On Saturday evening, Geoffrey Canada ’74, H ’07 addressed a packed, enthusiastic audience in Pickard Theater. His talk, titled “From the Afro Am to Russwurm: Years Later and Still as Important as Ever,” was the keynote address for this weekend’s Af/Am/50 celebration.
“This institution is as important today as it was when it was created 50 years ago,” Canada said when discussing his experience with the African American Society, or “the Am.”
After graduating from Bowdoin, Canada, who is originally from the South Bronx, earned a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Later, he worked with five other Bowdoin alumni to establish the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ). TIME Magazine named Canada one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2011 for his work with HCZ, and Fortune Magazine named him one of the 50 greatest leaders in the world in 2014.
HCZ occupies 97 blocks in Central Harlem and has served 12,509 children and 12,498 adults since its founding in 1970. HCZ’s model includes education and academic support from preschool through college, family services, social services, health programs and community building.
“We have ended that generational poverty thing in our zone,” Canada said.
Canada, the current president of the HCZ board and a published author, credits his success in making a difference in his community to his time at Bowdoin, emphasizing the importance of his academic experience and the connections he was able to make on campus.
“I thought the answer to what was happening in our community was right here on this campus, and I had to find it,” Canada said. “I took every class that [I] even had an inkling … might get me there”
“I don’t know how many people it takes to change the world if you went to Harvard,” he joked. “But six people from Bowdoin could change the world.”
But when Canada was finishing his senior year of high school, though, he did not intend to end up at Bowdoin.
“I’m just telling you, I know there’s a God, right?” Canada said. “There’d be no way in hell I’d have come up to Bowdoin if there wasn’t one.”
At 18, Canada planned to attend Stony Brook University because, he admitted, of its reputation as a party school, and he was accepted on a full scholarship. He did not apply to Bowdoin by choice. Instead, Canada agreed to fill out an application to the College because of the encouragement of the secretary to the principal of his high school. When he received a letter from Bowdoin, he didn’t open it until months later, when he had not heard from Stony Brook and a phone call to their admissions office revealed that they had misplaced all information about him.
Canada started to panic, not because he had always dreamed of going to college, but rather, because it was the only way he could avoid military service.
“It was 1970 when I graduated high school,” Canada said. “If you were not in college and you were a poor black kid, you were going to war.”
Determined to go to one of the two schools to which he had applied, Canada rifled through the drawer where he had put the unopened letter from Bowdoin. He opened it, saw he was accepted, called the admissions office (over a month after his acceptance materials were due) to negotiate his matriculation and ended up on campus the following fall.
Until he arrived, he was not aware that Bowdoin was an all-male institution at the time, or that it was known as particularly academically rigorous. He had thought of himself as an average student in high school, and he became convinced that he was going to flunk out of Bowdoin.
“I was the most depressed black boy in New England,” Canada said.
That night, though, two members of the African American Society knocked on his door and informed him that there was a meeting that night. When Canada arrived, he discovered a community of peers—his was the largest incoming class of African American students in Bowdoin’s history at that point—and upperclassmen who had put themselves at risk to push the College to admit more black students were determined to support them once they had arrived on campus.
“‘Listen, we’re going to help you all get through this thing, because you’re not going to make it on your own,’” Canada said, quoting the upperclassmen. “‘We fought to get you guys up here … and not everybody wants you here.’”
Four days after that meeting, Canada’s mother called him and told him that Stony Brook had called her and asked where he was. Suddenly, he had a choice; he could stay at Bowdoin, or he could leave and attend his former dream school. Inspired by the supportive energy and ambitious aspirations in the African American Society, Canada decided to stay.
“We were looking out for one another because of a higher cause than any individual,” Canada said. “I wanted to be part of that.”
He also cites his relationships with his professors as an important part of his Bowdoin education, explaining how an outing with Paul Hazelton, an education professor, helped him reflect on the large role that luck plays in whether or not people succeed at Bowdoin and in life.
“Some people make it, some people don’t—pure luck. But black people want to say, we shouldn’t just by luck end up having our lives destroyed, just because nobody is willing to stand up and say you’re going the wrong way, you’re doing the wrong thing, that’s going to lead you to destruction,” Canada said. “I’ll tell you what—that’s what Russwurm was for. We came here, [and] all these upperclassmen knew we weren’t going to make it out of this place without some help. Someone was going to have to direct us to where hope led.”
Canada also encouraged Bowdoin students to take advantage of the College’s extensive alumni network.
“If I was a student here, I would have a book of every single graduate of Bowdoin and what they’re doing and where they are,” Canada said.
Audience members, who had been eagerly listening throughout Canada’s talk and laughing at every joke, leapt up for a standing ovation at the end of the speech, when Canada concluded by encouraging students to take care of themselves.
“We need you all to be doing this for a long time because we have a lot more work to do in this country,” he said.