By Diane Aisha Sears
Once upon a time, we were a village. Now life was not perfect, but the village’s greatest treasures and most vulnerable members – its children and its Elders – for the most part, were loved, protected and respected. Parents, extended family members, educators, school administrators, religious leaders, health care professionals and providers, social services professionals and providers, the business community, legislators, and neighbors worked together to help positively shape the minds and souls of the children of the village. In their eyes, children were the “Promise of a New Day” and the “heart and soul” of the village. The village symbolized hope – it was a vibrant oasis. Today, a dark cloud of chaos and hopelessness hovers over the village as it grapples with chaos, fatherlessness, intergenerational incarceration, the “school-to-prison pipeline,” and rising violence. It is difficult to feel loved, protected, and safe or to dream about and plan for your future in an environment that is besieged by chaos and hopelessness. Perhaps we simply need to rebuild the village. Perhaps it is time for the children who were once raised by the village to, in some way, raise the village.
Through a powerful two-tiered initiative – Fathers And Children Together (F.A.C.T.) – Mr. Sam Brown, the Chairman of Unity Community Action Network (UCAN) and Mr. Luis Gonzalez, President of the Latin American Cultural Exchange Organization (L.A.C.E.O.) at SCI Graterford are raising the village by helping the village raise its children. F.A.C.T. is the result of a historic collaboration among African American and Latino incarcerated men at SCI Graterford to resolve the key challenges of Fatherlessness, intergenerational incarceration, the “school-to-prison pipeline” and violence that serve as obstacles to living a happier, healthier, and longer life and helping our children – the Next Generation of Leaders, Husbands, Fathers, Wives, and Mothers – from maturing into purpose-driven, productive, and successful adults. Under Mr. Brown’s leadership, fathers at SCI Graterford are reunited with their children while mothers are simultaneously moved into the Fatherhood equation. The initiative is fully embraced and supported by Pennsylvania State Representative The Honorable Ronald G. Waters. F.A.C.T. is a national model to resolve Fatherlessness, intergenerational incarceration, and the “school-to-prison” pipeline that provides an orientation session and workshops for Fathers incarcerated at SCI Graterford and visitation with their children. The conclusion of the program is punctuated with a graduation ceremony where participating Fathers receive a certificate.
Mothers of the children who are reunited with their incarcerated fathers also participate in an orientation session and a series of workshops. On alternating Thursdays and Fridays, on a weekly basis, the children are brought to SCI Graterford by their mothers and members of F.A.C.T.’s external team. While the children visit with their Fathers, the mothers along with members of F.A.C.T.’s external team which is headed up by the Office Manager for The Honorable Ronald G. Waters, gather at a separate location for dinner and conversation. The relaxed environment provides the mothers with an opportunity to interact with each other and discuss any issues they may have.
Its holistic approach to parenting is one of a number of reasons that F.A.C.T. is being heralded as a powerful game-changer to help eradicate the causative factors for intergenerational incarceration and the “school-to-prison pipeline”. Why is F.A.C.T. such a powerful game-changer? A dynamic psychological component is skillfully embedded in this heart-string tugging, “button pushing”, and results-oriented initiative which produces subtle positive behavioral changes. Whether you are an observer or a participant, it is impossible not to be moved emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually.
On Saturday, 22 February 2014, I had an opportunity to observe the orientation session and workshops provided for the mothers. The mothers were accompanied by their children. While the mothers participated in the orientation session and workshops, the children immersed themselves in arts and crafts projects, courtesy of the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. Stepping out on faith and not knowing what to expect, the mothers streamed into a conference room at the Walnut Park Plaza in the Cobbs Creek section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The mothers learned about the F.A.C.T. program and met members of the initiative’s external team along with three women who are F.A.C.T. alumni. Through a series of workshops, the mothers explored a myriad of issues which included parenting, relationships, and stress. The mothers were reminded that children see and hear everything, mimic their behavior and speech and that they – the mothers – are their children’s role models. They were cautioned to be aware of every aspect of their behavior and the manner in which they speak to their children. The importance of ensuring that children had contact with their incarcerated father was emphasized. Estranged relationships between mothers and fathers were not to be used as an excuse to deny children access to their incarcerated father. One of the program’s successes which involved a behavioral change was shared with the group. Prior to participating in the F.A.C.T. program, an incarcerated father would engage the mother of his child in a discussion first on the telephone and would then later ask to speak with his child. Now, when he calls, he immediately asks to speak with his child and after bonding with his child over the telephone, he then speaks with his child’s mother. From time to time, the issues discussed during the workshops tugged at the women’s heartstrings. A number of them were moved to tears. At the end of the orientation session and workshops, the women who had walked into the meeting as strangers had become friends. They were talking to one another, smiling, and hugging each other. The F.A.C.T. program had created a “sisterhood”!
Several weeks later, on Friday, 7 March 2014, I joined a group of mothers and children assembled at State Representative Ronald G. Waters’ office located off the 60th Street business corridor in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where we boarded a waiting van which whisked us, Representative Waters’ Office Manager and members of the F.A.C.T. program’s external team to SCI Graterford. Once all of the children were accounted for and issued wrist bands which bore a handwritten description of their destination, the mothers along with several members of the F.A.C.T. external team exited the prison. They would spend time together at a nearby restaurant for dinner and conversation.
The group of men – which included one grandfather – stood patiently at a window in the cafeteria. It was a vantage point from where they could observe the children walk down a ramp leading to the cafeteria. When the men caught glimpses of the children walking toward the cafeteria, a bright smile illuminated their faces. You could sense their joy. The room erupted into applause. Yes, the Men gave the children a standing ovation as they walked into the room! And the children smiled broadly, waved, and ran into their outstretched arms. After greeting each other with hugs and kisses, the Fathers and children sat down together at tables where they ate snacks and talked. An interactive workshop session was conducted with the Fathers and the children by three co-facilitators, under the watchful eye of Mr. Sam Brown, the Chairman of UCAN.
Fathers, children, and members of the F.A.C.T. external team were asked to sit in chairs arranged in a large circle. To relieve the stress and tension that developed as a result of the Fathers waiting patiently, but anxiously, for the children’s arrival, coupled with the long ride to SCI Graterford the children endured, a relaxation technique was implemented. Everyone was instructed to hold the hand of the person sitting next to them, to take a deep breath and inhale and to, after a few seconds, exhale. The inhalation and exhalation of oxygen have a calming effect. We were then instructed to stand up and stretch our arms upward and then in a circular motion. Children in the group were received a valuable lesson on how to relieve anxiety and stress.
Co-facilitators of the workshop asked the children to express their feelings. They were given permission to talk about the emotions they were feeling on the long trip to SCI Graterford. One child stated that she thought about writing a letter to her father. She also stated that she was frustrated at having to wait so long to see her father. This revelation moved the co-facilitators to ask each Father and each child to describe the emotions they felt while waiting to see each other. The Fathers and their children experienced the same set of emotions … frustration, anxiety, and stress. An interesting lesson was pointed out by one of the co-facilitators to the group: Fathers and children experience the same emotions. This exercise pointed out the need to provide children with an opportunity to articulate what they are feeling while at the same time teaching children in the group how to express their feelings in a constructive manner.
Each Father and child were asked to stand up and introduce each other. One by one, each Father introduced himself by providing his name, then turning to his son or daughter and introducing him or her to the group. Each child introduced himself or herself to the group, and then turned to gaze into the face of their Father while proudly declaring to the group, “This is my father!”
The final exercise involved each Father standing up, facing their child, and speaking from their heart to their child. There were three dramatically moving moments that occurred during this emotionally intense exercise:
A Father stood up and faced his teenaged daughter and told her, “ . . . I was not there when you were born. I was not there when you took your first step or on your first day of school. I will not be there to see you graduate. But I love you.”
The sole grandfather in the group stood up and talked to his granddaughter who was too emotionally overcome to stand in front of the group. As she sat in her chair weeping silently, he talked about the fact that he had been incarcerated for 23 years, that he hoped to leave prison soon, and that he loved his granddaughter.
And then there was the Father who stood up with his son and daughter in front of the group. He hugged them both as he told him that he loved them. The daughter responded: “Daddy, I love you. I miss you. I want you to come home.” She, her brother, and Father, briefly turned their backs to the group, held on to each other, and wept.
At the conclusion of the session, one of the co-facilitators sensed the need for the mood to be lightened and asked: “Who knows a joke that they can tell the group? Let’s have one of the children tell a joke.” The room erupted in laughter when one of the older children – a teenager – offered a humorous riddle.
The Fathers and children hugged each other amid choruses of “I love you”. Within seconds, the children and their fathers separated and moved to opposite ends of the room in front of a door. Yet, it seemed as if we were all moving in slow motion. As the group of Fathers and children silently moved to a respective door, they exchanged one final glance at each other before disappearing behind the door. No words were spoken. As the group of children silently moved through the door leading to a ramp that would reunite them with their mothers who were waiting in the reception area on the next floor, I looked back at the group of Fathers who were exiting the room. The group of men at the door had dwindled down to two. I watched these two Fathers turn, glance at their child, and walk through a door that quickly closed behind them. These men never uttered a sound, but the somber look in their eyes spoke volumes.
Diane Aisha Sears is the United States Coordinator for 2014 International Men’s Day (www.imd-global.org); Chair of the 2012-2022 International Men’s Day Coordination Committee; and a member of the University Council for Fatherhood and Men’s Studies Program at Akamai University (www.akamaiuniversity.us).