Connecting Fathers to Families Strengthens Communities
By Shea Tuttle
“Richmond is a city where children experience the benefits of fathers and mothers working cooperatively and responsibly to raise healthy children.”
This is the vision of the Richmond Family and Fatherhood Initiative, view launched by the Richmond City Health District in 2008.
The initiative, often abbreviated RFFI, works in holistic, multilayered ways. Across the city of Richmond, across multiple agencies, organizations, community partners, faith communities, and individuals, RFFI staff and volunteers leverage as many kinds of resources as possible. They use social media to educate and influence culture. They work to affect local, state, and national policy. RFFI commissions research into what stands in the way of strong families and what will most effectively support them. They pursue workforce development. They are strategic in all of these areas in the service of their mission: to create community cultures connecting fathers to their families.
This mission is essential. In Virginia, 31 percent of babies are born to single mothers. In Richmond, that number spikes to 60 percent. In Richmond’s African American community, the number jumps again to 86 percent.
“That’s unsustainable,” said Anthony J. Mingo, Sr., RFFI’s program coordinator, when I spoke with him about the initiative’s work. “That’s why we are working diligently to help stabilize families in Richmond.”
Mingo commutes two hours each way, every day to do this work. “I’m a state employee, but I’m also a pastor,” he said. “This work is a personal calling on my life.” Mingo also grew up in a single-parent family, so the work, he says, is therapeutic. He quoted Malachi 6:4: “(The prophet’s) preaching will turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers.”
“Those are the last words the Lord says in the Old Testament,” Mingo adds.
As program coordinator, Mingo regularly contacts religious and community groups, meets with city officials, and joins conference calls with state and national organizations who, he says, want to know more about RFFI. “Other jurisdictions are looking at us as a demonstration model,” he says.
RFFI stands out because they “work from an intervention and prevention perspective.” In intervention work, Mingo says, “We address those factors–many of them poverty-driven–that help to stabilize families now.” But they also work to prevent families from becoming destabilized in the first place, to “change the trajectories” of young men’s lives.
RFFI is also a model initiative because it works with the whole family. The programs Mingo runs include fathers’ support groups, a motherhood and co-parenting initiative, and a Boyhood to Manhood Rites of Passage program for boys as young as nine years old.
“Foundationally, we’re looking at healing the ills of our society,” Mingo said, “so our programming has to look at the entire family.”
RFFI’s value of the stability of the whole family affects how its individual programs are structured. The fathers’ support groups train fathers, at no cost, in five areas: personal development, life skills, responsible fatherhood (including parenting skills), relationship skills, and health and sexuality. It also provides them with any needed referrals for housing, employment, health, financial, or social service support.
Clarence Harris, one of RFFI’s top facilitators, leads several fatherhood groups at the Richmond City Justice Center. He recently led a smaller group of 13 men through RFFI’s 16-week curriculum. In March, the men participated in a father-daughter dance through the nonprofit Camp Diva, which brought their program to the jail for the first time. This group, Harris said, was able to be intimate and vulnerable because of its small size.
Harris also works with two groups of 60 men at the jail. Most meetings consist of educational time followed by question and answer sessions. Though these groups are less intimate, Harris still sees results.
“One of the more therapeutic, enlightening experiences happens when the men realize that being a father is so much more than just being a provider. While they thought they were being good fathers because they were providing for their families, they realize how much time they were not spending with their children. They realize they don’t know their child’s favorite color, or favorite food, or favorite subject at school.”
Other times, Harris said, the men have realizations about themselves, often as they reflect on their experiences with their own fathers. “They realize how much they are like their fathers even though they said they wouldn’t be. For instance, maybe their father was an alcoholic, and they swore they wouldn’t be, and they ended up addicted as well.”
Like Mingo, Harris’ passion for his work is both vocational and personal. He’s a substance abuse counselor, so he has particular ability to work with men who deal with addiction. He’s also a father, so he’s learning along with the men in the group.
Harris credits Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist who founded analytical psychology, with influencing his leadership style. “Jung had a theory about ‘the wounded healer,’ which says I must understand that I’m as wounded as you are so that we can build and grow together. I can’t heal from a pedestal. I’m no greater than the group. We’re all equal members.”
“These men aren’t bad men,” Harris elaborated. “They’ve made some bad decisions, but through education and exposure, they are learning how to do things differently, sometimes for the very first time in their lives. They all intend to come out and be productive members of society.”
“We who are in position to help these men out, we owe it to society to help them. Just as they owe it to society to become productive members, we owe it to society to help them do that.”
This sense of shared responsibility also shows itself in Harris’ compassion, both for the incarcerated men and for their families.
“While they’re incarcerated, they both have it bad,” he said. “The men have it bad because they’re separated and isolated from their families, and it hurts. It hurts to miss your daughter’s fifth birthday.”
“The families have it bad because, in many cases, the father is the provider and protector. So the family experiences trauma. Maybe they can’t afford to live in the same neighborhood or buy the same food as before. Maybe they can’t keep their car and have to rely solely on public transportation. They are vulnerable to all sorts of societal ills.”
I asked Harris how he can tell his work is making a difference. How can it change the lives of fathers and families when the men are still incarcerated?
He told me that the groups focus on the men as fathers inside–as well as outside–the walls of the jail. “We have to be the best fathers we can while we’re incarcerated; we have to learn ways to father from inside the institution.”
“I can see the changes mostly in the quality of the questions that they’re asking, the quality of the problems that they’re having. When the quality of the problems increase, that means that you’re recovering from something. You no longer have the problems of, ‘Should I call, or shouldn’t I call (home)?’ Instead, you have, ‘What should I talk about this time when I call?’”
“We also are always preparing the men to leave. None of them have life sentences, so they will all leave these walls.”
The motherhood and co-parenting initiative offers direct support to mothers in two broad areas: being a mother, and being a co-parent. The women learn parenting skills, and they also learn skills for working with fathers of their children. “We help her navigate that relationship with Dad,” Mingo explains. In cases where the father’s behavior has hurt the mother, the program tries to help the mother move from a place of anger to a place of communication and cooperation.
Mingo told me that there are a couple of statements he finds himself making over and over again when talking with fathers and mothers. To fathers who have daughters, he says, “You must recognize that your daughter, one day, she’s going to marry someone who’s just like you.”
And to all parents, Mingo says, “This isn’t even just about your child. Think about the generational impact. Your enhanced role in your child’s life will show itself for generations. If you become a better parent, your child is going to be a better parent to their child someday. Something that seems so little can impact generations–multiple generations to come.”
Learn more about how you can get involved with the work of the Richmond Family and Fatherhood Initiative by visiting their website, richmondfatherhood.org. RFFI is looking specifically for more faith communities interested in becoming partners in their work. There are also opportunities for financial supporters, community organizations, schools, and government agencies. Click on “Get Involved” on the website to learn more.