Voice Male - Fall 2003
Working with Fathers of Color:
Hey, Bro, Check it Out!
By Haji Shearer
I can still see him in my mind: 30-something, brown skin, close 'fro, jeans and button-down shirt. I approached him at the Dudley Street Community Fair where about 100 people had come to enjoy rides, music, and food. I was recruiting dads to join a personal development program. Men who join practice skills that help improve their relationships with family and friends and clarify a vision for their lives. Most dads who check out one session stay for the entire program, drawn to the camaraderie, the humor, and the enhancement of their self-esteem.
This particular brother listened to my pitch, his eyes as blank as a page suffering from writer's block. When I finished my rap he brushed me off, telling me he wasn't interested. I was in my mode, so I pushed a little more: fellowship with other positive men, ideas to decrease stress, encouragement to set and achieve your personal goals-I was in a groove! But he shut me down with, "Naw, I'm straight."
I knew he wasn't talking about his sexual preference. He meant, "I'm handling whatever problems I'm having and don't need help from you." The finality of his tone silenced me. I walked away, too late to put my armor on, feeling a bit rejected until I saw the next dad. I handed him a flyer: "Hey, bro, check it out! Less stress, more affection in your family. Want to eliminate some of the tension that naturally comes up in family life?" Using that kind of enthusiasm, I'm able to persuade about 40 men a year to complete our 13-week program, which uses a modified parenting curriculum with time for open discussions.
I recruit from many settings--street fairs, childcare centers, churches, libraries, gyms, courts, the Department of Social Services, anywhere I can find fathers. When I talk to men who are resistant to participating, my thoughts sometimes flip back to that dad at the fair, because although he seemed like an ideal candidate, he was closed to even hearing about the opportunity. I translate his "Naw, I'm straight" into "I'm maintaining at my current level. I don't believe I can do much better."
Too many of us, by the time we're 30 or 40--especially black men like myself, who are pleasantly surprised not to find ourselves incarcerated or embalmed-simply accept the situation we've fallen into. Most of our efforts go into making sure we don't backslide. We give up our dreams.
I find that men who are involved in some other self-improvement work, like school or church, are more likely to consider my appeal even if they are too busy or already have a network to help them achieve their goals. In my years of recruiting men of color for personal growth work, I've seen that those who come find it valuable. It's rare to be in a space where people accept you for who you are and at the same time encourage you to dig deeper.
I have scores of stories of men who used the program as a vehicle to improve their relationships and careers. One father of a four-year-old boy came to the group when he was separated from the child's mother and experiencing serious animosity toward her. He complained that she arbitrarily denied visitation even though he was paying child support. Around week five he shared a new suspicion. He thought she was trying to trick him into something. Her behavior had changed: she was acting friendly toward him. He could now take their son whenever he wanted. Before I could say anything one of the other men in the group said, "She changed 'cause you changed! She's responding to you doing things different because of the program." You could see the light bulb click on over this man's head.
Another dad I recruited through my daughter. She had a friend whose mom I often saw at school events. The dad rarely came, but I knew he lived with the family. When I called the home to invite him, the mom told me, "Oh no, he wouldn't be interested in something like that." I asked to speak with him anyway. Not only did he participate, he ended up being one of the stars. I know he had an uneven work history before coming to the program, but since he graduated two years ago he's maintained full-time employment-his longest streak yet. Being around a group of healthy peers, especially if that's a new experience, is like adding live yogurt cultures to plain milk. A transformation takes place that creates a similar, but more potent, new material.
In addition to resonating with the success of fathers who make it to the program, I've become attuned to some of the reasons men turn down the opportunity. The two most legitimate are work and school. Beyond that, brothers have a hard time even verbalizing why they don't want to attend.
Some men say, "I'm too busy." You're too busy to put a few hours a week into improving your relationship with your children and their mother? You're standing here watching women in tight jeans walk up and down the street, but you have no time to focus on the woman you impregnated and your offspring?
Another popular response is "I'm not interested." Okay, what kinds of things interest you? Basketball, football, cars, sex? Do you have anything in common with your baby's mom and your kids? Did you know there's a 50 percent divorce rate in America? And that's for the people who even bothered to get married. Can you spell "child support"?
I don't really come down on recruits that hard, even though I might like to sometimes. I know that the vague and contradictory reasons men give for not wanting to participate, in the end, come down to fear. We don't like to admit it, but most of us are afraid of either great failure or great success. We feel more comfortable maintaining the status quo: job or no job, squabbles in the family, poor schools, little hope, fantasies about the girl next door because the girl behind our door is driving us crazy (so we think). We live in a self-created purgatory, scared to leave our comfort zone for fear we'll fall and people will laugh, or for fear we'll fly and people will resent us.
For black and Latino dads the alternatives can seem even bleaker than for white fathers. Expressing affection with our kids can be perceived as Father Knows Best territory. We got to raise kids to be tough for the hood. Even though Bill Cosby and Bernie Mac portray compassionate dads on TV, they're actors with fat wallets and comedians to boot. That listening-to-feelings stuff don't work on Blue Hill Avenue.
When I encourage guys in the group to get in tune with their own feelings so they can understand how their kids and partners are feeling, some don't believe it will help. "My parents raised me like this and I turned out okay," I often hear. Oh yeah, I want to say, then why are you addicted to reefer, Heineken, and screaming at your kids? But I don't. Everything in life offers possibility for growth; some situations just encourage you to grow more quickly. God is everywhere, but you can feel the spirit more in church than in a liquor store because of the intention of the space. The groups that we offer provide a powerful growth opportunity because our intention is to transform each participant, ourselves included, from an ordinary guy to a superior man.
I'm enthusiastic when I invite fathers to our program, because I know I'm pointing them toward something valuable. I've also learned that men not ripe for change today may be tomorrow. So the next time I see the brother who told me, "Naw, I'm straight," I'm going to invite him to the program again.
Haji Shearer is director of Fathers' Programs at the Family Nurturing Center of Massachusetts. FNC provides family development training to a wide variety of parents and professions. Haji consults with the Department of Social Services, the Department of Revenue, and other state agencies on increasing father involvement. He lives in Boston with his beautiful wife, son, 13, and daughter, 10.