(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.
Of course, with those numbers come harsh narratives about black men. "The reality is that African-American men are not stepping up and being responsible fathers. The data clearly indicates that African-American men are not taking an active role in helping to rear their children — many are absentee fathers," Ivan Page, a specialist in the black family who teaches social work at Albany State University in Georgia after teaching at Spelman College for 20 years, tells The Root.
Even President Barack Obama echoed that sentiment in one of his first orders of business when he took office in 2008, telling the congregation of one of New York City's largest black churches, "We need fathers to realize that responsibility does not end at conception."
But if you ask Fathers Now Co-director John Leslie, shirking responsibility is the last thing his students want to do. "They need help getting over the legal barriers — oftentimes they need help getting over the personal barriers," he says. "But just like anyone else, they want to take care of their children. You see that once they have the support they need."
So far, Fathers Now has been successful. The program brags that it places 70 percent of its graduates in gainful employment and that among those participants who have been incarcerated, there's a recidivism rate of only 4 percent, compared with the state's 55 percent.
Happy endings and positivity aside, don't mistake the program's supportive approach for being soft. Leslie describes orientation as "like boot camp," and he's proud to say that Fathers Now whittles groups of 25-30 men down to 15-18 during the first two weeks of each session, based on attendance, homework and participation.
Once the participants clear orientation, the program staff makes sure they stay, using an informal, man-to-man technique through which the nonprofit really shows its fraternity side. "We'll go out to a guy's house if he's absent," Leslie says. "We'll run him down: 'Where are you, man? Why aren't you in class?' We still call guys every morning."
That approach has made a difference in the lives of men like Murray, whom Leslie calls one of the program's biggest success stories. After a stint in the Army that ended when he became depressed over marital issues and went AWOL from his post in South Korea, Murray says, he was accused of domestic violence and spent three weeks in New Jersey's Delaney Hall correctional facility before the charges were dismissed. His next stop was Fathers Now.
For him the program clicked from day 1. He leveraged the job-training resources, networking and volunteer work to land a good-paying job as a parking-enforcement officer. "Instead of staying in my depression, I realized I had to take care of me," he says. "Take care of yourself and stop blaming other people."
That newfound sense of accountability is just as applicable to his relationship with his 6-year-old daughter, Jaelyn. He can easily rattle off the adjustments he's made to his parenting style: He now opts for working with her on reading and rewarding her for staying ahead in school instead of bonding over video games, movies and Chuck E. Cheese's, and he's hyperaware that he's her main male role model. "Now I teach her things like, when we walk on the sidewalk, I walk on the outside to protect her," he says.
But there's also an even more fundamental shift in his understanding of their relationship. "We learned about children's rights," he says. "That you can't put a child in an adult's place. You can't use her to pass messages or use her as a pawn. So even though her mother and I don't have our custody agreement yet, I don't look at Jaelyn as a way to get back anymore. Now I just look at her as my daughter."
Others join the program not to repair parenting mistakes but to start off fatherhood on the right foot. That was the case for 32-year-old Terrance Smith, who lives with his girlfriend, Tiffany Patterson, and their infant daughter, Samaya. He was wrapping up his second week of orientation in the program when she was born on May 16 of this year.
Smith says he floundered personally and professionally after spending eight months behind bars for a violent crime. "My brother told me Fathers Now would be a good program to help me become an all-around better person, not just a better father," he says, adding, "Once Tiffany told me she was pregnant, I wanted to make myself into somebody my child could be proud of."
Smith has already landed a job with Newark's Division of Sanitation, but he says that Fathers Now offers more than just tools for employment. "No one has ever supported me before, and from day 1, I felt these were people that actually believed in me," he says. "I'm not used to hearing 'good luck.' I'm not used to hearing 'good job.' My pops died when I was 11, so to come to the program and get that, it was just the type of motivation I'd never had before."
He sells the benefits of that kind of support to friends and family members when he tells them about the program. "I tell them, If you put in everything, you're gonna get something out," he says.
When it comes to selling the program to others, Murray's strongest pitch involves the job-search and interview advice he received, such as using fewer words on his résumé to make his points clear. He is convinced that those skills helped him land his current job, but the less-is-more technique seems to work just as well to describe his relationship with his daughter.
"We have a great bond now," he says. "She's a daddy's girl."
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.