Exactly 20 years ago, the Child Care Association, the Chicago Urban League, and the State of Illinois asked me to take on a non-profit project in Chicago to support a large number of African-American children who were least likely to be adopted because of age, race and negative perceptions. The goal was to put in front of them successful and positive male role models or find men who would consider becoming adoptive fathers for this unique group of children.
Having watched a sister and close female friend successfully raise boys on their own, my first question to my new employers was, “Why are we only looking for men in our search for role-models and prospective parents?” After all, my experience was that women usually stepped forward, and I was sure this would make my job easier. The answers for them were clear and simple. “In order to be a man, you need to see a man,” I was told by one staffer. Another said “young girls need to see positive examples of maleness, so they know who to choose as a life partner.” Sounded fair, but I was sure there were many exceptions.
According to 2011 U.S. Census Bureau data, more than 24 million children live apart from their biological fathers. That is one out of every three (33%) children in America. In the African-American community, nearly two in three (64%) of African American children live in father-absent homes.
I was blessed to have grown up in a neighborhood with so many present and great African-American and Latino fathers. I am biased, but I have always thought that African-American and Latino fathers had to guide their children and families through a very different societal maze than other American fathers. I experienced this firsthand during my youth when being hit with the challenges of race in America.
I praise those fathers who have survived through the winds of injustice and change and mourn those who have fallen to a variety of unfortunate and unjust circumstances; but regardless of your perspective, it is easy to recognize that this absence of men in America’s African-American communities is at the heart of the crisis.
At a breakfast meeting last month with Anthony King, a Detroit PTA president and several male members of his team, we discussed the changes in our communities over the last 30-40 years. “Back in the day,” as I have heard from so many, “fathers seem to always be around. They were at church, school, at the park, and on the playground,” one gentleman said. Their belief as well as my own was that if fathers were not present, they were working or a phone call away from any neighbor or other concerned parent. We revered our fathers and worked hard not to disappoint or embarrass them. We had great incentive to not disrespect them; including the stern consequence that might await us when we arrived home (some of you know what I am talking about).
For a variety of reasons, including the lack of jobs, equal education and crime, many of those communities are now gripped in deep violence and fear. Strong, positive, hard working men are there, but in too many situations are not as visible or engaged with their kids or the other kids in the community. It is as if they leave home, go to work, come home and lock themselves inside their homes in front of TV sets. Not as many are walking the streets in the evenings, standing at the corner by the school bus stop, sitting in the church, or volunteering at the park or school.
For the sake of our children, this is the paradigm; we have got to reverse it. The movement to get more positive fathers engaged in schools, church and in the lives of children throughout their community has to become a priority. Here is a suggested four point strategy for renewal.
Step #1 – Jobs: African-American fathers, like all fathers do, want to provide for their families and children. Last month, the jobless rate among whites was 6.6%; among blacks, 12.6%. Over the last 40 years with a brief exception, at the height of the recession, the unemployment rate for blacks has averaged about 2.2 times that for whites. The lack of esteem that comes with the inability to provide for your children and family leads to a variety of challenges and ills for an individual of any background and color. Ask anyone you know if not being able to support their loved ones would have any effect on them. No brainer! Implore your politicians and community leaders to have no other first priority except jobs, jobs, jobs and more jobs.
Step #2 – Education: Very related to the first step and equally important to the future, is effective and equal education. More than 50% of male African-American high school dropouts are unemployed, according to a new online analysis of unemployment data by Remapping Debate, a left-of-center news site in New York.
“This is an emergency, this is a catastrophe [but Washington is] not rating it as a catastrophe,” said the site’s editor, Craig Gurian.
From my perspective there is a clear role in this for PTA. Helping African-American fathers engage in securing a fair and robust education for their children should be a top priority. The research is clear, engaged and active fathers and father-figures can help ensure better grades in elementary and secondary environments and raise the levels of college attendance. Their involvement–says the overwhelming research–can stem the tide of damaging social behavior that is detrimental to their futures, including bullying, gang involvement, drug use, incarceration and teenage pregnancy.
Mothers who may be estranged from their child’s father have got to understand this paternal asset. Incarcerated fathers must also understand that their pleas and direction to their children to get educated and avoid their pitfalls is also of value. Campaigns that create welcoming schools for fathers and programs that educate fathers and bring their influence to schools should be highly promoted by PTAs.
Step #3 – Community Involvement: We’ve talk about this earlier with my meeting with the Detroit crew, but there absolutely has to be a renewed sense of responsibility to one’s community. Responsible fathers and males in the African- American community have got to become more visible. Churches, fraternities and businesses can provide guidance and establish male engagement programs that implore men to be mentors and friends. Block clubs or Father Clubs can be re-established with a mission to man school walkways or school bus stops. Just don’t go home and close the door! A 15-minute walk, when children are on their way to school or a walk to the park in the evening after returning from work could go a long way. If children see you caring about the community, they will learn to. Any responsible male should take on the mantra that “All the children in the village are mine.”
Step #4 – Spiritual love: I am not talking about religion, although religion certainly can play a part, but what I am talking about is the human spirit. Inside all of us are both the need to be loved and a need to share love. This is the true meaning of humanity and charity. Children need to see that spirit in others, to see it in themselves. I used to tell my staff at the old Washington Park YMCA on Chicago’s south side that the children we work with won’t learn empathy for others if they never see it in us. An educator once told me, that regardless of how cold the environment a child sees at home, a warm environment at school, church or in the community gives them a chance. If they come from a cold home to a cold community environment, they have no chance! Educators know this and fathers and PTAs should too!
Fathers and father-figures are and can become even greater examples of this spiritual love for our children. So much so that Joe Vitrano, a PTA member from Ohio and a member of the National PTA Male Engagement Committee, has asked that the acronym L.O.V.E. become the theme of our committee’s work for and with youth in 2014 and 2015. It stands for Listen, Observe, Validate and Embrace. These are valuable actions and guidance that African-American fathers and all fathers can implore to ensure healthier, stronger more successful children.
Michael Knowles is National PTA’s Male Engagement Committee Chair.