Project Fatherhood: Uniting the Men of LA’s Toughest Communities

In the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, Project Fatherhood helps end the cycle of absent fathers and gives men a place to discuss what it means to be dads, partners, and sons in one of the city's roughest areas.
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Ronald James, a long-time attendee of Project Fatherhood, and his son. Photo courtesy of Project Fatherhood.

“If you know your kid is carrying a pistol, what do you do—turn him in?” Tiny Walker—a soft-spoken man with a cane rested against his knee—sat in a small cinder-block room. Plates of hot food were being passed around.

Until that moment, the other men had sat quietly, some with their heads bowed, listening to Ronald Stringfellow share the story of how his son was recently paralyzed by a bullet that struck him in the throat.

“If you know your kid is carrying a pistol, what do you do—turn him in?”

Though the incident with Stringfellow’s son was fresh, the wounds from each and every shooting in the Jordan Downs public housing project, located in Los Angeles' Watts neighborhood, run deep. Walker’s question lifted the heavy veil of silence from the room. Prayers were called for. Support was offered. These men who meet at five o’clock most Wednesday evenings in the community center at Jordan Downs were united in grief and hope.

They come to the community center for Project Fatherhood, a program that gives men who live in this area a forum to discuss what it means to be fathers, partners, and sons in what many consider to be one of the roughest neighborhoods in Los Angeles, if not the country.

“I’m gonna prevent him from doing what he wants to do,” said a man toward the back of the room, answering Walker’s question.

“I’m going to put my foot down—he’s not going anywhere,” said another.

“I would sit him down and talk to him about the consequences,” came a voice near the front, rich with conviction.

“I’d turn him in, rather than him kill someone.”

“That’s love,” one man responded.

“That’s snitching,” said another.

“I couldn’t do that to my son, man,” said another still.

Eventually, from the front of the room, came the lilting voice of “Big Mike” Cummings, a large man with a round face as open and bright as a full moon. As he began to speak, the cacophony of voices quickly fell away.

“Your last resort is to turn them in,” said Cummings. “First, I would sit him down and take his pistol.”

“What if he doesn’t give it to you?” asked a man in the group.

“I’m going to do my best to take it from him,” responded Cummings as he shifted in his chair. “But I would explain to him that if you make your bed, you’ve got to lie in it.”

Creating a counternarrative to gang life

Jordan Downs is home to the Grape Street Crips, whose rivalry with the Bounty Hunter Bloods from neighboring Nickerson Gardens has long defined gang life in LA. The community, made up of about 2,700 residents, is marred by a history of violence, drugs, and incarceration that has torn families apart for decades. Here, poverty is endemic. The unemployment rate hovers around 24 percent, higher than 98 percent of the census tracts in California. Jordan Downs is an island of inequality that is difficult to escape from—a testament to a fundamentally flawed government housing policy.

For those without the means or inclination to leave Jordan Downs, Project Fatherhood is a lifeline of support.

Project Fatherhood helps dads reconnect with their children and play a more meaningful role in their lives.

Sylvester “Sugar Bear” Willingham was only 12 when he saw his childhood friend shot dead on a patch of grass in the heart of Jordan Downs. The police had been called about a man seen harming himself. When they arrived, the officers found the man, Willingham’s friend, surrounded by onlookers. And though his friend wasn’t endangering anyone in the crowd, the police drew their guns and fired. “They straight up killed him right in front of us,” explained Willingham, now 42. “They could have shot him with a taser—something else. Not a gun. That messed everybody up, especially the kids. I still remember that today.”

That same year, Willingham’s father died, and his mother, “Miss Dot,” was left to raise ten children alone. “She was a mother and daddy. She took care of all of us,” he said. “She’s a strong lady.” Willingham remembers his mother as a strict disciplinarian—“I knew she would whoop the mess out of me,” he said—but still, as so often happens in Jordan Downs, a tough upbringing didn’t translate into a crime-free adulthood.

Willingham was been to jail multiple times. Most recently it was for four months, when his daughter was 15. “I didn't want her to see me in there,” he said. “That ain’t cool. I couldn’t hug her.” For years, Willigham felt like he was destined to keep repeating the same mistakes.

But then in 2009, nearly twenty-seven years after seeing his friend killed, he returned to that same patch of grass for the first ever Project Fatherhood meeting. It was a loose collection of men drawn together by the promise of two things: a neighborhood barbecue and community change. The barbecue was easy to accomplish. Change has proven tougher.

“It’s bad, when you have to go to funerals of kids. They die young. We’re all family here in Jordan Downs,” said Willingham.

“There was always this mythology that the black father wasn’t present, that the black father wasn’t engaged,” said Jorja Leap, a UCLA professor, who, alongside Cummings—himself a former gang-member—founded the Jordan Downs chapter of Project Fatherhood nearly six years ago.“The truth is, they were locked up. And the fact is, we’re in the new Jim Crow,” she said. “One out of three black men winds up incarcerated. You cannot argue with that statistic. They’re not absent—they’re incarcerated. They care. They want to be fathers.” Following Jordan Downs’ lead, the neighboring projects of Nickerson Gardens and Imperial Courts have started similar programs. Many hope Project Fatherhood will unite kids across these communities, and help break down decades-long gang rivalries.

Residents hope the program can tackle other issues in their community as well. Research shows that children of absentee fathers are more likely to abuse drugs, drop out of school, and commit crimes. Project Fatherhood helps dads reconnect with their children and play a more meaningful role in their lives. It shifts some of the burden off of the mothers in poor communities, said Leap, and helps rebalance the scales of parenting.

A youth impact session at a Project Fatherhood meeting. Photo courtesy of Project Fatherhood.

In addition to support groups, the program offers therapy sessions, job training, and parenting classes to fathers, as well as seminars, conferences, and training programs for family service professionals and community leaders. And the once-a-month impact sessions—father-led group activities for local kids—are designed to catch high school students before they turn to crime (gift cards are used as incentives to join). Together, these programs provide the men a “counternarrative” with which to live their lives, said Leap. The impact it has already had on Jordan Downs makes her hopeful for long-term success.

“Had this been here in the decade of death in the ’80s and ’90s, life would have been a whole lot better,” Leap said. “It makes all the difference.”

Influencing communities nationwide

John Thompson, director of Project SNUG, a gang-intervention program in Yonkers, New York, agrees that addressing issues of fatherhood and parenting are integral to improving blighted communities. SNUG (guns spelled backwards) trains former gang members to mediate gang-related tensions. Three years after SNUG’s inception, the number of shootings in Yonkers fell by 76 percent. But there’s always room for improvement, and Thompson believes his program would benefit from incorporating group meetings similar to those held by Project Fatherhood.

“I think that is some of the strength of [Project Fatherhood],” he said. “Men are often very guarded. We don’t like to talk about our personal issues, about what hurts us, what shames us. We tend to keep those things close to the heart.”

“Men are often very guarded. We don’t like to talk about our personal issues, about what hurts us, what shames us.”

Thompson isn’t the only one who understands the potential of a program like Project Fatherhood. Father Gregory “Father G” Boyle has worked with gang members for more than 40 years. He’s the founder of Homeboy Industries, an 18-month program that provides training and support to former gang members in Los Angeles. Boyle sees a lot of similarities between his program and Project Fatherhood, including their potential for breaking cycles of abuse.

“They all come from very traumatized upbringings where they were exposed to a lot of violence, where things were chaotic,” Boyle said. “They go with what they know.” Through his work, Boyle has seen it’s difficult for some men to talk about issues of masculinity.

“You can’t calm yourself down if you’ve never been soothed,” Boyle added. “They really have to figure it out all over again. … It’s a tall order, especially when it comes to fathers, because they all have a hole in their heart which is in the shape of their own fathers.”

Even with the help of programs like these, progress can be slow. After enjoying a period of relative calm, Jordan Downs has seen a recent spike in violence. In response, Leap said she has to acknowledge the root causes of an increase in crime. “Watts needs an economic infrastructure,” she said. “Where there is violence and where gangs are active is where there are no jobs, no businesses and where schools are underperforming.”

While Project Fatherhood may not be able to confront these problems at the root, it tries to tackle them on an individual basis.

Breaking the cycle

Clifton Dunlap grew up an army brat. But when his father died in 1969, Dunlap, his mother, and his six siblings settled in Jordan Downs. Dunlap was four years old when his dad passed away, but thankfully he wasn’t entirely without a father figure. Across the street from him lived “Big Ben” Orange, a family friend who would sometimes take the Dunlap boys to work with him.

Even so, when it came to raising Dunlap and his siblings, their mother was “the backbone” of the family. “It was tough,” said Dunlap, “growing up without a father.”

Cagey about his past life in gangs—“I was gang-banging, but I was never a gang-banger. You see the difference?”—Dunlap is more forthcoming about his family. Today he has three kids, each with a different mother, as well as four grandchildren. “That shows how immature I was, bouncing from mother to mother,” he said. “Instead of focusing on raising my kids, I was more focused on being a playboy, running the streets.”

Now that his children are adults—his oldest is 31 and his youngest is 23—Dunlap says his relationship with them has improved. Nevertheless, “you can tell that they’re hurt, thinking of the times I wasn’t there when they were younger,” he admits.

“Watts needs an economic infrastructure.”

The turning point in his relationship with his children, Dunlap said, was Project Fatherhood. “When we’re sitting in those meetings, we’re talking about positive ways we can affect not only our own kids,” he said, “but those other kids who don’t have any guidance.” Today, Dunlap works as an after-school supervisor for the Los Angeles Unified School District. His success with repairing family fractures hasn’t been an isolated case.

Naturally quiet and averse to the spotlight, Willingham took years to find his voice amid Project Fatherhood’s lively weekly gatherings. Today though, he’s learned how to talk candidly about two of his most difficult relationships—those with his daughter and her mother.

“You’ve really got to be there for your kid,” he said. Willingham’s daughter is now 22, and works as a teacher in nearby Compton. He admits that he wasn’t always the “best dad,” but the program has taught him how to better handle relationships with the women in his life. “I’ve found that if you’re going through something with your baby mother, don’t argue with her,” he said. “Don’t threaten her. There’s a way you can talk to her.”

Oftentimes, the men in Project Fatherhood meetings discuss how they can share these lessons with younger generations and stop their kids from repeating their mistakes. Some want to start a one-on-one mentorship program with high-school students. Others want to see fathers spend even more time around the neighborhood, to keep a watchful eye on the kids most likely to get into trouble.

Nevertheless, Willingham is happy to have a place where these conversations can happen. Before that first barbeque more than six years ago, there wasn’t anywhere for men to talk about how fatherhood affects issues of violence and drug use. And in that respect, Project Fatherhood has already achieved what it set out to do: provide a different narrative to life in Jordan Downs.

Sure, Willingham said, some kids think the weekly meetings are “bullshit” at first. “But after they see what we do, they’re back next week,” he said. “If they see you do something good, they’re going to catch on.”