March 20, 1997
Vol. 16, No. 13

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    Advocate for inner-city children to be honored

    Canada to receive Benton Medal for public service Geoffrey Canada, president and chief executive officer of the Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families in New York City, and a pioneer in creating social programs for inner-city youths, will receive the University's Benton Medal for Distinguished Public Service at Winter Convocation on Friday, March 21, in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.

    The Benton Medal, created by the University Trustees in 1967 to honor Sen. William Benton on the occasion of his 25th anniversary as chairman and publisher of Encyclopaedia Britannica, is presented "to honor the most extraordinary service to the field of education and to the University."

    Canada has been an influential advocate for urban children since joining Rheedlen in 1983. Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families, founded in 1970, was the first non-profit organization in New York City to focus exclusively on the problem of truancy among at-risk inner-city youths.

    The organization, which runs several successful social-development programs in New York City, has been widely cited as an innovative model for helping at-risk children. Using schools as a community resource, Rheedlen has developed a network of school-based prevention programs in Central Harlem, Manhattan's Upper Westside and the Hell's Kitchen area of Manhattan.

    "Canada . . . is one of the singular few who still stand and share the terrors of a combat zone with the young and the poor," wrote Murray Kempton in Newsday last year.

    In a Mother Jones interview with Canada, writer Andrea Bernstein noted that Canada's "tireless organizing, advocacy and visionary thinking in support of poor children and their families have caught the attention of [President] Clinton and [Attorney General] Janet Reno."

    In 1993, Canada was honored with Gov. Mario Cuomo's Award for African-Americans of Distinction, and in 1995 he received the $250,000 Heinz Award for Service to the Human Condition.

    The author of the book Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America, Canada grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in the South Bronx, where violence was a way of life.

    "The Bronx was a violent place, but there were rules," Canada told the Richmond Times Dispatch in 1995. "You fought fair. It was traumatic, but basically you survived the experience. Today, [a child] can go two blocks and look at a person and they'll pull out a gun and shoot you."

    In Fist Stick Knife Gun, he addresses ways society can slow today's violent trend.

    "The answer to bringing about real change in our inner city communities," Canada writes, "is not only to invest in our families before they go into crisis, but to make sure that the communities themselves are organized to continue to fight for these investments regardless of who happens to hold political office."

    Motivated by an ethic of preventative social service, Rheedlen works under Canada's direction in regenerating communities -- their families, schools, parks and housing facilities -- as the first step toward alleviating violence and drug use among the urban poor. The agency organizes recreational programs, tutoring and drug counseling, emergency food and clothing projects, and conflict-resolution training to teach children non-violent ways to resolve arguments.

    Canada has been involved in working with inner-city children since the late 1970s. He received his bachelor's degree in sociology and psychology from Bowdoin College in 1974, and his master's degree in education from Harvard in 1975. After graduation, he was a camp supervisor, teaching children with severe emotional disabilities. He then became director of a private day school for troubled inner-city youths in Boston.

    In 1983, he returned to New York City and became program director for the Rheedlen Institute's Truancy Prevention Program. He also founded and opened a martial arts school, which promotes anti-violence and conflict-resolution techniques. The school is a nationally acclaimed model for prevention of violence efforts. In 1990, he was named President and CEO of Rheedlen Centers.

    This is only the fifth time the Benton Medal has been awarded. The medal was first awarded in 1968 to William Benton. In 1972, it was presented to Paul Hoffman, who, as administrator of the Marshall Plan, engineered Europe's economic recovery after World War II. In 1976, it was awarded to Hermon Dunlap Smith, former chairman and chief executive officer of the Marsh and McLennan insurance firm, who was known for his lifelong support of social-service work both at the University and in the community. The medal was most recently awarded in 1996 to University alumna and Trustee Katharine Graham, chairman of the executive committee of the Washington Post Co.