Basic Life Lessons for Young Urban Males
words by carole walker / photograph by andrew hanenberg
itting in a crowded courtroom, Charles Dixon, director of the Young Fathers Program at UMDNJ-New Jersey Medical School (NJMS), awaits the sentencing of one of his young charges, who has been down this road before. As Dixon waits, he wonders if he should believe the teen’s public defender, who says the judge will probably throw the book at him, or trust in his instincts that the teen can be turned around if the judge releases him to the NJMS program. This is a sad commentary on the lives of many young African-American men who live in America’s urban centers. But over the years, the Young Fathers Program has produced more success stories than sad ones.
In the summer of 1986, the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine (DAYAM) at NJMS conducted a study to assess the status and needs of young men, some of them teenage fathers, in the city of Newark. The study uncovered some disturbing facts. It revealed that many of them are misunderstood and misrepresented, not only by society-at-large, but within their own communities. Although many of the young fathers are attached to their babies, they cannot provide parental care and act responsibly because of inadequate education, financial barriers and emotional distress. Subsequently, many of them go astray, leaving their children with no means of financial or emotional support and no hope for a better future. Equally important, many make destructive decisions that put them on a path to failure.
In response to these findings, DAYAM developed the Young Fathers Program to help these young men transition into adulthood. The program opened its doors in 1987 with the challenging goals of enhancing their clients’ ability to meet the financial, social and emotional demands of fatherhood; improving their health and parent-child relationships by reducing the risk of abuse and neglect; and helping decrease unwanted pregnancies. Since its inception, more than 8,000 young men have benefited from its services.
“One of our many goals is to find gainful employment for our clients,” says Dixon. “Many have dropped out of high school and 80 to 90 percent come in without a job. They also need guidance in raising their children and forming better relationships. But, that’s not at the top of their list unless their case is referred to DYFS or the courts; then it becomes very important.”
Dixon goes on to explain that jobs and achievement are important, but there is an equally pressing issue. “It’s called manhood. We strive to help these young fathers transition from being kids to being adult men. It’s an essential part of our program.”
Outside of parent training, Dixon sees this as the program’s critical component. He calls it self-actualization. “I only wish I could put it at the top of their lists. The average age of our clients is 17 to 18. This program offers many services, but the one piece that makes it all work is helping them in the process of self-actualization.”
“You can see it in their faces,” he says. “They need to know: ‘How do I fit in, where do I belong, and who am I?’” Dixon comments that all young people face these questions, but for these young fathers, it’s crunch time.
“They come in our doors not knowing how to find themselves,” he explains. “Most have no support system at home, and it’s been decades since our communities have had the resources to help guide them.”
He recalls how he and his brothers always had support from special people in their community and church. “It kept us on track. Even though my parents separated when I was young, my father was still important to the family, and he was there for my brothers and me whenever my mom called him. My mother only had to mention his name and we would straighten right up. The threat of daddy coming over was equal to judgment day.”
He says the elders in his family gave him the wisdom to take the right path in life. “My uncle, for instance, whom I thought of as a ‘southern gentleman,’ taught me the proper way to deal with folks. In this program, we try to interact with our young men like my uncle did with us — with decency and respect.”
He explains that all their young clients are treated with respect — no matter what their background — and that this is the basis for lifelong relationships. “After our young men leave, they usually come back to see us, because we took that extra step. They remember always being treated like they matter.”
Dixon, who is also an associate pastor at the New Life Church in East Orange, patterns his life and professional goals on the tenets of the late Apostle Arturo Skinner, a minister and community activist during the ’60s and ’70s. Dixon describes him as a hands-on leader and visionary who would counsel young people on a one-to-one basis.
“He had a great impact on my life and I am able to walk in his footsteps by modeling my program on his goals for a better community. I grew up seeing people’s lives transformed through the power of love, hope and giving, and all of that rubbed off on me.” Dixon—who says most of us take our support systems for granted—credits his mother, uncles, father and Skinner for his own strength and focus.
Counseling lies at the heart of the Young Fathers Program. “Who you are as a person,” he says, “holds the key to your future. I work on building up each individual’s sense of self.” He sees these young men grow through the counseling sessions, and eventually start moving in a positive direction.
“I want them to walk out of my office knowing that something has just transpired in their lives. If you don’t have a grip on who you are, then there’s no way in heaven you’re going to be able to support your child or give support to anyone else. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.”
The bulk of the program’s participants come from Newark and the surrounding communities, and the program works with most of the agencies in Essex County. “We also work with the women who are involved with our fathers. It’s one of the best ways of getting to our young men. The women want to help their men so they come to us asking for assistance.”
Participants also get help from famous sports figures, celebrities, government and city officials, and collaborators in other UMDNJ departments. “DAYAM never says no to us,” he says. The Young Fathers Program also counts on help from UMDNJ’s School of Health Related Professions, Department of Government and Community Affairs, and School of Nursing.
For almost 23 years, this program has produced “winners.” Graduates include former gang members who have gone on to college and/or military service, and others who have become policemen, community organizers, public relations and marketing professionals, youth ministers, pastors, environmental engineers, carpenters and teachers. The list goes on.
They all carry with them the basic premise that has made the program a success: that the support and love of people around you is the most important factor in shrugging off old, negative patterns and creating new, positive ones.