the gift of giving

I was recently asked to speak at the 5th Annual Northside Achievement Zone (“NAZ”) luncheon where Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone was giving the keynote address. The NAZ event is an annual fundraising gathering in Minneapolis that supports efforts to improve academic achievement in a defined geographic area in North Minneapolis. This “zone” has the widest educational achievement gap between black and white children in Minnesota. And in a recent ranking, Minnesota ranked 50th out of 50 in graduating children of color from high school—an atrocious social indictment of our community.[1]

The ugly truth is these “zones” exist in every city across the nation, and embedded in this achievement gap is a cycle of generational poverty. Our failure to eradicate this cycle dooms the very fabric of our communities and country. After decades of failing to address the problem, we now know that the only way to end this plague is to educate young children so they can become productive members of society. Unfortunately, we are failing at this as well—50 out of 50. The good news? Documented research has proven that children can only be educated if their family/homelife is stable. In other words, research has shown that children can and do learn and perform well academically in neighborhoods that are violent and impoverished, if (i) their home life is stable, and (ii) they are held to high-performance expectations.

NAZ is based on the formula and model pioneered in Harlem by Geoffery Canada who founded the Harlem Children’s Zone in 1970.

Geoffery Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone

Through the ongoing effort led by Mr. Canada to close the achievement gap between children of color and whites—and thereby end a generational cycle of poverty for the families—discovered that poor children of color can and do thrive academically if the child’s family is stable and expectations are held to the highest standards. This was not revealed overnight; this discovery required decades of work and applied research to see the results. Simply fixing schools doesn’t work—it’s the child’s support network that makes the difference.

In 2012, NAZ, along with sixteen other zones in cities around the country were granted multi-year, multi-million dollar federal grants to try and replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone model.[2] NAZ, through the leadership of Sondra Samuels, has most closely replicated the success model produced in Harlem and as a result, Geoffery Canada delivered the keynote speech at the luncheon.

While my wife and I have been supporters of NAZ and Sondra Samuels for close to a decade, I was a bit surprised when Sondra asked me to close out the NAZ luncheon event with “The Ask”—the part where I follow Geoffrey Canada onto the stage and ask over 1,000 people to reach into their hearts and give with their wallets. The thing was, the luncheon happened to fall on my 53rd birthday and I was scheduled to travel to a business conference later that day, so standing in front of a huge crowd and asking people for money was not the first thing I had on my mind. However, I knew I had no choice—this was something I was going to do. I was going to stand in front of a large crowd of people and declare my support for Sondra and NAZ. That was exactly what I was going to do on my 53rd birthday—then rush to the airport to get to a business conference I needed to attend.

We so easily fall into our own traps of comfort, not wanting to expose ourselves to “risky” or “stressful” situations; but when confronted with a choice, leadership demands we turn towards that which we fear—especially when it is for a greater good than ourselves. Gifts often come in unusual shapes and sizes, and often times not disguised at a gift at all. Sondra’s request turned out to be an amazing birthday gift: one that I will always appreciate. Remember to stay alert and open—you never know when a gift will arrive in an unusually wrapped package.  

To learn more about these charities that are having such a massive impact or to donate, check out the links below:

Learn more about the Northside Achievement Zone.

Learn more about NAZ RESULTS.

DONATE to NAZ.

Learn more about the Harlem Children’s Zone.

Watch Geoffrey Canada’s TED Talk on our failing schools.

Watch Geoffrey Canada discuss the Harlem Children’s Zone with Anderson Cooper.

Watch a clip of Geoffrey Canada’s “Waiting for Superman.”


[1] https://www.ciresiwalburnfoundation.org/newsreports/2019/4/2/minnesota-schools-are-worst-in-the-nation-for-our-children-of-color

[2] https://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/secretary-duncan-announces-seventeen-2012-promise-neighborhoods-winners-school-s

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