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Following my divorce from my first wife 12 years ago, I was awarded custody of our two sons who were 2 and 3 years old at the time. Fortunately I had my mother there to help me immensely; however, my sons' mother stepped out of the picture and I was their primary caretaker.
Around this time I started organizing events to bring fathers together in Baltimore where I live. I wanted a brotherhood of people to relate to, to build and create something with. I started simply by asking friends or people I met at the school where I work. I'd have families join my kids and me at the park or get dads together for a rap session. It grew from there through word of mouth and flyers I posted and handed out.
Eight years ago I remarried. My wife Kelly and I had a son and a daughter together. Two years after the birth of my daughter--my youngest child--I joined Facebook and saw the potential for it to be a virtual space for fathers to connect with each other. I searched for Facebook Groups and saw that there wasn't much out there for fathers, especially not for black fathers. I was excited about the idea of starting something of my own to help fill this void. Having the ability to create this group for other folks who were going through the same thing as me was a great feeling.
Black Fathers took off slowly, but over time people found our group, members added more people they knew, and influential people shared it. As it has grown, I've been able to reach more people for events and I've been able to bond with other fathers, many of whom I wouldn't know without the group. Now after almost six years, we are up to more than 6,200 members.
The group is primarily a resource for men and women to come together and address different issues related to fatherhood, like child support, custody battles and relationships. We share informative articles and words of inspiration. People ask questions and receive advice. I thank each and every member of the group for being involved and for helping to make the group what it is today.
A key moment a few years ago was when one member posted about getting ready for court the next day. He was trying to get custody of his son. People responded with encouraging words, prayers and their own similar stories. He came back to the group later and said that he was successful in getting custody. That was huge to me. We didn't know him but were able to help him during a tough time. It doesn't matter whether you've had a father in your life or not, you don't have to do this on your own. It doesn't have to be scary to be a father. We can be here for each other. And we are.
Another goal of the group, aside from continuing to be a resource for members, is to be a vehicle through which we highlight fathers who are out there doing the business of fatherhood. A lot of times people will post a photo of them and their kids or talk about something they did together. It's great to see other fathers who care as much as I do and who want to show the world that they feel that way. What we do here combats the negativity that is out there in regard to black fathers. You don't usually hear or see those images of loving, caring and involved black fathers. But I know we exist, we're out there, and I want people to know it.
That's what the Black Fathers Facebook Group and events I put on like "Daddy and a Movie" and "Black Fathers Rock" are for. I've also started the Fatherhood Collective to promote and sell t-shirts, mixtapes, books and other media projects, which are in the works, to support the message of proud fathers from all walks of life standing up for their families.
The work I do is to strengthen bonds between fathers and families, and hold up involved fathers as models to others. No one can say that they don't have a blueprint. They can't say that there are no instructions for this. We work every day to provide the blueprint, to provide the instructions. And although none of us know all the answers, collectively we provide enough to help anyone become and remain successful as a parent.
Being a father is the greatest joy in my life. I now have sons age 15, 13 and 9, and a daughter who is 7. I want to encourage other active fathers to share their stories and be public about it. We have so many means now to add our voices. Sing it, write it, post it, rap it, blog it, whatever. Show the world how amazing it is to be a father.
Matt Prestbury is a kindergarten para-educator in the Baltimore City Public School System, a husband, an author and the father of four children in Baltimore, MD.