About two dozen dads — all African-Americans, ranging in age from their early 20s to late 40s — are standing in a circle participating in a call-and-response exercise:
Call: You done broke them chains.
Response: From my body and my brain!
Call: But you was deaf, dumb and blind.
Response: ‘Til I took back my mind!
It goes on, the resonant voices repeating strengths and goals in unison. Welcome to the start of the responsible-fatherhood class, a group that meets every Monday and Wednesday at the Center for Urban Families in West Baltimore.
This isn’t your typical classroom setting. The tables are arranged to face one another. The teachers, like Edward Pitchford, are called fatherhood specialists. They don’t lecture at the front, but sit with their students and engage them in discussions based on the day’s curriculum: communicating calmly and effectively with the mother of their children; and nurturing their kids, not just paying child support. Today, they’re talking about staying strong and positive during a job search.
Courtesy of Carde Cornish
“One of the participants who came through the program, he had an opportunity to get a job,” Pitchford tells the class. “Making $25 an hour, and they told him he had to cut his locks, and if he cut his locks, this job is secure for him.”
Shouts of “You better cut them locks!” and “That’s a lot of money, cut your hair!” fill the air. But Pitchford says the participant refused to cut his dreadlocks and didn’t get the job. A young man on one side of the class with locks past his shoulders nods his head in approval; another shakes his recently shaved dome and says he cut his hair for a job making a lot less at Burger King to provide for his kids, and he’d do it again.
Some of the guys have been coming to this group for a long time. It serves as a support network, a safe place to share successes and talk through stumbles.
Shereen Marisol Meraji/NPR
“This is my sanctuary,” says 40-year-old LaKeeth Blackmon, “a place where I can be myself and meet good people and not get caught up with what’s going on in the streets.” Blackmon has six kids — with three different women. He’s been in and out of prison and has an upcoming court date because he was caught dealing marijuana a little over a year ago.
“Look at my life: I don’t even know if I’m going back to prison, but I’m here being positive,” says Blackmon, who is dressed in slacks and a tie for today’s meeting. His father was a drug dealer who was murdered 20 years ago, and Blackmon says he wants to be a better father so his kids don’t get caught up in the cycle.
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