Growing up, Robert Jackson’s father lived 10 blocks away from him in Los Angeles.
But at the time, Jackson, now of Cedar Rapids, had no idea of his proximity. “I know what hole that left for me,” Jackson said. “The problems went on until I had kids.”
Jackson is now the father of six children. On Wednesday evening, he shared his story with a group including 20 fathers, mothers, children and staff from a number of community service providers at Partnership for Safe Families in Cedar Rapids. Jackson told of his experiences as part of the launch of the Dads Voice Project.
The Linn County Breakthrough Series Collaborative partnered with local fathers and community agencies including Partnership for Safe Families, the Young Parents Network, Tanager Place, Four Oaks, judicial representatives and the Dream Center in Johnson County, as well as the Department of Human Services, to organize the first Dads Voice Project. The goal of the project is to better understand from area fathers through a series of community conversations what kind of support they need to be more engaged.
The statistics for fatherless homes is correlated with a high percentage of negative outcomes, including homelessness, teenage pregnancy, suicide, substance abuse, education outcomes and mental health issues, Partnership for Safe Families said in a news release. Organizers hope to get insight and direction to better understand what is — and isn’t — working locally to better help fathers.
In the absence of a father in his life growing up, Jackson said he instead learned a lot of “misinformation” about how a man and a father should behave. “All I ever did was run away,” he said.
Frederick Newell, minority family advocate for Partnership for Safe Families and one of the organizers of the Dads Voice Project, said fathers play a critical role in their children’s’ lives. Newell is founder and executive director of the Dream Center in Iowa City, which works to strengthen and empower families by focusing on fathers and youth. There, he facilitates a fathers’ support group. Every dad that participates, he said, wants to be involved in their children’s lives. He said fathers want to be heard, but feel as if their voices might not be considered or their history might hinder them from being a presence in their children’s lives.
Newell, the father of five, said he has been involved in his children’s lives from the beginning.
“I’m one to believe that dads truly do matter,” he said. “For me, to see other dads being given the opportunity … I had my first child at 17, was a single dad until I got married.”
He said he understands the importance of what it meant to his son “to be able to have me in his life from birth until now.” “What we wanted to do is hear from dads exactly what it is they need — not only from us as social workers but what is it that you need from the community, what do you need from the schools, the doctor’s office, anywhere that our kids are participants in,” Newell said.
During the conversation Wednesday, the group split into two larger breakout sessions to discuss what services they specifically would like to see and what resources they need.
One father said he would appreciate an opportunity to bring mothers and fathers together for co-parenting classes, even if the parents are not raising the child together in one household.
‘A real miracle’
Chris Wright, a family team facilitator for Partnership for Safe Families, said “all kids need their dads around. As a mom, I can never teach them how to be a man.” Wright also said other fathers who are actively involved in their children’s lives can be mentors for dads who need more encouragement.
She noted that the importance of involved, engaged fathers crosses racial and ethnic backgrounds.
“A dad is a dad,” she said.
“As a community, we have to figure out how we can help each other.”
David Swift, the father of a one-year-old daughter with a second child on the way, said he grew up raised by his mother. “My life would have turned out differently if I had my dad,” said Swift, who grew up in Chicago. “My mom didn’t know how to raise me.”
Jackson said he is now involved in the lives of five of his children. He said he is close to getting in contact with his sixth child. “That’s a real miracle coming from where I come from, where there was no dad,” he said. “The stuff that I learned was from some folks that were misinformed.” By taking advantage of community resources and learning to listen, Jackson said he has come a long way. He also said he was helped by others around him who encouraged him and empowered him. “Hopefully the kids that play with my kids will have fathers just like me, or better, so that my son is raised in a community, not like I was,” Jackson said. “And that’s my joy.”
Ana Clymer, program manager, trainer and facilitator at Partnership for Safe Families, said organizers recognized the need to engage fathers on many levels, rather than just involvement with child-protection services or the criminal justice system. “It’s a broader conversation because a lot of people in the community struggle with knowing, ‘How do we get dads to the table? How do we understand what they need?’” Clymer said.
“This was kind of, let’s try this, let’s try to have a Dads Voice Project and really just have an open conversation, what’s working, what’s not working. How can we build on the good, and how can we fill in the gaps?”
With the information that was gathered Wednesday night, organizers hope to develop a plan to improve outcomes with engaging Dads. Future conversations around fatherhood also are being planned.