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City Building: People are Toronto's infrastructure & Black Daddies Club strengthens at risk fathers

Picture social strife as dark matter, and you get a good idea of what the Black Daddies Club (BDC) is up against in Malvern and Jane and Finch. There's a problem out there, and it's got serious mass, serious sway -- but the face of the thing is elusive, even as its affectations ripple around the community in plain sight.

In 2007, Brandon Hays founded the BDC to offer a forum for black parenting issues and larger problems in the black community. Over the past three years, the club has aimed a cannon of programming into a statistical void, going into prisons to speak with incarcerated fathers and hosting barbershop parenting workshops.

"For the past three years, it was us going around testing the water and seeing what was needed," says Hays. "That's been the challenge. When we're looking at stats for black men, there are no stats. We look at stats that are American, but they don't do us any good."

That's caused some problems. How many people in their target group are on social assistance? How many are looking for work, and how many are doing so with a criminal record? How old are they? What are their core needs? How many can cook?

"It's about connecting these guys with a support system that's already existing, or creating something that isn't there," says the 31-year-old Hays, who has three kids and lost his own father to a shooting in Kingston, Jamaica.

Urban geography, race, and associated poverty complicate the picture. There's no shortage of research illustrating the perpetual poverty machine that exists in visible minority neighbourhoods. According to Campaign 2000, child poverty rates are most pernicious among new immigrants, recent immigrants, aboriginals, and racialized groups. Add to that research done by the United Way and the Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology (PDF), and the whole matter becomes even darker. The human drama associated with these numbers -- violence, prison, addiction, lack of education, failing health -- inevitably play out in the family unit.

"Those things impact people's ability to provide," says Laron Nelson, a member of BDC, Ph.D, and assistant professor of nursing and paediatrics at U of T. "Our system, as much as people don't like to realize it, will exclude people from fully participating in Canadian society. We do try and address some of those things and work with fathers about how you can productively resist these social processes."

As BDC moves through 2011, not only will it be focusing heavily on research and internal governance, but also on a new program called Breaking Bread. Nelson and Hays are working with other BDC members to launch the program in April at Jane and Finch, and it'll run for several months of the year.

The program is geared toward fathers aged 15 to 24 and will play out over three sessions, the first of which focuses on the self, while the second and third look at relationships and community, respectively. The delivery vehicle is a combination of self-determination theory and motivational interviewing techniques.

"It's really a theory about how people are motivated to do things, healthy things," says Nelson. "It's about motivation."

"It's about feeling like you can do it," says Nelson. "When people feel like they can do something, they give it their all. They go to great lengths."

Supporting the application of that theory is another psychological idea: motivational interview technique. A conversational, people-positive discussion dynamic, the technique aims to co-opt resistance to change by establishing empathy and social cohesion.

"The group level is important for us," says Nelson, "because it helps create a social environment."

This goal of connectivity drives much of the BDC agenda. Sway Magazine, for example, runs a weekly column submitted by a Black Daddy, with entries coming in from around the country. Participating in broader society is also a recurring theme, and BDC ran a get-out-the-vote campaign during the last federal election. According to Hays, it's about a larger interpretation of fatherhood, one that reaches beyond the household to address the larger social problems faced by the community.
"So if you see a young man who's carrying on on a bus," he says, "it's really saying, 'Hey,' not from a pulpit, but just getting on a level and having a conversation. Those seconds can be lasting."

Nelson's own fatherhood story underscores the idea. His son was an adolescent when Nelson adopted him, working with the mother to try and fill the void left by the father.

"What motivated me was being responsible for another person's life," he says, adding that his son has gone off to post-secondary education. "Some of his friends did not make it, and they did not make it alive."

Paul Carlucci is a freelance writer working in the GTA.

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