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Thompson: Project Fatherhood

978-080701452-3When 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.

The key lesson of the chapter “Big Mama” should be equally apparent to teachers and social workers, but the way that Big Mike and Leap drew out the fathers produced an incredibly nuanced explanation of why the fathers pass on contradictory attitudes towards the women in their lives. On one hand, the normative mentality was illuminated by the father who observed, “My daddy hit my mama, and my stepdaddy hit my mama, I guess I was used to it.”

But, men (and male students) who perpetuate a cycle of violence towards women have very different feelings about their mothers. Project Fatherhood explains how and why “no one utters a negative word about his mother.” The universal commitment to each person’s own mother is the “protected territory of the hearts, demilitarized zone in lives of conflict.” But, this attitude also helps pass down a simplistic mentality among people in the hood that is the mirror image of the quick fix mentality of too many education and social policy advocates.  “What’s really wrong with Watts,” it is maintained, “is we don’t have any more big mamas and grannies to take care of our kids.”

After decades of wrestling with the challenges of the inner city, I still can’t completely understand why sincere education reformers and social activists have been so allergic to open communication about the deep wounds produced by families cracking under the stresses of poverty, racism, and inequality. Teens certainly want to discuss these issues that frighten adults. As Father Greg Boyle says, “Everyone longs to connect.” Why can’t we admit that many men and (most?) serious felons need help to “teach them to be the fathers they never had?

On the other hand, the World War II generation of combat veterans was silent about post-traumatic shock, and even today it is not easy to confront PTSD. So, everyone should read Project Fatherhood and pay attention to Big Mike’s wisdom about the PTSD revealed during discussions of child abuse. In fact, to a greater or lesser extent, the “P-stuff” comes out when the fathers discuss virtually every topic, ranging from domestic violence, sexism, racism, the criminal justice system, and the role of men in raising children.

 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. 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 finally tackles the challenge of fathering the next generation with the confident (though also oversimplified) 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. Then, another father tells the group that his daughters have been suspended for fighting each other. He acknowledges, “I can’t handle this. I wanna hit them, but I know that’s wrong.”

In both situations the fathers engage in heart-to-heart discussions that show that these men “most of whom never knew their own fathers – have learned how to father one another.” After group discussions that could serve as advertisements for the Restorative Justice program, all three kids end up crying.  The 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.”



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