(The Root) — You just might run into Kenneth Braswell at your local barbershop this weekend. He's the director of the National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees President Obama's Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative. Starting Saturday in select cities, representatives from the latest project of the Initiative, Fatherhood Buzz, will be meeting men where they are — literally, right where they're getting their hair cut — to share information about responsible fatherhood and parenting.
Why barbershops? Braswell says the idea is that beyond serving men's grooming needs, they're a "trusted space to discuss personal and public issues," from family to politics to health and money. That, he reasons, makes barbershops the perfect places to start up conversations about responsible fatherhood and parenting, and disseminate information about available resources for dads who need support.
Cities selected for participation in the Fatherhood Buzz pilot program are: Albany, N.Y., Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
The Root talked to Braswell about the message he wants to send to dads, what responsible fatherhood means to him and whether "barbershop" is code for "black."
The Root: You say the Fatherhood Buzz program will provide fathers with essential tools and tips on ways to interact and be a positive influence in their children's lives. Why are men missing this information and what are the consequences if they don't have it?
Kenneth Braswell: I think that just naturally we don't seek out consistent help and support when we're going through our day-to-day issues with respect to parenting — even fathers who are trying to be better dads. It's natural for men not to seek help in all areas, even when we really need it. So we're bringing the information to them. We're responding to the fact that dads want to be involved in the lives of their children.
Ultimately, that benefits children because there are definitely problems with respect to fatherlessness. A third of our children wake up each morning without the biological father in the house. And that means that, over time, these children are more likely not to have their fathers involved in their lives. Many dropouts, many children who get involved with criminal behavior, many who have problems with drugs, didn't have their fathers involved in their lives.
So, at the end of the day, although we are focused on building the capacity of fathers, that work is done with an eye toward the well-being of children.
TR: What are some of the messages you're going to be sharing with dads this weekend?
KB: Spend more time with your children. More time equals quality. It equals confidence for our children. Some of us have been led to believe that money is the most important thing, but fathers need to know that their presence is a present. Also, be responsible. We are clear that no one is perfect, but you have to put in positive work to get positive outcomes.
TR: President Obama is black. You're black. We tend to associate barbershops as gathering places for black men in particular, and many of the cities you're targeting have high black populations. Is this initiative really about African-American men?
KB: No, the initiative is for all fathers. Now, we're primarily targeting low-income fathers, so undoubtedly you're going to see more African-American and Latino men in that group. And you're going to see a disproportionate number of black men who are struggling with unemployment rates, incarceration rates, etc. We selected our cities because they're major cities with major social issues, as well as an abundance of resources. So the face of Fatherhood Buzz may look African American, but it's about all fathers.
TR: What does "responsible fatherhood" mean?
KB: Understanding your worth and significance in the life of your child and parenting in a way that reflects that.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.