Tag Archives: Dreams

Father

Fatherhood: Presents, Presence, and Poverty

Fatherhood presents a learning curve for most, but in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty – where violence, incarceration, stop & frisk, and rigid gender roles are the norm – figuring out how to parent in an emotionally responsible way can be a major feat. The participants at the Midtown Community Court’s Workforce and Fatherhood Program, under its new name “UPNEXT,” will speak to these challenges freely during group sessions.  Through my internship there, I recently facilitated a workshop of my creation called “Navigating Parenting Challenges,” which borrowed its ideas of emotionally-attuned parenting from Daniel Siegel’s book, Parenting From the Inside Out.

As the workshop took its course, it became very clear that the most immediate challenge our fathers face in raising their children is that of material resources.  The employment market is presently a picnic for no one, but for men of color who are balancing some combination of poor educational background, a criminal record, mental health issues, substance addiction, military trauma, and so on, finding and sustaining a job can be, frankly, unrealistic.*  Attaining and keeping employment is a near miracle for the previously incarcerated male population of color in this country.  For a frighteningly fascinating study on that, see Devah Pager’s “The Mark of A Criminal Record” https://www.princeton.edu/~pager/pager_ajs.pdf., which finds that black men without criminal records fare worse in the job market than white men with criminal records – and that black men with criminal records fare the worst of all.  This reality is part of why providing materially for one’s children can be a daily struggle for the fathers with whom I work.

I marveled at the ways in which being a parent can act as a motivation to clean up one’s act, to serve as a role model, and to stay out of prison.  But just as surely, becoming a parent presents real financial burdens that push many parents back to their old criminal means of making money.  During the course of our conversation, many fathers recalled painful conversations with their young children in which the child needed a new winter coat or shoes, and the unemployed father returned to his past habits of selling drugs the very next day in order to pay for what his child needed.  These paradoxical implications of parenting often happen simultaneously within the heart of the same person; many fathers expressed increased guilt and shame over their deviant behaviors after becoming fathers, even as they described the increased need and justification for doing so.

The group discussed how emasculated they feel when they’re unable to provide for their children – a sentiment which is in line with the patriarchal norms of much of American society.  And when it comes to winter jackets and shoes, the material needs of children are critical and urgent.   But as the workshop continued, the reality of being unable to “provide” materially for one’s children devolved into a conversation about Christmas presents, iPads, and a new pair of Jordans.  In short, the conversation struck me as materialistic, even frivolous, and I struggled to steer the conversation toward the emotional needs that children have and how those needs might be met despite limited financial means.  One participant, N, saw where I was going and shared about a conversation where his daughter simply said “I know you can’t afford any Christmas presents this year, but dad, you’re still gonna come, right?”  Other fathers marveled at the story and muttered that they wished their own children had that type of understanding.

Providing emotionally, though, is as much as structural question as it is a cultural one. Being emotionally attuned to one’s child means something different within a stable family of privilege than within a family of custody battles and frequent bouts of absence due to incarceration, and these are what comprise the structural piece, for which we are all responsible to combat.  But the tendency for parents (and especially fathers) to be unsure how to emotionally reach their children, and the temptation to subscribe to materialistic ideas about love by buying toys instead of giving words of affirmation – these behaviors pervade our culture regardless of class.   This conversation with the dads, although disheartening at times, was an important reminder to me about the ways in which we are all tied up in the struggles of our fellow citizens, and that liberation in a vacuum is no liberation at all.

For a great Op-Ed on the indelible impact of strong fathering, check out Charles Blow’s recent piece on the White House’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative – a new program to empower young men of color. “We can and must,” says Blow, “break the cycles of pain for young men of color, building better boys and repairing broken men.”

*I want to underscore that not all of the fathers meet all or even most of the conditions described here, but as a cohort, these are the issues that present barriers to them. 

Daring to Dream

What do you want to be when you grow up?

I’ve had the conversation thousands of times, with family, with friends, classmates, mentors. But never before had I had the conversation with a group of men whose lives had not been as privileged as mine has, men who have been incarcerated, homeless, and hopeless at one point or another in their lives.

There were many firsts I have found myself encountering in my internship position at Times Square Ink of Midtown Community Court.

Times Square Ink is a job training and placement assistance program that “helps participants improve decision-making skills and identity how their actions, feelings, and thoughts affect their behavior in everyday life” with the goal of presenting them with comprehensive programming that will provide them the necessary tools to enter the workforce and provide for themselves and their families.

Every six weeks we welcome a new group of men into our program, to help them process their pasts, build social support, and develop the skills needed to re-enter society with strength and healing. During the first session of each cycle, the men are posed with this question: what did you want to be when you were a child? It is such a simple answer for me. My earliest memories have me announcing to anyone who would listen that one day I was going to be the Prime Minister of Israel. Not just any Prime Minister, I was going to be like Golda Meir. Even as a young child, I saw in her the ideal of a strong and admirable woman, a determined woman who was able to create change against all odds. These were traits that at I was unable to articulate at the time, but held a power over me that lasts to this day. Yet as I sat in class with these men, sharing my own childhood dream and listening to theirs, my childhood aspiration seemed naïve and grandiose.

Participant after participant have spoken about their boyhood dreams of becoming the neighborhood pimp or the biggest drug dealer in Bronx.  One man said that all his life he wanted to be like his uncle, the neighborhood pimp, while another man spoke of always wanting to be like his father, a car mechanic, until he died from a drug overdose. Each man has his own story, and in relation my goal seemed to be somewhat silly.

Times Square Ink has given me the opportunity to work with a sector of the community that I previously had very few, if any, interactions with. Each session brings out new stories, traumas, jokes, and opportunities to learn between the men and myself, all of which force me to understand the deep-rooted complexities of their current situations.  The time I have spent at the Court has given me a larger understanding of the complexities of homelessness, the criminal justice system, and experiences of trauma.

But more importantly, my work at Midtown Community court has given me an opportunity to explore the inequalities that exist within our own communities. My experiences have forced me to question the relationship between power and privilege and how these two factors effect the communities in which we live in. It is only by understanding the roots of these issues that we can question how to break this cycle of injustice. These solutions demand that we are innovative and attempt not the easy path but rather the alternative path, and I am fortunate to have been given an opportunity to learn daily from those working on the ground how this path is forged.

Interested in hearing how other Columbia students are grappling with the Criminal Justice system? Check out information about the Beyond Bars, Moving Forward Conference happening on April 5th and 6th and featuring activists Angela Davis, Marc Lamont Hill, and  Soffiyah Elijah!