FATHERS WITHOUT FATHERS
Every Wednesday night around two dozen men from the Jordan Downs housing project meet to teach each other, and themselves, how to be fathers.
“See, most of the men in the group never had fathers,” Mike Cummings, told me two years ago. Cummings, whom everyone calls Big Mike, is a very large, very charismatic man and one of the program’s founders.
(WLA last wrote about Project Fatherhood here.)
“Or if they did have a father in the home,” Cummings said, “he was usually was doing drugs or an alcoholic, or abusive, or both. So those men never had anyone show them what it means to be a parent. At least not a male parent.”
Big Mike has been through his own wide array of life stages. He’s been an LA gang member, been shot, sold drugs, been to prison.
Now he’s an ordained pastor and a recognized community leader who spends most of his waking hours working to heal the same community that, as a young man, he and his friends helped to break.
The Wednesday group, which he and a handful of other men with experiences akin to his own, started in the fall of 2011—is called Project Fatherhood.
“A mother can teach a lot of things,” said Big Mike. “But she can’t teach the same things that a father can teach,” he said. “She can’t teach a boy to be a man.”
PROJECT FATHERHOOD, THE BOOK
Dr. Jorja Leap is on the faculty of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, and is an internationally recognized expert in gangs, violence, and crisis intervention. Leap has also been the resident academic, official social worker, and adopted sister of the Jordan Downs fatherhood program since its beginning.
Now she has written an absolutely essential book about what she has seen and learned from those Wednesday meeting. It is called Project Fatherhood: A Story of Courage and Healing in One of America’s Toughest Communities and it has already turning into required reading for advocates, policy makers and others.
Homeboy Industries’ founder, Father Greg Boyle called the story “a view of courageous men as architects of their own healing” that “offers hope for real solutions in our inner cities born from the community itself. “
I talked to Jorja Leap earlier this week about the book, and about the fathers who have left such a deep mark on her life.
DADS HEALING DADS
WITNESS LA: Before we go further, explain a little about Project Fatherhood for those who have never heard of it.
JORJA LEAP: Sure. There was a group of men, former gang members who had become community activists—Big Mike, Andre Christian, Johnny Bailey, and some others. And they began meeting regularly with younger men from the community and trying to sort of mentor them out on these picnic tables behind Jordan Down housing project. They saw these younger men had the need, and so this group sprang up organically.
At the same time, a man named Dr. Hershel Swinger of the Children’s Institute, who was an important African American psychologist and a big believer that fathers were part of the family’s strength and that children who did not consistently have fathers in their lives tended to do poorly in school, were more likely to drop out, more likely to be caught up in the school to prison pipeline… So, he too was interested in strengthening the fathers [in places like Jordan Downs], and he got a big federal grant to do it.
The third factor in the creation of Project Fatherhood was HACLA—the Housing Authority for the City of Los Angeles—which plan to rebuild Jordan Downs and, in doing so, they want to, as they put it, build human capital.
So all three of these forces came together in a sort of positive perfect storm. The will, the knowledge, and the credibility was there from the community men who were meeting at the picnic tables. Children’s Institute and Hershel Swinger provided the funding, the support, and the infrastructure. And the locale was provided by HACLA.
WLA: How did you get involved?
JL: Big Mike called me because, to qualify for the funding, they were required to have an MSW on board—to deal with DCFS, child custody issues, issues of child abuse prevention, mental health issues, and a million other things.
WLA: So in some ways, when you were first brought in, it sounds like the fathers were just checking a box. How did that change?
JL: I’d known Big Mike for about ten years. And I really wanted to go back to Watts for some kind of project.
WLA: I know you and your family lived in South LA until you were around 10 years old….
JL: Yes, and as a young social worker I’d worked in South LA and loved it, so I was returning to an old love. But I had real doubts if the group was going to take hold, if people were going to show up. But then one of the fathers, Sy Henry, who is also one of the elders of the community, said to me, “Are you going to stick around? Or are you going to leave us too?” I realized I had to make a commitment. This wasn’t just drive by social work. So I committed. And what the group turned into was beyond my wildest imaginings. Truly.
I think, quite candidly, that was the case for everyone—including the Children’s Institute and, Dr. Swinger.
This group was supposed to help these men learn to be fathers. . But, they also did another thing. They fathered one another. They also took responsibility and wanted to be fathers to the young men of the community, whose fathers were not around. In a sense, they adopted them, and now they have these youth impact sessions.
WLA: What was one of the most challenging moments for you personally during these past years of your involvement with the program.
JL: One of the most shattering moments was a fight that we had when Christopher Dorner was in the midst of his…bloodbath. One of the fathers, a man named Donald James, stood up. Donald James had been in San Quentin for 32 years and he and I were often at odds. He stood up and said, “I think Christopher Dorner is a hero.” And I waited for somebody to say, “What’re you talking about?!” For someone to speak up. But there was no dissent. In fact, many fathers were nodding their heads. I didn’t know what to do. I was shattered.
When I went home to my husband, Mark, he had to set me on my ear. [Jorja is married to Mark Leap, a retired deputy chief of the LAPD.] He said, “Well, of course they feel that way. Do you know what the LAPD has done to them?
I’d always felt like little miss enlightened, and I understood, and had my finger on the pulse of everything. Instead I found I had my finger up my….well, I’ll leave it at that.
WLA: I know from reading the book that there have been many, many high moments. Tell us about one.
JL: There are so many. For example there was the evening that one of our fathers brought his daughters to the meeting. They were fighting with each other at school and got expelled. And he said, I want to whup both of them, but I know that’s wrong, so I brought them to you and I need you all to help me. And so the fathers did. And magic occurred. It was very humbling.
WLA: What made you decide to turn what you were witnessing into a book.
JL: Well it was complicated. Because these aren’t my stories. So I had to ask the men if the book would be okay with them and ask their permission.
But when I heard their voices, how the men expressed themselves, and how they felt about fatherhood, I realized that these were stories that had not been told. These were voices that had not been heard. And I realized I could be the vessel that carried these stories—that were their stories—out into the world.
And these are men who have pasts. When you total it up, the group has probably spent a couple of centuries incarcerated. Yet these men are, week after week, putting one foot in front of the other, while making this effort at healing themselves and healing their community.
WLA: What are the main misconceptions about the men whom you know from Project Fatherhood—and men like them.
JL: Good question. In the mind of many, there are the two extremes—deadbeat dads and the Clifford Huxtable dad—Bill Cosby allegations notwithstanding, the character he created on the Cosby Show.
We don’t seem to have room in our minds for the men who are between those two extremes. But I’m dwelling here in the heart of the territory between those two extremes. These men want to be fathers to their children, but it may not be mom, dad, the Prius and the 2.5 kids. Watts bounces between 50 and 55 percent unemployment during the years of this program. Yet, these men desperately want to work—and not make-work jobs or summer jobs. They want real jobs. They want to stay off public assistance. They’re very proud of staying off. They’ll say, “That’s my baby son. He wasn’t raised on the county. I raised him. “On the county,” means welfare.
WLA: What does what you’ve learned from Project Fatherhood suggest about changes we need to see in public policy?
JL: For one thing, I think there should be a program like this one on every corner, including in Brentwood.
Another thing, people tend to come out of the university environment and mine the data in these communities. And we need to be a presence. We need to not just mine the data, but help the community in tangible ways.
One more thing: every one is missing a bet in Watts, because the real leadership is coming from within that community. Outside agencies don’t need to come in and tell them what to do. Outside programs need instead to provide support for the qualified leadership that is already there.
WLA: What are the most significant lessons you’ve learned personally from your experience with the fathers in the group?
JL: There are so, so many, They helped me understand myself and my relationship with my father, of course. I’ve also learned the uncomfortable lesson that I bathe in White privilege without being aware of it. It’s one thing to read Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow.” It’s another thing to live it every day.
And, by the way, we are not living in a post racial society. I’ll tell you that right here, right now.
We’ve lost several of our fathers to the New Jim Crow. There’s one father in the book, whom people will read about. What happened to him…broke everybody’s heart. I’m still struggling with it.
The other thing I become more and more aware of is what I’d call the wages of trauma, which is so profound for so many of these men. They are trying to heal themselves, while healing others whom they’ve hurt.
Witnessing their courage every week has been and continues to be very humbling.
NOTE: There will be a book signing and discussion with Dr. Jorja Leap on Father’s Day, Sunday, June 21, at 2 p.m. at Esowan Books, located at 4327 Degnan Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90008
All the proceeds from Jorja Leap’s book go back to Project Fatherhood.
The video above is from the book launch event for Jorja Leap’s Project Fatherhood featuring a discussion between Jorja and several of the fathers. Watch it!