Bowdoin trustee George Khaldun settled into his chair at the McKeen Center and invited the students gathered around him to briefly introduce themselves. Each mentioned an involvement in education, whether teaching, mentoring or tutoring.
Khaldun has forged a career educating and supporting children, and by so doing, has helped strengthen an entire community. He is the chief administrative officer for Harlem Children’s Zone, which was launched by his friend and Bowdoin classmate, Geoffrey Canada ’74.
Harlem Children’s Zone offers a number of social and educational services, including charter schools, for students in K-12 who live in a 97-block section of Harlem. When Canada and Khaldun began building the organization more than two decades ago, their goal was to “change the dynamic of kids going to jail,” Khaldun said. “So that kids would hear about other kids going away to college instead of going to jail. We wanted to change the culture and change the community.”
Khaldun’s interest in ending generational poverty — that unyielding cycle of poverty begetting poverty — began before he started working for the Harlem Children’s Zone. As a Bowdoin student he was focused on understanding poverty and figuring out how to lift people out of depressed conditions.
Being a student in the early 1970s was an exciting, turbulent experience. “It was a time of a lot of political action. Lots of students belonged to civil rights organizations,” Khaldun said. “We were young men searching for ways to change the negative conditions in our communities to positives.”
He added that he always knew he “wanted to do something good,” but how exactly he was going to do that was unclear.
After Khaldun graduated from Bowdoin, he traveled with a Watson fellowship for a year before earning a master’s degree at Columbia University. As he was crossing Broadway in New York City one day, Canada happened to drive by and yell out a greeting to Khaldun. The two went out to dinner, and Canada spoke about transforming Harlem by helping its children do well in school and go to college. And he wanted his old friend to help him.
Khaldun agreed: “I told him I would give him three months,” he said. “And I’ve been there 23 years.”
To get its start, Harlem Children’s Zone secured support and funding from Stan Druckenmiller ’75 and George Soros, among others.
More than 20 years later, Harlem Children’s Zone is working with thousands of children every year. In 2014, the nonprofit served 13,705 young people, according to its website. More than 90 percent of the students in its programs were accepted into college. Khaldun said 831 Harlem Children Zone students are in college right now.
The leadership of Harlem Children’s Zone is now transitioning. Last year, Canada stepped down as the organization’s chief executive officer. Khaldun told his friend then, “I’m going with you since you tricked me into this 23 years ago!”
He said he plans to leave the organization in the coming year but not before he is certain that its culture will continue. “We want to keep the spirit of the mission alive,” he said.