Project Fatherhood: Dads Confront Challenges In Tough LA Neighborhood

Jun 18, 2015
Originally published on July 11, 2015 1:05 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Father's Day is Sunday. And next, we're going to hear about an effort to help men be good fathers. Many men did not grow up with their own fathers, so a group of dads in one of the toughest parts of LA is helping them to confront the challenges of parenting. Here's Karen Grigsby Bates of NPR's Code Switch team.

KAREN GRISBY BATES, BYLINE: It's early evening and several men are making their way, alone or in twos or threes, to the community room at the Jordan Downs public housing complex.

MICHAEL CUMMINGS: What's up? What's up?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What's up, Big Mike?

BATES: This building looks like everything else here - squat, rectangular, painted boring, government-regulation beige. But what's going on inside is pretty exciting. It's Wednesday night, and Project Fatherhood is in session.

CUMMINGS: Can we get y'all attention real quick? All heads bowed real quick, y'all.

BATES: As always, it opens with a prayer led by Elder Michael Cummings, known to most everyone as Big Mike. A towering man with a shaved head and a the calm manner of the churchman he is, Big Mike asks for God's guidance in their work and for protection for the neighborhood's young people.

CUMMINGS: Everybody in agreement, say amen.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Amen.

CUMMINGS: Amen.

BATES: These men, most of them former gang members or inmates, have become community activists and advocates for the young people living in one of LA's poorest neighborhoods. Their goal is to make sure the children of Watts have wider horizons and more opportunities than their parents did. To understand the monumental task they're facing, you have to understand Watts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO YOUR THING")

WATTS 103RD STREET RHYTHM BAND: (Singing) Get on the floor.

BATES: Watts was devastated in 1965, when one of the country's biggest uprisings began here, a protest against police violence and segregation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Six days of rioting in a Negro section of Los Angeles left behind scenes reminiscent of war-torn cities. More than a hundred square blocks were decimated by fire and looters.

BATES: After the civil unrest, the three largest public housing projects west of the Mississippi were still standing. Jordan Downs is one. Its buildings are flat-topped, two-story faded stucco, with small front yards where grass struggles to grow. The units have big numbers on each side, numbers that can be seen clearly from police helicopters when they fly over the neighborhood. Hundreds of people - mostly young men - were killed in the epic gang violence that raged in this area during the '90s. The men at Project Fatherhood want to save the next generation. They believe they can by teaching young men to be good parents. Big Mike Cummings.

CUMMINGS: Young men are hungry to learn how to be fathers because they didn't grow up with a father. So they figure, I didn't grow up with a father. I don't know what - but now you come here, you know what to do.

BATES: A lot of what they do is talk. Aided by UCLA professor Jorja Leap, the men develop strategies for remaining a constant presence in their children's lives. Leap is tiny and fierce.

JORJA LEAP: You better step up. And if you don't step up, you will have to deal with me.

BATES: Leap is the author of "Project Fatherhood: A Story Of Courage And Healing In One Of America's Toughest Communities." Big Mike recruited her to co-lead the group in 2010. In her sunny office at UCLA, Leap says it was hard in the beginning to get people to open up. But after a few key members shared, others felt they could too, including former gang member Andre Low Down Christian, a Project Fatherhood dad who believes God spared him an early death.

ANDRE LOW DOWN CHRISTIAN: I was shot 13 times, and I - it was three the first time and 10 the second time. And I used to wonder, what you leave me here for? But now that I'm doing this work, it all makes sense.

BATES: Over the five years it's been in operation, Project Fatherhood grew from a few men around the community room table to standing room only on some evenings. Meetings can be frenetic. There's a lot of going in and out. The doors bang, and the room echoes with dozens of people having several different conversations. Big Mike says he's seen many Project Fatherhood members blossom in the past five years.

CUMMINGS: What we see now, actually fathers bringing their kids in here and setting them down. And we all solving the problem together. We have some people that been in here that didn't used to speak. Now they speak.

BATES: And there is a sense that their responsibility goes beyond their immediate family, says King Spider D. You can call him KSD.

KING SPIDER D: Every kid within the Jordan Downs housing complex are my kids.

BATES: Besides parenting, the men of Project Fatherhood are focused on jobs because that's the way they can support their children. They recently negotiated with the Housing Authority to get community residents 30 percent of the jobs that will be available when Jordan Downs is renovated. And, says Big Mike Cummings, they're doing all this work together.

CUMMINGS: We're helpmates to one another. It takes a village to raise a child, and I believe Project Fatherhood is that village.

BATES: And the village is growing. The fathers of Jordan Downs are helping men in a nearby housing complex start their own chapter of Project Fatherhood. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.