Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America

By Curtis J. Evans, Ph.D.

By Michael Frank, SPU Junior


Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America
By Paul Tough
Mariner Books (reprint edition, 2009), 336 pp.


Paul Tough’s Whatever It Takes is a compelling account of the struggles and successes of African-American social activist and educator Geoffrey Canada’s attempt to find out what it would take to change the lives of the residents in New York City’s Harlem Children’s Zone, a 97-block area in central Harlem.


Tough tells the story of an ongoing experiment that Canada started to provide the children of Harlem with the educational resources that they need to be successful in the classroom and, hopefully, for the rest of their lives.


Guiding children through life


The main component of Canada’s experiment is what he calls “the conveyor belt,” a method that suggests students should be guided and taken care of from before they are born to the time they graduate from high school. This book examines the adversities of the impoverished population in America and shows how Canada is grappling with possible solutions to this institutionalized problem the country faces.


I started reading this book after I had returned from the Camden, New Jersey, service trip put on by the John Perkins Center at Seattle Pacific University. On the trip, our team was able to work on several projects and we were also able to aid teachers in the classroom at the Camden Forward School. I was encouraged to see the steps that different groups and individuals are taking to tackle this issue of social injustice in the United States. In the book in particular, the discourse on American poverty, the importance of changing the odds for those who are impoverished, and the hope that Canada brings to this issue was refreshing to my personal development as a future educator.


There is a chapter in Whatever It Takes called “Unequal Childhoods” that clearly outlines the statistics and symptoms of the state of social inequality and institutionalized racism within the United States, showing that the need for reform cannot start at adulthood or even at the primary level. To have an impact on the lives of these children, reform needs to start before the child is even born. That not only affects me as an educator but also as a future parent.


When I think about the opportunities that I want my children to have someday, I think about the care I will give to my wife when she is with child, the sessions I will attend to educate myself on child care, and the books I will need to read to be fully educated on the future of my children. Shouldn’t all children be able to experience that care and attention, especially where resources and finances are scarce? Is that what leads to this perpetual cycle of poverty in the United States? Canada seems to think so, and I am beginning to think the same way.


Closing the gap


Because of this inequality, Canada proposes to close the gap between the rich and poor in America through educational reform and funding for those who do not have the same resources as middle-class citizens. In my own life, I have found it rewarding to have resources available to me without even thinking about from where they came or how lucky I am to have them. As a future educator, I hope to be able to provide similar resources to my students that I received growing up. I would like to see them not only better educated, but also experience the gap between the rich and poor growing smaller and smaller.


One of the most impactful lessons I received from Whatever It Takes was the importance of every child and to be able to care for him or her no matter what. There are many stories in this book that show some of the leaders of our day, and even Canada himself, coming from the poorest areas in the United States. Yet they became some of the most influential people in the nation.


So as an aspiring teacher, I know it is necessary for me to care for every child, no matter the child’s socio-economic background — and no matter how hopeless the child’s situation seems. Sometimes, just one person or group who care can change a child’s odds. Tough’s account is not only a gripping story, but also a powerful and continuing lesson from which educators across the nation can learn. As one of those future educators, I hope to give children the opportunities and attention they need to close the gap, and one day bring hope to future generations.


AuthorMichael Frank is a junior at Seattle Pacific University, where he majors in chemistry. He intends to become a high school chemistry teacher after graduating. He was born and raised in Denver, Colorado.


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