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Neighborhoods Matter

Leaders from across the country look at the importance of place when it comes to social mobility and giving every child the opportunity to succeed
Geoffrey Canada

Geoffrey Canada, Ed.M.'79, speaks at Transforming Place through Neighborhood Leadership, co-sponsored by the Education Redesign Lab at the Ed School and the William Julius Wilson Institute at Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ)

Photos: Carolina Ruggero

There were ideas. There were questions. There was lots of energy.

Last week, leaders from 17 community-based organizations from across the country met on Appian Way for a five-day summit called “Transforming Place through Neighborhood Leadership.” Co-sponsored by the EdRedesign Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the William Julius Wilson Institute at Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), the summit delved into research and on-the-ground action around place-based, cradle-to-career efforts to close opportunity gaps and create pathways to educational achievement and economic mobility.

Sessions explored organizational finance, accessing federal grants, neighborhoods as a unit for change, racial equity, how to use big data, friendship bias, and why self-care matters in this work. Geoffrey Canada, Ed.M.’79, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, who recently came out of retirement to start the William Julius Wilson Institute, kicked off the summit with a talk about challenges faced by anyone trying to move the needle when it comes to helping kids, and the importance of creating a business plan — even for nonprofits. The summit concluded with a fireside chat between Canada, Ed School Dean Bridget Terry Long, Ed Redesign Lab founder Paul Reville, and HCZ’s CEO Kwame Owusu-Kesse.

Highlights from talks throughout the week included:

Paul Reville


“Ed Redesign believes every child deserves the opportunity to succeed,” said Professor Paul Reville, referring to the the research, advocacy, and field catalyst organization at HGSE supporting community-based cradle-to-career initiatives he founded in 2014. “In this country, we have a national myth around this belief, but that’s a myth we lean into, not a reality.” With social mobility in this country declining, he said, the stubborn question — the question he and the room full of community organizers were trying to tackle — is, “how do we make that myth a day-to-day reality?” Part of the answer, and the summit’s focus, is the role that “place” can play in making sure that all students can succeed in life. As Reville has often pointed out, despite decades of education reform focused on what schools need to do, schools alone cannot fix all of the problems faced by kids and families. Instead, he said, “We need a new vision. We need to meet children where they are and give them what they need, in school and out of school.”

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Geoffrey Canada


“I want to tell you why you’re all here. You may not be in a rush, but I’m in a rush. We’re all great at planning and talking, and planning and talking, and more talking and more planning. All of the kids we’re trying to help will have graduated by the time we all figure it out,” said Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada. Instead, he said, every community group in the room needed to create a business plan. “I can’t tell you how dramatically different our organization became after we had a plan.” It wasn’t a perfect solution to helping kids and families, he said, but “If we come together now, we’re going to save some children this year who would not have otherwise been saved. We’re not waiting to get the perfect story. You’re all here because you’re from communities that don’t have the luxury of waiting another year.” 

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Raj Chetty
There are a lot of factors that affect upward mobility in the United States and explain why some children can move beyond the barriers they face growing up. Geography, said Harvard economist Raj Chetty, director of the Opportunity Insights project, is one of them. “It really matters where you grow up,” he said, showing charts and maps of 740 metro and rural areas in the United States that revealed that it’s not just states and cities that matters in shaping children’s outcomes — the neighborhood you grow up in can also make a huge difference. “Place actually matters.” And beyond place, as he revealed in a new study released this week in Nature, there’s another lesser-known factor that seems to be at play in reducing poverty and increasing how much money poor kids earn as adults: friendships with people who are not poor. “What really seems to matter is the degree of social interactions across lines, not just the resources in a community.”
 
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Michael McAfee


“Our job is nation-building work. How do I do charity, but also all the rest?” said Michael McAfee, president and CEO of PolicyLink, a national organization focused on racial and economic equity. “The real work for our generation is liberatory work. Folks, your existence is being called into question — and it should be. I want you to call up today and say you’re homeless and see how much help you’re going to get. I want you to call up today and say your child is distressed. You’re not going to get much help. So ask yourself, what do we need to build for the liberatory work to happen? This is the time to do it. We don’t need to ask for permission anymore…. This is the time to lead. You need to decide how you’re going to move through this world. I’m not waiting for anyone. Leadership is there for the taking.”

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Geoffrey Canada, Kwame Owusu-Kesse, Bridget Long

Community-based work — on the ground, in neighborhoods, working to lift and nurture young people and families by creating safe pathways to learning and opportunity — can be deeply challenging, Canada acknowledged in the Friday session that culminated the weeklong learning exchange. But "the biggest challenge is when people decide that it can’t be done. I’ve seen people check themselves out. Part of what we were hoping that people would see [this week] is that folks are doing this all over the country. They are doing high-quality work, and they have been doing it for many, many years." This is about "unchecking that box about why these same opportunities aren’t available in your community," he said, urging attendees to avoid limiting their aspirations.

“There is a moment right now that we have been called to respond to," Canada continued, making a point that Owusu-Kesse later echoed. With the availability of COVID relief funding and a growing mandate for racial justice and an equitable recovery, "we have a unique opportunity to create history, and I don’t say that in any hyperbolic sense," he said. He noted that HCZ will focus extensively on economic mobility over the next ten years, working to close the racial wealth gap and catalyze effective practices.

Community-based work has never been more important, added HGSE Dean Bridget Long. "I remain hopeful that one lesson we take away from COVID is the importance of place," she said. As normal school operations were reinvented when the pandemic hit, "all of a sudden, the game became about what was happening inside of a student’s home, inside of a student's family, inside of their neighborhood. We couldn't have one-size-fits-all solutions for how we were going to get students what they needed, whether that be nutrition or computers or the internet — it had to be place by place, very specific to the needs of that particular child, that particular family, that particular neighborhood. We had to have so many more people at the table ... and there was a realism all of a sudden that the function of our schools — in connecting with our nonprofits and so many of our community-based organizations — goes beyond just ABCs; it goes to nutrition, health care, safety, and so many other things. So, yes, this is the right moment for this work, because we realize we're not going to do it just with schools alone."