Memphis’ early childhood initiative means that the city is having the right conversation about education, said Geoffrey Canada, founder of Harlem Children’s Zone, at the National Civil Rights Museum’s 2013 Freedom Award Public Forum.

Canada spoke to a crowd of students, teachers, and community members at the Temple of Deliverance this morning. He received the museum’s National Freedom Award and was honored alongside Mary Robinson, the first female president of Ireland, and Earl Graves, Sr., a civil rights leader and founder of Black Enterprise Magazine.

Canada founded the Harlem Children’s Zone, which includes parenting workshops, after-school programs, medical services, the Promise Academy network of charter schools, and other programs and serves a 100-block area in Harlem. He said that while he was proud of the more-than-12,000 children his program has reached, his biggest accomplishment was raising the awareness of adults. “In places where adults had given up on kids,” he said, “adults need to be held accountable.”

In his remarks to the crowd, Canada told his story of growing up in an area of New York City where a “group of young people whose sole purpose was to lead to destruction” dominated and intimidated others. He told Memphis’s adults that they should be ashamed for allowing the school system to fail students. He told students to stay true to the dream. “Some of this is on us,” he told students, “and some of this is on you.”

Canada told the press that expanding early childhood education in Memphis would pay off. Canada also said that he supports Stand for Children, an education advocacy group that has a strong presence in Memphis.

He expressed frustration with opponents of education changes. “You can fail kids for years and nothing happens, no one goes crazy,” he said. But when you bring in a charter school, he said, “everyone goes crazy.”

Robinson also singled out Memphis’s school system in her comments to the press. “The struggle for greater equity in schooling is part of the same struggle,” she said, referring to international struggles for human rights.

Canada said that he hopes to leave behind a stronger leader and a stronger organization than he’s founded. “Lots of leaders stay too long,” he said.

Memphis-area students Iyonia Boyce, a 7th grader at Collierville Middle School; Jack Dougherty, a 6th grader at Schilling Farms Middle School, and M’Lea Scott, a 9th grader at White Station High School, were all awarded the Keeper of the Dream Award at today’s event.