‘Got to Do Something’

Freedom Awards honorees challenge community to be engaged

By Bill Dries

Educator and Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada came to the National Civil Rights Museum Freedom Awards Wednesday, Nov. 6, with some harsh words as he and two others accepted the awards.

International Paper CEO John Faraci with the 2013 Keeper of the Dream award winners M’Lea Scott, from left, Jack Dougherty and Iyonia Boyce. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“We ought to be ashamed of ourselves,” Canada began his remarks before several hundred people at Temple of Deliverance Church of God in Christ, site of the 22nd annual awards forum.

“You all know what’s happening in your schools, in our communities,” Canada continued. “We ought to be ashamed for allowing a system to destroy so many of our young people. There is a system in place that is determined to not have these young people be successful. We’ve got to do something about that.”

Canada and Black Enterprise magazine founder Earl G. Graves Sr. sounded a common theme that connected systemic challenges of the civil rights era to different contemporary systemic challenges of the 21st century.

And Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, connected local and national struggles to global movements for change.

Graves challenged the audience composed primarily of school groups to “be just as engaged and disciplined as my generation was and had to be when Emmett Till was with us. Your generation has Trayvon Martin.”

“My generation had to walk into the back of the department stores to buy clothes without being able to try them on,” he said. “Your generation faces the fact of being stopped and arrested by police after you’ve made your purchase because of racial profiling.”

Harlem Children’s Zone is a nonprofit organization that is now a model for rebuilding communities around schools. Canada acknowledged resistance to the changes in education.

“We’ve allowed failure to become the norm in schools across this country and nothing changes. So you can fail a group of kids for 30 years and nothing changes,” Canada said after his speech. “And then when people try to bring innovation – when someone says we want to do a charter school, then people go crazy. No one goes crazy when the kids fail every single year.”

Canada said schools and the reforms taking place in them are competing with other institutions like prisons.

“We’ve allowed our communities to invest so much in jails and prisons that it’s pressured our budget. So any time you want to do something like pre-K, people tell you we have no money,” he said. “You just have these things that just keep grinding away. … And those are the institutions I think we have to actively interfere with.”

Robinson told those at the forum that the struggles present in the United States are linked to larger global struggles including “the growing inequality of wealth and influence in countries, including in this great country.”

“This is our world – such inequality,” she said. “Dignity comes before rights.”

Robinson is a former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and a UN special envoy to the Great Lakes Region of Africa.

The first woman to be president of Ireland also talked of “incredible gender discrimination” worldwide even in societies which are not in conflict with other nations.

She talked of standing on the balcony at the museum Tuesday where civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968 and the emotional experience.

She said the awards serve “to connect the very tough struggle in this country, with a lot of racism and inequality, with the international struggle.”

“They have so many things in common,” she said.