When writing her excellent Project Fatherhood, the UCLA gang expert Jorja Leap exposed herself to a daunting risk. Leap accepted a degree of physical danger but it was the professional risk that could have been intimidating. Leap defied academic convention and spoke honestly about race, family, child-rearing, domestic abuse and, even, the “P-stuff” or post-traumatic shock.
Much of the credit for Project Fatherhood’s open and candid discussion of some of the 3rd rails of social policy must go to “Big Mike” Cummings, who guided her and the quest they shared with felons and fathers in Watts. Big Mike was exceptionally astute in coaxing the project’s participants into an honest appraisal of the causes and the effects of domestic abuse, as well as fathers not holding up their share of family responsibilities.
Scholars and educators often shy away from the issues tackled by Leap and Big Mike, and correctly argue that it is not just fathers - of whatever backgrounds - who have failed our kids. The horrific conditions of the inner city are a legacy of history, of economic exploitation and oppression, and of abusive political and criminal justice systems. It is often feared that a conversation about child-rearing will be seen as “blaming the victim” or excuse-making.
We cannot improve inner city schools without building trusting relationships, however, and neither can we establish those bonds with students and patrons without dialogues about fatherhood. As Leap writes, “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.”
One of the first things that an inner city teacher seeking to build relationships should learn is that students will test them. It should be clear that much of the chronic disorder of urban classrooms is due to high-risk kids acting out their pain. A crucial reason is less obvious, however, and it is made much more understandable by the chapter entitled “Are You Gonna Leave Us, Too?” Teachers aren’t being tested to see if we are tough enough; students, like their fathers before them, want to see whether mentors are “for real.” These fathers also doubt whether outsiders, who may seek to do good, will care enough to stick it out when the going gets rough.