In Newark, a Lesson in Fatherhood

The men in Mayor Cory Booker's Fathers Now program are defying statistics and stereotypes.

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Anthony Alvarez

(The Root) -- Matthew Murray's first day of orientation for Newark, N.J.'s Fathers Now program got off to a rough start. A probation officer burst into the room where a group of men between the ages of 16 and 50 -- all, as the program calls it, "in transition" (a euphemism for unemployment or recent incarceration) -- were at their desks, waiting for class to begin. He read each of their names off a sheet of paper, announcing that he had warrants for their arrests. "He said he was going to line everybody up and take us to county," Murray recalls.

As the men became predictably confused and agitated, the man with the clipboard told them to relax and take their seats. He wasn't a probation officer, he finally revealed, but 43-year-old Darren Napier, one of the organization's six staff members.

At Fathers Now, Napier's formal job description includes teaching math and English courses to bolster the participants' basic skills and their efforts to get their lives back on track. But he's never limited his lessons to the three R's.

He says that his orientation trick -- from one man who's "been through it" to others facing similar challenges -- delivers a practical message (be sure to carry proper identification at all times in case you're approached by law enforcement), but something else, too: a push to reinspire assertiveness and dignity in men, many of whom have been stripped, by their own actions and by their circumstances, of those building blocks of manhood.  "I do that because a lot of guys in the program were 'out and about,' so to speak, and that tends to make them lose focus as to the priorities in their lives," he says.

Thirty-two-year-old Murray got the message. "See, we just took his word for it, just because he had on a suit and tie, just because he spoke a certain way. We didn't even ask for ID," he says. "Mr. Napier made us realize, people will tell you anything, and you have to stand up for yourself."

More Than a Parenting Class

So what does a practical joke-turned-teachable moment about personal empowerment have to do with a fatherhood program? As it turns out, everything. At Fathers Now, which Mayor Cory Booker launched in 2008 as part of the city's Newark Now program, the philosophy is this: For men who want more-meaningful relationships with their children, there's a lot of ground to cover before and after the parenting tips.

That curriculum in manhood is delivered through a "holistic approach." During each eight-week session, dads meet five days a week from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. for everything from individual counseling and support groups to academic classes and legal assistance. And when it's all over, there's lifetime membership in the organization's D.A.D.S Fraternity, with monthly volunteer projects and ongoing support.

It's an effort that has its roots in numbers that are sobering for an organization whose participants are about 70 percent black. According to government statistics, about 7 out of 10 black children are born to a single mother, and 47 percent of African-American households are headed by women. And while 1 in every 100 American adults are incarcerated, for African-American men the figure is 1 in 15.

That means, for a lot of black kids, there's no father at home -- a scenario that sets them up, if you believe the statistics, for a range of social problems that no parent would want for his or her child.

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Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM