Honoring Martin Luther King Jr.: The hope of the Harlem Children’s Zone

I never tire of reading and listening to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He had unwavering hope in the future of America and of mankind to do what is right. His "I Have a Dream Speech" is the most well known, but a friend shared with me yesterday the words of his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1964, and I once again found myself moved to tears. (You also can listen to it here.)

The best way to honor his legacy is to continue to work toward the peace and equality to which he devoted his life. Today, we’re more likely to talk about socioeconomic inequality than racial inequality (though, unfortunately, the two are often closely intertwined). "I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits," King says in his speech. I listened to a "This American Life" segment recently that talked about the Harlem Children’s Zone and its Baby College, and was floored by the way this nonprofit is breaking the cycles of poverty, poor education, and dropout rates, simply by enabling parents to make small but significant changes in the way they raise their infants and young children.
Geoffrey Canada, the Harlem Children’s Zone president and CEO, had already been working with Harlem high school students, trying to reverse the drop-out rates, propensity toward crime, and unlikelihood that these students, even if they made it through high school, would continue into institutions of higher education. But by the time they reached high school, it was often too late. So Canada decided to pour the nonprofit’s efforts into working with children starting at birth.

Essentially, the Baby College is teaching inner-city parents a new way to raise their children, based on studies of what suburban families (middle-class families) have been practicing with theirs. Things like reading books to their children at bedtime, playing games, singing songs. The big difference between inner-city kids and suburban kids, studies have found, is not money but language — the number of words parents are speaking to their children, which is most important between birth and age 8, 9 or 10. The Baby College even educates parents on discipline, teaching them not to yell at or hit their children, which shuts a child down instead of  giving him an opportunity to learn and encouraging him to explore their world (again going back to language). This teaching is the hardest sell with the parents because it requires them to completely break the cycle of the way they were brought up.

I’m not doing justice to the amazing story on "This American Life", and I highly recommend listening to it. I also plan on reading New York Times Magazine editor Paul Tough’s new book "Whatever It Takes", written based on his up-close-and-personal observations of the Harlem Children’s Zone in action.

The Youtube.com clip below from WRTilson gives a peek into the Harlem Children’s Zone from a segment on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Information about the Baby College starts at 3:38.


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