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Uplifting Black Fathers In America


Nearly 20 million kids in the US are growing up without a relationship with their fathers, which is strongly correlated to these kids experiencing a range of lifelong adversities from poverty, to school performance, to social and emotional problems. What if physically “absent” fathers could nonetheless be emotionally present, available, and supportive? This is the question that drives Dr. Charles Daniels, founder of Boston-based Father’s Uplift.

Daniels and his team have created the U.S.’ first mental health and substance abuse treatment facility, specifically for fathers and families. Father’s Uplift works with primarily Black fathers to overcome barriers that prevent them from remaining engaged in their children’s lives. The model is spreading nationwide, serving thousands of dads directly, and changing the culture of care.

Michael Zakaras: Our social services sector is failing to engage fathers in meaningful ways. Tell us how and why that’s the case.

Charles Daniels Jr.: We’re still trying to figure out how we ended up in this situation. How is it that when my wife and I are having children, there’s a doctor designated to support my wife, there’s a doula, there are nurses that are designated to understand her process thoroughly, but there’s no one really designated to understanding my process as a father, my mental health experience as I transition into fatherhood? Why is it that many of our students in public health programs, social work schools, psychology schools, are not receiving specific curricula on how to engage fathers and their families, or even understand his specific demographics in his communities? This system essentially does not prepare practitioners on how to engage fathers effectively. This is a major problem in the United States, and it’s one that we are paying close attention to by preparing practitioners on how to work with men, particularly men of color who are fathers. We assume that millions of fathers, when they hold their child for the first time, do not imagine being separated from their kids, and they are experiencing trauma every day that goes by, that they don’t see their kids.

Zakaras: You make the distinction between anger management versus sadness management. Why is that distinction important?

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Daniels: It goes down to society’s expectation in America of what men should be doing and what they’re not doing. We have to stop assuming that when men are angry, justifiably so from not being able to see their kids, they’re just horrible people with criminal records who don’t care about society. There’s more to their pain and there’s more to their story.

We’re countering this whole notion of what it means to be a man in America, but also how to treat men in America; not based on what they’ve accomplished in their lives but because they’re human and they deserve to be loved and appreciated. We also believe in not teaching men how to parent their children, but mainly focusing on how they parent themselves. We tell fathers: ‘It’s important for you to learn how to love yourself. We’re taught how to be strong all the time, how not to show any emotion. But we want to let you know that emotions are beautiful. How do you embrace sadness, the same way that you embrace anger and happiness?’

Zakaras: There are millions of clinicians and facilities across the U.S., what makes your approach different?

Daniels: What makes us different isn’t the service we provide it’s how we make our fathers feel. When we ask our dads, they tell us we make them feel valued and important. They can come to us as they are and not feel judged, not feel ostracized, not feel that they’re less than because they made mistakes. We tell them something almost no one else does: ‘If you are capable of loving yourself despite your own mistakes, you will automatically show up and be a parent for your child. Because you understand that imperfection is a part of beauty, it’s part of being human.’

Zakaras: We’re living through a political moment in the United States where a certain kind of masculinity is being weaponized by the alt-right, with a real anti-feminist, anti-black backlash. How should we be coping with this?

Daniels : It’s interesting because our population, the majority of which are black men, they’re coping with trying to stay alive and not die because of the color of their skin. So worrying about masculinity and what that looks like is secondary to trying to stay alive, navigate racism, and understand their value as a black man.

We talk about managing our emotions with young men in our program who grew up in households without their fathers. They’re learning about other emotions like sadness and anxiety, what it looks like and how to cope with it. I have one young man who said, “Charles, every kid in my school has a police story as a black boy.” I’ve also had a young 8-year-old African American male tell me that his skin isn’t a curse, but at times he feels like it is. So, when we think about these conversations, what is at the forefront for me and the black men that we serve is race and how to navigate the systems as a black father. And I think masculinity is secondary.

Zakaras: Our current conceptions of masculinity in the US and elsewhere is tied up with an unwillingness to ask for help and be vulnerable. How do you cope with that, since after all helping fathers is so central to your work?

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Daniels: It’s true that men can be guarded. There can be areas in their lives where they want help, and others where they don’t. What we find is that it is usually connected to their past trauma, deep emotional hurt. They’re afraid that if they open that wound, they won’t know how to close it. So, we find it’s important to have quality, deep rooted relationships that are sustainable.

At Fathers’ Uplift, we do not believe in discharging people. We believe that mental health care and support around fatherhood should be offered the same way you would go to the doctor anytime that you need support. The secret sauce is community here, sustainable community. They know that when they call us, we will always answer the phone.

Zakaras : For a lot of men, masculinity feels like something that is inherited, rather than something that he has been deliberate about building. How does a man build healthy masculinity?

Daniels: We utilize a candy shop approach with our men. So when you think about your life, you’re going to this candy shop of manhood, masculinity, fatherhood. What type of man do you want to be based on the things that you like and you don’t like? This is foundational. We encourage black men to take ownership of the definition of the man they want to be and commit to it. Everybody may not be happy about the type of man you decide to be, but at the end of the day, it’s about you, your family.

For more follow Dr. Charles Daniels’ work on twitter & their website.

This conversation was condensed and edited for clarity.

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