Project Fatherhood Builds On Strengths

It is not just the education sector that seeks simple solutions for complex, interconnected social problems. Schools aren't alone in hoping that cheap and easy silver bullets will solve intertwined challenges so that we can avoid difficult discussions of uncomfortable dilemmas. But I read Jorja Leap's Project Fatherhood from the perspective of an inner city teacher. For a less teacher-centric overview, read "Project Fatherhood."

Guided by the farsighted ex-felon "Big Mike" Cummings, Leap and the other founders of Project Fatherhood relearned that "'Everyone longs to connect.'" They organized a community of ex-felons in Watts and helped them face the deep wounds they suffered when growing up without fathers. As Leap learned, "These men -- who routinely used guns and dealt drugs and brutalized women and went to prison and had no clue how to father their own children -- needed first to be fathered themselves."

As inner city teachers should understand, there are complex reasons why so many of our students challenge us, defying our authority until we show that we are tough enough and, more importantly, care enough. Many students test us, but as with the case with these fathers, a key reason is a lack of trust. Our students are like Leap's fathers who challenge her in order to ask "are you 'for real?'" and "'are you gonna leave us, too?'"

Similarly, urban teachers rarely hear a negative word by a student about their mother. These fathers echoed students' devotion to their mothers which serves as the "protected territory of the hearts, demilitarized zone in lives of conflict."

Domestic abuse is deeply rooted in the lives of Leap's and Big Mike's fathers. As one said, "My daddy hit my mama, and my step-daddy hit my mama, I guess I was used to it." The same dynamics perpetuate child abuse. Project Fatherhood is especially perceptive in addressing "The P-stuff," or the PTSD which comes out when child abuse is discussed. We educators keep shooting ourselves in the foot, however, by pretending we can improve student performance outcomes without addressing the effects of trauma.

Leap and Big Mike also challenge the fathers' collective wisdom that the task of raising kids is the woman's job. By the end of the narrative, these men "most of whom never knew their own fathers -- have learned how to father one another." Project Fatherhood is another reminder of the absurdity of the situation today where teachers are accountable for covering testable Standards of Instruction but nobody is responsible for teaching the next generation how we must parent each other.

In addition to its reminder that there are no simple answers for complex problems, Project Fatherhood yields two crucial lessons for contemporary school reform. First, it is a reminder of the truth that should have always been the cornerstone of schooling - the essential foundation for educational excellence is trusting relationships. Second, rather than focus nonstop on remediating weaknesses, educators should build on our students' and their families' and communities' strengths.

Even the small Project Fatherhood had to engage in complicated trust-building while navigating between racial divisions, rival gangs, the Nation of Islam, political interests, and the police. In one incident, two armed members of the Grape Street Crips entered a meeting, wordlessly looked at individual fathers (while ignoring Leap), shaking their hands or offering fist bumps. It was a "silent visit full of meaning." Had the gang's approval of the project been denied, it would have resulted in more than a brief interruption to the meeting.

The incident reminded me of the time when I was pulling weeds in a community garden near the site where a member of the Hoova set of the Crips had recently been gunned down. I was challenged by the gang's "O.G." After interrogating me about the garden and making sure that I appreciated the meaning of the recently erected memorial, the gang leader paused and then assumed a less intimidating tone of voice. He proclaimed, "Charles Barkley is wrong. He should be a role model. Our kids need mentors."

Project Fatherhood is based on the heretical position of the late Hershel Swinger, who argued that instead of focusing on dysfunction in the families of marginalized and impoverished families, we should build on their families' strengths. Leap had witnessed the same complexity in Watts's families as Swinger had recognized. She had seen "that every family I encountered - even the most troubled - invariably had positive characteristics somewhere, operating in some ways. For instance, Leap saw multitasking drug dealers and realized that their entrepreneurial talents and transferable skills meant that "drug dealing is the Amway of the hood."

Thirty feet from the site of the Crips' memorial in our community garden, I also saw confirmation of Swinger's and Leap's wisdom. Three white Baby Boomers, assisted by three black middle school students, were becoming more frustrated by our inability to roll a several-hundred-pound rock into place. An older black man stopped his truck, jumped out, took control, ordered us to place our levers in different spots, guided the cornerstone into place, and drove off. The beaming tweens made this incident a foundation of the garden's folklore. "He sure showed you!" the kids proclaimed, and they rarely passed up an opportunity to remind us of the old black man who "worked smarter" than us.

This was perhaps the first time that a member of the community appeared, schooled my colleagues and me, and inspired black kids in a way that we whites could not. But I saw numerous other examples of such mentoring over the next three decades.

Nearly every day of my career, someone unexpectedly walked into my classroom and helped teach "something real." For instance, a father came in through our always-open door and said he had just overheard our lesson about the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Mr. Pete asked if he could address the class. The father lectured a little about the way that Tulsa's act of extreme terrorism had been mostly ignored and taught a lesson on the history of anti-Jewish pogroms. He then guided a discussion about whether the murder of 300 black Tulsans should be known as the "Tulsa Pogrom."

So, my experience confirms with that of Swinger, Big Mike, and Jorja Leap and their understanding that teachers and social workers are welcome in the battle against the legacies of poverty, trauma, and oppression, but we outsiders need to learn how to "hush up and listen."

Although Project Fatherhood doesn't articulate a single, concise political agenda for eradicating poverty and its legacies, it shows how the decency of individuals and groups can make a difference. Whether we are talking about social work or teaching, we must become team players.

As the climax of Project Fatherhood approaches, the chapter "We Are Your Daddies" foreshadows the story which should inform policy discussions. Previously, the collective wisdom was that raising kids is the woman's job, but now the fathers are "trying to redeem themselves" The group tackles the challenge of fathering the next generation with the confident appraisal of what is wrong with today's kids, "all they understand is instant gratification."

The group takes a high school student, Jamel, under their wings, but he is again suspended from school for fighting. Leap offers the teen copies of books ranging from Tupac's poetry to her own Jumped In. He doesn't respond to offers to discuss the materials or to financial incentives. Neither does Jamel respond to the fathers' logic about why he should not have allowed himself to be drawn into a fight after one of his friends was "disrespected." But, he responds with tears after the fathers make it unmistakably clear, "We're not giving up on you. We're never gonna give up on you."

The overall future remains uncertain, but the last words before the Epilogue were:

"He's your daddy -- but we're all your fathers."

Jamel lifts up his head.

"I love all of you. I won't let you down."