Sunday, February 17, 2013

Jordan Downs' Project Fatherhood

When I read Joseph Stiglitz's piece at the New York Times, "Equal Opportunity, Our National Myth," I thought, "Okay, I agree. We have these enormous problems. It might not be as bad as you say --- where's the comparative historical data for advancement, for example? --- but no doubt we have problems. But does more government expansion --- so much more --- always have to be the answer? What about helping to change the cultures of poverty that prevent social mobility?"

Then a later I read this piece at the Los Angeles Times, and thought, "Okay, if only we had more of this, a lot more?" See, "REMAKING JORDAN DOWNS: The father of all support groups":
It started in 2009 on a patch of grass outside the Jordan Downs gym. A group of ex-Crips gave haircuts and grilled hamburgers, hoping families and fathers would show up, relax and begin to talk.

"Growing up the way we did, during the time we did, a lot of the dads might as well have been in some other world," says Andre "Low Down" Christian, one of the leaders. "It's a big reason why things ended up as rough as they did here."

He tells of getting into a fight and tracking down his father for advice. His father gave him brass knuckles and a sawed-off shotgun.

"There had to be a better way of looking at being a dad," he says. "That's what we wanted people to think about."

Those initial weeks in front of the gym, five people came. The local fire station donated steaks and a barbecue. Time passed. Twenty arrived. Then 25.

John King, the Los Angeles Housing Authority official who oversees the community center, was already trying to change the culture in Jordan Downs as preparations were made to rebuild the 700-unit apartment complex. He offered his support and told the men to use his conference room.

By the summer of 2011, backed by a $50,000 grant from the nonprofit Children's Institute, the loose amalgamation of men became something more formal. Now they had a name, Project Fatherhood, and were part of a regional network of meetings the institute sponsored, focusing on men and their kids.

The Watts group has the feel of an urban barbershop: full of jokes and jealousy, grace and anger. Early on, two street toughs entered the room as the men spoke. Wearing trench coats, not saying a word, they walked around the oval of tables, suspiciously checking out the scene.

"They were wondering what exactly was going on with these older dudes," says the UCLA professor, Jorja Leap, who, assuming the toughs were carrying shotguns, followed the fathers' lead and didn't say a word. "They had to see for themselves what this meeting was about. Was it a threat to them? When they found out what we were doing, they gave their OK."

Project Fatherhood became part of the fabric of Jordan Downs. As the Wednesdays piled up, the men grew comfortable talking about their problems. They "were carrying deep troubles, questions and fears about being dads," Leap says. "Problem was, they didn't have many examples of good fathering, so they were coming up with answers from scratch."

But in the public community colleges, I see first hand the kind of investments the state is making in public education. I'm sure we could do more, but it all costs, and the economy can't support increasing "investment." On the other hand, when students are attending classes, they're not bringing anywhere near the needed social requisites for success in college education. And they come to us without those skills, from the K-12 system. More government spending isn't the solution to all of the problems Stiglitz identifies. But he's a big government progressive. Talking about the culture for people like that is "racist." In turn that consigns generations of Americans to poverty. Start changing the culture --- combined with making equal opportunity truly available --- and you'll see more upward mobility. We should be talking about it. From the president on down, we should be talking about it.