Advancing Racial Equity in Fatherhood Programs

The latest episode of On the Evidence focuses on the ways that racism and inequity within human services programs affect fathers and families, and how adopting a more inclusive father engagement strategy can benefit children, fathers, and their families.

Today, federal and state governments, as well as foundations and nonprofits, are emphasizing the importance of understanding the role of racism in American institutions and policies. In partnership with the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Mathematica has been gathering information on what works in engaging fathers across a wide range of human services programs, with the goal of helping fathers and families thrive.

On this episode, guests Alan-Michael Graves, Leonard Burton, Shaneen Moore, Jerry Tello, and Armando Yañez discuss how human services programs have historically treated fathers, particularly fathers of color, and strategies for improving the racial equity of these programs as it relates to father engagement.

  • Graves is the senior director of teaching, capacity building, and systems change with the Good Plus Foundation, a national nonprofit that works to dismantle multi-generational poverty.
  • Burton is a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Social Policy, a national nonprofit policy organization that connects community action, public system reform, and policy change to create a fair and just society.
  • Moore is the director of the Child Support Division within the Children and Family Services administration of the Minnesota Department of Human Services.
  • Tello is the founder of and director of training and capacity building at the Compadres Network, a national nonprofit that provides a voice for racial equity, healing, training, technical assistance, and systems change.
  • Yañez is a research analyst at Mathematica.

Listen to the full episode.

On the Evidence * Advancing Racial Equity Through Fatherhood Programs | Episode 67

View transcript


I need you to see me as an African American father if you’re going to create an equitable program for me. So don’t tell me that you’re color blind. Be inclusive and equitable to me, how I show up, and meet me where I am if you’re going to include me in your fatherhood programming.


I’m J.B. Wogan from Mathematica and welcome back to On the Evidence, a show that examines what we know about today’s most urgent challenges and how we can make progress in addressing them.

On this episode, we’re going to return to a topic we’ve explored earlier this year: engaging fathers in human services programs. In October, Mathematica organized a webinar focused on strategies that human services programs that serve fathers have used to build a culture of inclusivity to better engage and meet the needs of fathers.

What you’ll hear on this episode is a curated selection from that webinar. The full one-hour and 17-minute video is available for free on Mathematica’s website, and I’ll include a link to that video, as well as other products Mathematica has created on this topic, in the episode’s show notes.

We’ll start with my colleague, Armando Yañez, a research analyst at Mathematica who moderated the webinar and works on the KEEP Fathers Engaged project, which is funded by ASPE. ASPE stands for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. ASPE and Mathematica have been gathering information on what works in engaging fathers across a wide range of human services programs, with the goal of helping fathers and families thrive.

Here’s Armando.


Now, it is important to engage fathers in human service programming because father involvement leads to improved outcomes for children, mothers, and fathers themselves. And because of the importance of father involvement, studying how fathers are intentionally engaged in human service programming is a priority of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families.

So, ASPE has contracted with Mathematica to better understand how human service programs go about engaging fathers. And the goal of our study is to identify key programmatic elements and strategies that support effective engagement of fathers across a variety of human service program areas. And through this work, we have conducted a program scan and held a series of interviews with fatherhood programs to identify strategies used to engage fathers across human service programming.

So, when thinking about human service programming, we often think of a service system that is designed to serve mothers and children. And historically, fathers have been excluded from many service systems that support families. So, programs are making intentional changes to improve the way they engage with fathers to better serve the whole family unit. Now, improving father engagement must also consider what the barriers and facilitators are for engaging fathers, including what barriers and facilitators are unique to fathers of color.


One person involved with changing the way programs engage with fathers, and fathers of color in particular, is Dr. Alan-Michael Graves. He’s a senior director of teaching, capacity-building, and systems change with the Good+Foundation, which is a national nonprofit that works to dismantle multi-generational poverty by pairing tangible goods with innovative services for low-income fathers, mothers and caregivers. Alan-Michael was the first speaker in the October webinar. We’ll pick up with him as he’s describing the difference between father inclusive programs and father-specific programs, both of which he says can increase father involvement, ultimately benefiting the child.


So, I currently run a father-inclusive program where we bring moms in to talk about the importance of fathers and, you know, we do what it does; right? But there are also father-specific programs and these are designed specifically for the fathers and meeting them where they are to guide the work. Both are extremely important and one is no more important than the other, but both require us to be equitable in their implementation.

So, what does equity look like in fatherhood programming on the ground? I think it requires us to have a different approach, and I call it a “father strong” approach. One of my mentors, Dr. Swinger, early on, 25 years ago, talked about how to change our approach engaging fathers and meeting them where they are. Now, we understand that there are other things that a father might need as he’s coming to programming, but the program itself should be a non-labeling, non-diagnosing, non-directing. We’re not trying to tell fathers what to do. We’re trying to work through and navigate either systems or situations; right? A non-interpretive, self-disclosing, open-ended, and strength-based program.

Now, because some of our programs are evidence-based programs, our curriculums that require us to adhere to certain elements and topics of the curriculum, sometimes that’s not equitable to the individuals we’re serving;.


Alan-Michael says programs that have a track record of success with certain populations might not be as successful for fathers and fathers of color in particular. In some situations, maintaining fidelity to an evidence-based model could mean sacrificing equity, and vice versa. Though evidence-based programming is important, he says there are tradeoffs when the two interests conflict.


On the ground, we work with programs to talk about what does your program look – is it a strength-based, father-strong approach? Are you having classes in the middle of the day? Do you offer classes on the weekends? Is it equitable to those who work multiple jobs? And are you allowing and meeting fathers where they are as it pertains to equity? Are we allowing for the facets of fatherhood and their involvement with their children? One of the things that we talk about in an equitable program is I get to be – minus a child safety issue, I get to be the father that’s best for me and my family, and that might mean I’m a father who interacts, takes care, who’s affectionate, responsible, a provider, or inspirational; right? I might be one or two of these, or I might be all six. But my fatherhood and the equity that the program that provides me in this programming needs to let me be the father that I am and meet me where I am. Whereas sometimes, in the past, we wanted to make fathers check all these boxes in order for them to be a success; right? Again, and I want to stress, minus a child safety issue, we have to allow fathers to be the fathers that’s best for them and their family, meeting them where they are. That’s the key to equity.

So where do we fall short? I mentioned earlier we fall short in our programming times. We fall short in our intake and approach; right? There is ineffective identification and location of fathers. I work in some systems where it’s still okay to say, “Oh, father just unknown,” right? Those times are long gone; right? If I’m going to be equitable, I have to put forth some effort in locating and engaging a father in a way that we haven’t in the past.

We fall short in the gatekeeping by moms. Now, there are some very, very good reasons why mothers gatekeep some fathers from their children; right? And some of those may be around domestic violence or substance use or gang affiliation, and all of those are very valid. But the reality is most gatekeeping by mothers is because of past relationships. And if we’re going to be equitable, we can’t allow gatekeeping by mothers for those reasons to be a barrier to our engagement.


Alan-Michael says another barrier to father engagement is stereotypes about fathers and fathers of color.


It’s amazing that in doing this work for the 20-plus years that I’ve done it, I still hear and see, even in our programs, people falling subject to stereotypes about fathers, the myth of the deadbeat dad. We still fall short in allowing that to be part of our narrative and our conversation.

And lastly, the messaging and language; right? Are we messaging fathers so that they want to be part of this family; right? An example of that, I’m working with local school districts here where we’re intentionally engaging fathers to make sure that they’re part of intake processes in schools; right? The forms that are there, make sure that they say mother and father. More importantly, to be more intentional, we’re going to make sure they say “Parent One” and “Parent Two.” This is inclusive and equitable to our other families that look different. If I’m in an LGBT relationship, I’m much more engaged if it says Parent One or Parent Two and putting my name in there and participating, than me putting my name where it says Mother. Or if I’m a grandfather raising my grandson, I don’t have to put my name where it says Mother or Father. That language and that messaging about inclusion is extremely important.

So, we talk about implementing DEI initiatives. Everybody, DEI is everywhere. And I am encouraged that people are looking at DEI, but I say we got to do it with intentionality. And what does intentionality look like? Well, it means cultural inclusion. I was recently talking to someone, how does a fatherhood program on the ground, if we’re talking about equity and inclusion, how does it look like for fathers who are African American versus Latino, who are Asian, who are rich or poor, right, who come from cultures that may not be represented in our agencies as a whole?

Shared learning environments, meeting fathers where they are, this means systems working together in the programming of this father engagement. That’s what equity looks like. It means going back to the trauma-informed care, going back to mental health services. I’m learning from different environments to meet this father where he is.

I also think that that means we have to create more father engagement strategies. A lot of programs are starting to value lived experience. So, this is bringing other fathers, those veteran fathers who have graduated from your program back to the program so that they now are instrumental in helping other fathers move forward.

And then avoiding programming where fathers are outnumbered. We still send fathers to programs where they may be one of two – I mean, one or two of many of who they are; right? Avoiding situations that we set them up for failure is extremely important. Overall, DEI means respect, respecting who I am and where I come from. And a lot of people talk about seeing color or being color blind, but I need you to see me as an African American father if you’re going to create and equitable program for me. So don’t tell me that you’re color blind. Be inclusive and equitable to me, how I show up, and meet me where I am if you’re going to include me in your fatherhood programming.


Our next speaker is Leonard Burton, a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Social Policy, where he serves on the center’s Equity, Inclusion, and Justice team. Leonard spent about two decades working on child welfare issues, including as an assistant commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services. He began his talk by addressing a common misconception that the vast majority of cases in child welfare are related to abuse, and that it’s usually in the children’s best interest to separate them from their families. In fact, about three quarters of child welfare cases are for the more subjective reason of neglect.


There are some myths of the child welfare system that people tend to have. And the general population tend to hold the assumption that the vast majority of cases in child welfare are abuse related, and view child welfare as a healthy system that is good and necessary to separate children from families. But the fact of the matter is about 75 percent of the cases in child welfare are for neglect. And so this myth around all this abuse that’s happening, not to minimize abuse because the abuse is real, it’s damaging, it’s harmful, it’s traumatic to children and to families, but this myth that the child welfare system is a helping system and that kids are better off being taken away from their families and moving into what I call stranger care is just not the truth.

The realities are that involvement with child welfare inflicts trauma by separating families. It doesn’t consistently support and heal the vast majority of families. So, we’re trying to be a trauma-informed system, but we need to be trauma-informed and healing-centered at the same time. And healing communities doesn’t happen when you continue to extract human capital from those communities in the name of so-called helping them when you’re doing more harm and not investing in those prevention resources to keep families whole and to make sure that we live in what we would want as a beloved community in our society. And then, again, it harms the social capital of communities by disconnecting children from their families, from their schools, from their houses of faith, from their social activities. And so we move them to one place and put them in what we consider sometimes a so-called sanitized environment but then perpetuate more harm against children.


In order to make child welfare programs more inclusive of fathers, and fathers of color, Leonard says we’ll need to address two related problems in the field. First is the underrepresentation of men and men of color in the profession. Second is the overrepresentation of Black children in foster care. Leonard warns that many researchers have misdiagnosed poverty as the root cause of racial disparities in the child welfare system, not racism. Here’s Leonard again.


And so we have to fight that narrative that it’s all about poverty. They disregard the fact that American poverty is rooted in European aristocratic greed, which is the ancestral parent of White supremacy. And so, I just want to make sure that as we continue to hear scholars and researchers keep pumping this poverty narrative that we can’t stop at poverty without looking at the roots and the origins of these United States of this country. And the question is, who’s worthy of getting the help that needs to be provided? So, if systems and programs are made up of people, and people design and implement policies, and all people have biases, therefore, systems and programs have inherent biases that can negatively impact certain populations. So, this is just a few of the multiple problematic layers of bias that impact our systems that are shaped predominantly by people who do not question, evaluate, and disrupt these biases.


Leonard recently observed some of those layers of bias through his role as a faculty coach for the Breakthrough Series Collaborative, a federally funded pilot study and evaluation being led by Mathematica that seeks to strengthen the engagement of fathers and paternal relatives with children in the child welfare system. The motivation behind the study is that father involvement is associated with important outcomes for children in child welfare, including reduced likelihood of entry into foster care, shorter periods of time in foster care, and increased rates of family reunification. Despite the potential for children to benefit from a stronger relationship with their fathers, Leonard says some caseworkers are reluctant to promote father involvement, especially when the father is Black. Here’s Leonard again.


We heard stories about workers being afraid of men, particularly Black men, that men don’t want to be involved in their children’s lives. We heard some of the racist tropes of Black and brown men as hypersexual, non-nurturing, angry, and that men can’t properly care for or be trusted alone with their children, particularly girls. You know, and we know that child welfare case practice is typically organized – is essentially organized around mothers and their lineage, excluding fathers and paternal relatives from the process often. Fathers are not involved in child welfare cases because they don’t want to be; it’s because the system is perfectly designed to get the results that it’s getting. It’s designed this way, that fathers are not allowed – fathers are not brought in too early into the case, fathers are not looked at as a primary placement option. I even hate the term “placement option” because these are your children, so that’s a primary place where they should be living.


Leonard draws a direct line from centuries of laws, policies, and practices, anchored in White supremacy, that explain the racist attitudes he still encounters in the child welfare system today. From the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in 1857 to deny Dred Scott his freedom from enslavement to the 1965 Moynihan report on Black poverty, which blamed racial disparities in education and economic prosperity in part on the family structure of Black families, Leonard sees cultural attitudes and the historical systems they’ve produced that do not respect the rights of Black men. And it’s still a part of our psyche, he says.


And so, if those are in the psyche and in the fabric of our society, those are things that we have to uproot and we have to call out and not allow to sit and fester and grow and to become normalized in our society. Otherwise, children of Black fathers, particularly Black and brown fathers, will continue to be abused and neglected by the very systems that say that we want to help them. Now, I say “we” because I’m a part of – I’ve been a part of these systems. I’ve done work in these systems. There are policies that I had to uphold that I’m not proud of. So, because of that work that I’ve done historically, there are things that I need to do. There’s some reconciliation, truth, and healing and reparations that need to occur in order to make sure that we have a beloved community where fathers are respected and valued in all the systems that they touch.


In the Breakthrough Series Collaborative, Leonard says the six pilots sites are taking steps to change their culture and practices to work more closely with fathers and help those fathers be more engaged with their children’s lives.


So, one jurisdiction – a couple jurisdictions hired father engagement specialists. Supervisors had conversations with their workers on a regular basis about engaging fathers, trying to demystify these myths and biases that we’ve heard, then examining all policies with an antiracist intersectional frame, you know, looking at exploring paternal relatives early and often as placement options. So, if there’s a removal, even before the removal, and if you’re removing it from the mom – the child from the mom, also know that there is a father, there is a dad, there are some paternal relatives that can be available and that you should look at them very early and often throughout the process.

Then talk about the father in these cases only when the father is present. If you’re having a team meeting with the child and the mom, talk about the father when that father is present. Nothing about him without him. Then establish dad engagement and support groups. And then another of the teams prioritize male facilitators when possible, so that people were comfortable and so that the men – the fathers were coming in felt comfortable and didn’t have to feel like they were being looked at in a negative way.


Overcoming racist and sexist stereotypes that have led to the exclusion of Black fathers has merit on its own, but Leonard stresses there’s another reason why fathers and paternal relatives must be treated as viable placement options in the child welfare system.


Children who grow up with involved fathers are 39 percent more likely to earn mostly A’s, less likely to repeat grades, you know, all of these things that, if a father is involved in the life of the child, we see more positive results and outcomes.

Involved fatherhood is linked to better outcomes on nearly every measure of child wellbeing, from cognitive development and educational achievement to positive, healthy identity development and pro social behavior. We believe that Black families, Black fathers have this what we call – what E. Franklin Frazier called this adaptive vitality, that despite all of the challenges and the vicissitudes that one may go through, they are adaptive and vital and needed in the life of children.


Leonard’s work focuses on changing policies and practices to advance racial equity for Black fathers and Black families in the child welfare system. Our next speaker has a similar end in mind, but she’s doing it within the state of Minnesota’s child support program. Shaneen Moore is the Director of the Child Support Division and the Deputy Assistant Commissioner within the Children and Family Services Administration in Minnesota’s Department of Human Services. Here’s Shaneen.


In many areas within child support, there are things that are based on old policy and practice. And so, you know, we have these what we call enforcement tools and remedies that we can put into place. And so driver’s license suspension is one of those enforcement tools that I often hear when I am in community and talking to fathers, you know, one of the major concerns that they have around our program.

You know, we have a lot of fathers, especially Black and brown fathers, that are willing and wanting to pay but they’re unable to. So, I really want to get at the heart of why that is happening and some of the things that we’re doing in Minnesota to address that.

Before we jump into that, though, I want to talk a little bit from a demographic perspective. In May of 2020, I would say the State of Minnesota, we were forever changed in the murder of George Floyd. And so it’s important that we really have a candid and intentional conversation around the impact of racism in our state.


Just as Black children are overrepresented in the child welfare system, Black fathers are overrepresented among non-custodial parents paying child support in Minnesota. (Minnesota’s data show, by the way, that Native American fathers are also overrepresented.) Shaneen says George Floyd’s death motivated her office to look at policies that could be doing disproportionate harm to Black and Native American fathers, especially those who are willing to pay but have so little income that they can’t pay. Here’s Shaneen again.


Prior to the pandemic, we were seeing within our program that, you know, noncustodial parents or paying parents, they were selected for driver’s license suspension, oftentimes were earning less than $20,000 a year. So, we’re talking about our very low-income fathers who are often in poverty themselves. And then also 23 percent of those selected also had a minimum order. And so for those that don’t know, minimum support orders are usually set around that $50 amount.

So, oftentimes, you know, within child support, there is this conversation around, what role does things like driver’s license suspension play and are we able to tie those remedies back to the collection efforts that we’re able to obtain? And so, in many instances, we’re not able to directly tie that information back. And so, you know, because there are a lot of enforcement tools in our toolkit, we can’t, right now, pinpoint which one is working more effectively more than others.

These tools and practices are 40-plus years old and, in my opinion, many of them are steeped very much in White supremacy and racism. And so there needs to be an intentional effort in our program to change on a federal level, you know, the way that these enforcement remedies and other things are put into practice. So, we need to be very intentional in making that change. And so, Minnesota, we decided, last year, to apply for a procedural justice grant in order to do the driver’s license pilot in hopes that, you know, in filling some of these gaps and understanding how this particular remedy is impacting our program participants and, in particular, communities of color, we needed to do some work around that.


The threat of a suspended driver’s license affects a fairly large share of the overall child support caseload in Minnesota. Shaneen shared data from April 2020, just as the pandemic was taking root around the country. At that point, about one in five non-custodial parents had a suspended license. Another 13 percent had applications for a driver’s license halted. And another 20 percent had entered into a payment agreement to avoid an enforcement action against the driver’s license. Shaneen’s office looked at the racial backgrounds of the 24,000 or so non-custodial parents with at least one active driver’s license suspension, and again, Black and Native American parents were overrepresented.


In many instances, yes, there are a lot of automated practices around some of these enforcement tools, however, in many instances, there are caseworker subjectivity that can come into play. And so we want to better understand how does that impact the numbers that we’re seeing.


Shaneen explained that Minnesota’s Child Support program was selected as a “Procedural Justice Alternatives to Contempt” peer-learning site by the federal office of child support enforcement. Procedural justice refers to the idea that people’s perception of the fairness of a system’s process and how they are treated during that process can impact how they respond. In child support, this means creating policies and procedures that enhance parents’ perceptions of the fairness of the child support program, which might increase compliance.

With the grant, Shaneen’s office is launching a pilot project that will run through the spring of 2022 in 12 counties that vary in terms of size, demographics, and location within the state. Caseworkers will identify fathers who might benefit from individualized attention and support, call to learn more about barriers fathers face in making child support payments, and offer more flexible payment arrangements.

The Minnesota pilot is, in essence, testing two interrelated interventions, at the same time. One is that individualized support to non-custodial parents who would normally be at risk of a suspended driver’s license. But another part is training child support professionals at the state and local level about racism, implicit bias, and the ways in which they may manifest in policies, programs, and practices. Here’s Shaneen again.


In order for a county to be selected as a participant in the pilot, we made it very clear that some of this implicit bias work had to be done. And so each member of the group was asked to take a cultural competency assessment and be committed to doing that work on a personal level. We also purchased some child support implicit bias training that each individual also participating will be asked and be required to take as a part of this work.

We wanted to minimize the impact of structural and historical racism. So, one example that my staff, we talk a lot about, you know, in finding ways to do that are around good faith payments and recognizing that BIPOC communities oftentimes don’t have the financial means or wealth around some of these things that are required for child support. And so we need to be very intentional when we’re setting policy, when we’re developing legislative proposal for consideration because those things are the reality for many Black and brown families.

Also, to address, as I mentioned, the cultural competency focus, you know, again, we’re having individual participants in this pilot do an intercultural development inventory. And so it’s an overall group training that is taking place as well as an individual assessment and debrief. So, some additional tools that we’re going to be utilizing with this group are around addressing bias and bias training. My hope is that by providing this opportunity for pilot counties, that they will then go into their respective counties and share that information so that this learning and education can continue because it’s very important work.

So, again, we’re going to collect some data. We’re going to hopefully examine barriers to payment to better understand how to improve our program here in Minnesota. So, some of the evaluation things that – questions we’re hoping to answer are around, you know, did the pilot reduce our numbers, did engagement increase, are we going to be more flexible and able to change policy and practice to move towards more positive outcomes? And if collections were impacted, how so? So, we want to use that information, again, to help inform and make future changes within our system.


Shaneen and Leonard talked about the need for changing the culture and attitudes around fathers, and fathers of color in particular, within child support and child welfare programs. Our final speaker returns to the topic of father-specific programs but takes a closer look at how programs can and should adopt a culturally-based, healing-centered approach. Jerry Tello is the founder of the Compadres Network and serves as the director of training and capacity building. Here’s Jerry.


The National Compadres Network is an organization that we founded around 33 years ago. And, you know, even though I’ve been doing this work for, almost 45 years now, professionally as a psychologist but working in communities, what I found when I was doing my work in working on communities is that the services that were available really were not embracing really what the fathers were going through. We’re not really addressing the issues.

And even as a therapist myself, what I was trained to do is to analyze, to diagnose, and to control. And so I had the power with my recommendation to recommend children being taken away from mothers, fathers getting locked up, fathers deported, child support, all kinds of other things that the system does. So, and at that time, you know, this was not helping. I think when we talk about, you know, fathers and we talk about families and we talk about communities, that the important thing to ask is, what we’re doing, is that helping? Is that being of assistance or is it just repeating an oppressive, racist process that has been used specifically for men and boys of color? Let's go to the next slide.

So, at the National Compadres Network, you know, some 33 years ago, we came together because we wanted to – we knew that what was going on in communities in terms of systems was not helping. It was not healing. It was, in fact, incarcerating and oppressing more. And so we came together but what we found, and when we came together it was about 19 of us men that came together. I called men that really wanted to do programming for – in a culturally-based way, in a healing-centered way. But as we gathered, we gathered ourselves, and we were all social workers, therapists, lawyers, you know, teachers. And as we went around in our own healing circle initially, what we realized is that we were all messed up, that we still had residual wounds.

So, I want to begin by saying that if you’re going to work with fathers, if you’re going to work with men of color, if you’re going to work with men who have had generational trauma and still live with that today, then you have to do your own work. It begins with you. And even for many of us, you know, men of color that are working in this field, it’s not like that was in the past. That goes on every day.


Jerry shared a vivid memory from his own childhood, growing up in Southcentral Los Angeles in the 1960s during the Civil Rights movement and the Chicano movement. He was 14 when the National Guard descended upon the city in response to a week of civil unrest over allegations of racist police abuse, now known as the Watts Rebellion or Watts Riots. On his way to school, Jerry encountered National Guard troops holding rifles, a traumatic experience that frightened him and made it difficult for him to breath, much less concentrate in classes or sleep at night.


You know, what I want to say, what I want people to understand is that, you know, the issues of fatherhood don’t begin when they become fathers, especially for men of color, Black, brown, Native. It begins when they’re born in this society. So, we at the National Compadres Network have really embraced that reality and understanding that part of our legacy because there’s been a whole aspect of wounding men generationally. So, our great, great, great grandfathers, our great, great grandmothers, too, that this has impacted.

And so, even the way that we have been raised and the things that go on today, the thought that an African American mother social worker friend of mine called me two weeks ago and said, “Jerry, you know, I just wanted to run this by you because my boy is eight, but he’s a big eight, and his dad – you know his dad passed.” I said, “Yeah.” And she said, “I have to have the talk. And I don’t want to – I’m angry about everything that’s going on but I don’t want to make him angry, but I don’t want – I don’t want nothing to happen to him, either.”

So, the aspect of recognizing that when we’re talking about fatherhood, it’s not just about fatherhood. We’re talking about manhood. We’re talking about living in a society that already, when you become bigger than a little boy, and sometimes as a little boy because we can see it in schools, we can see the disproportionate number of Black and brown boys that are expelled and suspended, and that begins a process of inflammation. That begins a process of shutting down. That begins a process of fronting up. That begins a process of hurting and not being able to sleep and not being able to sit still, not being able to pay attention. That begins a process of survival.

The National Compadres Network, our role has been for – to provide a new narrative, but to provide training, capacity-building. We have curriculum. We train all across the country. And, you know, we recognize that all men want to be good men, fathers, raise their children to grow up healthy. But for immigrant, indigenous fathers of color, racism and inequity causes additional – and it becomes the primary challenge. So, if you’re doing fatherhood work and not dealing with that primarily, because fathers got to get to the class, got to get to the agency, got to get to the child welfare office, and many times that’s a journey in itself.

So, what happens? What happens in a society that doesn’t see you as necessary? And we recognize that, you know, that sometimes they say, “Well, he doesn’t have a father.” Well, of course, that’s biologically impossible. Or they’re not included or not seen as important.

And so we have to understand that, are we necessary? Are we important? And I think fatherhood is just as important as motherhood. But there’s a narrative in this society, even in the way, you know, departments are named and things like that, you know. So, what happens when you don’t receive the positive cultural teachings, because what has happened over generations is the wounds that have been given to our great grandfathers, you know, having to deal with slavery, oppression or beatings, or hangings, or even just the aspect of how people look at you and suspect you and all of that, that it impacts the way you live your life, you know, and we see it today.

We see the increased anxiety, depression, suicidal ideations, all those things that are coming up, especially in communities of color. And it’s coming out in schools. We’re getting a lot of calls from schools because there’s more fighting and more difficulties, all of those things; right? That generational trauma; right? What happens when your environment, overall experience wounds you? The poverty, the inequity. What happens when systems don’t embrace you?


Echoing a point that Alan-Michael Graves made in his presentation, Jerry pointed to an inherent tension between programs that are equitable and those that meet the definition of being evidence-based.


And, you know, it’s wonderful that we’re considering, you know, talking about people of color, but we’re still in the same systems, you know. The RFPs and RFAs that still come out still ask for evidence-based practice based on what? Based on a White, Western-based model. So, you can’t even get funded. And some of us, you know, have chosen not to go after that funding because they have to do a boatload of research, this big, big thing that we have to expose fathers to, to fill out all these forms. We got to know everything about you and we got to dissect everything about you in order for you to get services. And some of us that have been doing this work for a lot of years refuse to do that. We refuse to allow even the organizations that are going to fund us to interrogate our men in order for them to be able to have the privilege of sitting in a class.

Let me just say something. Evidence-based practice translated is no longer evidence-based. Evidence-based practice that was built on research with one population and now working another population is no longer evidence-based.

You can’t just replicate curriculum. Even the fatherhood curriculum, there’s a lot on engagement and all that. What is the essence? What are the teachings? How do we create in fathers, first of all, their sense of being wanted and being a blessing and necessary for their children, that they have a sacred purpose, that they have culturally-based teachings that we need to integrate? It’s not about making – see, in this society, we want to assimilate fathers to teach them the White, Western way of doing things, and we have our own ways. We have our own traditions. We have our own songs. We have our own blessings. We have our own spirituality, right, that needs to be at the core.

So, and let me just ask you and ask you, please, do not take materials and curriculum and translate them and think they work for that population. That’s racial inequity at the core, because fathers will not feel safe and feel compassionate and be able to share.


Because systems exclude fathers of color, and caseworkers are often antagonistic to men and fathers of color, Jerry says …


There’s this aspect of disconnection, insecurity, survival-based, being afraid. And I’ll share the experience of a father that I worked with that was locked up, was in prison. We work with a lot of men that are reentering. And we have to also recognize that the criminal justice system does not heal fathers, many times. They wound them more.

And so we then have men that are coming out of – this one man that came up to me and says, you know, “I was in solitary confinement. I was locked up for 20 years. And we had one hour out in the yard. And I would pray, you know, that when I went out into the yard, because there was people from other cliques, other gangs and neighborhoods, that I wouldn’t get hurt, that I would survive. And I was very afraid. I was very scared.” Right? “Sit down and pray and go out for that one hour to get the sun and get my exercise.” He says, “And then finally I got out. And I got out. And working with my probation officer, you know, I got to be able to visit my kids for the first time. But the social worker didn’t like me. The social worker, I could tell – they don’t say they don’t like you, but you can feel it.” Any of you that have been through this know what that feeling is like when the way that someone looks at you or questions you, you know.

So, when I work with people that are working, I say, “Do you even like these men?” And I worked in an organization, “Well, let’s do some work on fatherhood, you know, early childhood programs,” and I ask them, “You sure you want men around here?” “Well, yeah, as long as they act right.” “What does that mean?” You know? And so my question becomes, do you really see these fathers not as scared but as sacred? Do you see them as necessary? Do you see them as blessings for their children? “Well, if they just change…,” no, no, no, no. At the core, do you see them that way?

And so this father that was going to visit his kids for the first time, he called me, he says, “You know, Jerry, man, Mr. Tello, I was scared going out in the yard but I’m more scared because I know this social worker has told my kids some stuff and I know they’ve told my ex-wife some stuff. And I’m afraid that – I’ve been dreaming about seeing my kids and I’m afraid they’re not going to want me.”

And we have to understand that, you know, as we work with fathers, you know, that in spite of the challenges, you know, men want to be good men, but they, you know, need to deal with wounded issues of manhood because what’s been integrated as well in many fathers, because of survival, are wounded patterns. And so the aspect of being – you know, the sense of masculinity, and people talk about toxic masculinity, no, it’s oppressive masculinity. It’s a racist masculinity that has been integrated into men and boys’ lives.

But the benefits obviously include, if we do this the right way, it breaks cycles of disconnection, heal generations of pain, rebuild valued traditions and recover sacred fatherhood, right?


Thanks to our guest speakers who appeared on this episode, Dr. Alan-Michael Graves, Leonard Burton, Shaneen Moore, Jerry Tello, and Armando Yañez. And thank you for listening to another episode of On the Evidence, the Mathematica podcast. This episode was made possible with support from the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (or ASPE) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

On the episode page, I’ll provide links where listeners can learn more about Mathematica’s ongoing work with ASPE to understand the key elements and strategies that allow for the effective engagement of fathers in human services programs. One of those links will be to the full video recording from the webinar on advancing racial equity through fatherhood programs.

As always, you can keep up with the latest episodes of On the Evidence by subscribing wherever you get podcasts. Another way to stay up-to-date with the podcast is by following us on Twitter. I’m at JBWogan. Mathematica is at MathematicaNow.

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Show notes

Learn more about the partnership between ASPE and Mathematica to identify the strategies human services programs use to engage fathers.

About the Author

J.B. Wogan

J.B. Wogan

Senior Strategic Communications Specialist
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