As the dog days of late summer blanket and slow much of the New York City’s usual bustle, Anne Williams-Isom takes a well-deserved rest. The chief executive officer of the Harlem Children’s Zone had just overseen the completion of another year of the organization’s 11-month long program.
The community-focused organization, which champions a “cradle-to-career” programming model, serves approximately 13,000 youth throughout Upper Manhattan. Thousands of volunteers, counselors and youth participants had just gathered for the group’s annual March for Peace. Williams-Isom chaired and marched in the event, which calls for an end to violence in the community’s HCZ serves.
“We really wanted our program to go 11 months of the year because we want the kids to be with us, off the street and be safe,” said Williams-Isom while reflecting on the past year during the March. “When we have the students during the school year, we’re very focused on their academics. During the summer, they work on academics for the first half of the day, and then go on trips, go on recreation, going out into the city. The summer is more a time to explore the city, their interests and a time to have fun.”
Williams-Isom first joined Harlem Children’s Zone in 2009 as the group’s chief operating officer. Before her time with HCZ, Williams-Isom served as deputy commissioner of the Division of Community and Government Affairs in the NYC Administration for Children’s Services.
Harlem Children’s Zone was founded in 1994 by educator and activist Geoffrey Canada, who envisioned the group as a way of ending the violence and poverty he saw as entrenched in the community. Since then, the organization has expanded to include two charter schools, after school programs, K-12 summer programming, prenatal programming, wellness support and college and career prep programs.
“The things that’s made us successful over these past 24 years is that we have proven results,” said Williams-Isom. “Right now, we have over 800 students from the community in college. Over 70 percent of them return to the community with new knowledge that they will then use to enrich the community.”
Williams-Isom always had a passion for improving the lives of the most marginalized, a drive she attributes to her upbringing. Raised by a single-mother in Queens, Williams-Isom knows from personal experience the challenges present in New York’s underserved communities. It’s an awareness that many counselors and aides at Children’s Zone share.
“The secret sauce of the Harlem Children’s Zone is our staff,” said Williams-Isom. “Both the COO and I live in Harlem, and almost all come from similarly situated communities. Our staff believe in these kids, many of them used to be these kids, and we’re very proud of that connection.”
She continued, “We think that if we can work with children and partner with parents we can strengthen the community. Some people just think that we’re a charter school, but we’re much more than that. We are anti-violence, pro-family planning, pro-justice, pro-economic stability, pro-health; it’s really about a holistic approach to children.”
In her time at Harlem Children’s Zone, Williams-Isom has helped expand the organization’s model to cover the entire early life span of youth in Harlem. The program’s ambition and success has gained increased notoriety during the same period, receiving acclaim from leaders such as U.S. President Barack Obama and Goldman Sachs President Gary Cohn. Communities from Baltimore to London have also taken note and begun programs emulating the model.
“We believe our fundamental mission is to end generational poverty,” said Williams-Isom in the aftermath of the March for Peace. “The way we believe that we can do that is by giving them everything that they need, all the time, until they don’t need it anymore, just like we would do for our own.”