session during which several panelists cited the need to share insights and information, strengthening multiple communities through individual advances.

Dean Bridget Terry Long, addressing the summit on its first day, encouraged everyone attending to feel a part of the HGSE community that’s working toward shared goals.

“The work is incredibly hard, and sometimes it feels isolating. I’m glad that you have your communities together but I hope also coming here, you have each other,” said Long. “You’re all facing challenges, but you’re all doing incredible things. And by sharing your knowledge — and also drawing upon us as an institution and what we can do to support you — is incredibly important and will be a way forward.”

While even the term “cradle-to-career” was occasionally debated — with critics claiming an impact on children’s outcomes can be made well before they’re even born — the gathering represented the strength and resilience of a movement those attending have worked to bring to the center of the educational conversation for decades.

“We’re always looking for the right moment where there’s an entry point where you can make a difference. Where you can get through that open window. I think we’re in such a moment for our work,” said Reville. “It’s a troubling, divisive moment. But at the same time, it’s a moment of opportunity to bring the spotlight to this work, and I think we’re ready for this moment.”

One common refrain about the challenges children growing up disadvantaged face is that the problems their neighborhoods have — violence and poverty and the ever-present echoes of systemic racism — should be addressed using new tools and with a public health approach to poverty and inequality.

Kwame Owusu-Kesse
Kwame Owusu-Kesse speaks at EdRedesign's summer institute, Transforming Place through Neighborhood Leadership, co-sponsored by the William Julius Wilson Institute at Harlem Children’s Zone
Photo: Carolina Ruggero

“We’re still implementing a crime approach and that’s the same thing we did with the crack epidemic,” Greg Jackson, executive director of the Community Justice Action Fund, said during a panel on community violence. “We said this is a public health approach but we’re going to pour in our crime control strategy and see if that works and, frankly, it’s failing.

“When are we going to start investing in public health solutions?” Jackson, a gun violence survivor, asked. “A big part of that is you all in this room, and that’s exactly what we’re fighting for.”

The frank discussions about obstacles and challenges to providing cradle-to-career solutions often involved the balance between advocating for system-wide changes while also helping individual children in real time.

“I think it’s really easy to forget about the individual child when you put so much pressure on yourself about creating systems change. And holding both things is important,” said Kwame Owusu-Kesse, CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone. “I always talk about the paradox of leadership: in order to be able to catalyze public dollars you need to demonstrate scale and population-level outcomes. But we cannot leave the most disadvantaged communities behind, who often are lost in the averages or left in the margins. So how do we continue to have the individualistic perspective of what needs to happen for an individual child, and still have that child represent the population? How do we hold those two truths together?”

There are no easy solutions to those problems, but Owuse-Keese, Canada, and others stressed one thing above all: that the help and strength that they all need — and maybe the answers to their challenges — was somewhere among the people they had assembled together.  

“We are building a movement, and it is for us to work together. And so I don’t want you to be afraid. Because you’re not alone,” said Canada during his keynote address. “And I don’t want you to be sad because no one else loves you. I love you, and you’re going to find love in this room. I don’t want you to be discouraged because our best days are yet to come.”


The latest research, perspectives, and highlights from the Harvard Graduate School of Education

Related Articles