In Paul Tough’s beautiful narrative of the growth of the Harlem Children’s Zone, you hear a lot of metaphors – conveyor belts, viruses, contamination. Despite the terrible visual association of all of these, Geoff Canada is really trying to do good and truth be told, and he’s got a powerful idea.
The theory is relatively simple – to change a community you need to flood the system with support from end to end so that it can change itself. While one component along the way may be more “important” and delivers a higher return, without the rest the system just falls apart (this is a message many funders often miss – how the various programs overlap and the potential dangers of removing one piece).
The conveyor belt model
This is how Canada thought about HCZ – the schools were the lynchpin, but the schools couldn’t produce a lasting change without parents who were taught to take better care of their kids, kids who went to pre-K and were immersed in intensive language interventions early on, and lots of other services to intervene along the way from K-12 for the kids that were still falling through the cracks.
It was a conveyor belt with a lot of ER docs and specialists along the way.
For anyone who knows the history, you’ll know that Canada poured hundreds of millions into his colossal experiment – one that only reaches about 1,200 kids a year through schools and about 600 others through pre-school and after-school programs. You’d be crazy not to ask if it’s scalable?
A scalable project?
Obama seemed to think so at first. When we was running for president, he wanted to make HCZ in 20 cities through a mix of private and public funds. This made sense – the private sector has more to gain from a better educated community than the federal government and needed to be a partner in this massive change. Calls of “privatizing” a social service set aside.
It was a nice idea, but four years later and we’re essentially in the same place – HCZ closed its doors to some of its “ineffective” programs while expanding the schools. How could other communities without the same access to billionaires achieve the HCZ effect?
Is the answer really simple?
I believe the answer comes in two parts:
- Communities need leaders like Canada to make it work. While Canada wasn’t from Harlem specifically, he has a deep understanding and connection with the community and isn’t on a mission to gentrify it, but to empower it through itself. Many reformers come off as missionaries, and whether they want to or not, it takes leaders from within to drive lasting impact. In turn, programs like Canada’s miss an important ingredient – early stage leadership development – that could potentially transform and amplify his work. It would answer the question: “how do we get more Canada’s?” So yes, part of the secret sauce is great leadership, but you need systems in place to promote that leadership from within.
- A distinguishing characteristic between wealthy neighborhoods and impoverished neighborhoods is access to capital. In A billion bootstraps, Philip Smith shares his story about how a $50,000 loan transformed his life. This is a pretty naive look at the situation – he had a lot of educational and skill capital to leverage behind that $50k and I’m guessing if pressed on the issue he’d readily admit as much. The key point is this, though: education without capital won’t lead to success and capital without education won’t produce as long lasting effects in an already developed economy. The combination of skills and business training paired with simplified access to capital has the opportunity to dramatically multiply the effects of each other. This is what has differentiated growth in developing Asian countries from their counterparts in other parts of the world.
Does it work in other places too?
In addition to my work in microcredit this year, I’ll be pairing up with two organizations – MPrep and AfricAid – to research and explore some hypotheses about how models of leadership development, educational interventions, and microcredit can combine to build new generations of leaders from within.
There’s a lot of good news and reasons to be optimistic. While the traditional “aid” model is still prevalent for government-to-government development efforts, we’re starting to see more pioneers look for sustainable solutions that take a more nuanced and context-specific approach to development. This credit-plus approach is one desperately needed in developing countries across the globe.
On a separate note, just a few more posts before we head out!