Last Monday, UMOJA, a 16-year-old Fort Worth-based youth advocacy organization of African-American men, led a local effort to encourage black men to lead their children back to school.
The Black Star Project, a similar organization based in Chicago and the originators of “the million-father march,” called for 500,000 black men in 200 cities to participate. UMOJA leaders hope the gesture will emphasize the immediate need for black men to play a more prominent role in the education of their children. Johnny Muhammad, UMOJA’s president and one of the organizers of the local version of the event, said that he and others in UMOJA — the Swahili word for unity — counted about 300 fathers who participated in the march in Fort Worth. He has not yet heard the numbers from other cities, but he said that feedback has been promising. “We’re issuing a challenge to the fathers to get more involved in their Parent-Teacher Associations and for the men to be seen more on school campuses,” he said. “With so many men being incarcerated in the black and Hispanic communities, that is a vital link that is missing.”
The absence of father figures within the black community, he said, has reached a critical level and has led to serious problems. “When the father isn’t there, the young men are missing a respect for women,” he said. “The gangs, the streets, and rap videos teach them what their fathers should be teaching them.” Andrew Chambers, principal at Morningside Middle School in east Fort Worth, said the march was an overall success. “We had more fathers show up here than ever before in all my years at Morningside,” he said. “I am very optimistic because of the number of fathers that I was able to speak to personally and get their commitment to volunteer at the school and chaperone events.” The Rev. Kyev Tatum, who brought his 9-year-old son to school, said that Monday’s action could spark a change in public policy. “Most policies right now that the government has instituted are not father-friendly,” he said. “What is happening … with the proliferation of the welfare state — the fact that women can’t be married [while also receiving] government assistance — is that the government is anti-family. When the government is that hostile toward fatherhood, black men must take responsibility.”
Tatum and Muhammad said that in Fort Worth and nationwide, the drop-out rate among black male students and the disproportionate number of black men in jail are connected. According to a 2006 USA Today study, minorities who do not finish high school are three times as likely to spend time in jail. When a child’s father is in jail, Muhammad and Tatum said, the kids grow up without the proper guidance, which can send the child down the same road. A 2003 University of Texas study found that only 56 percent of black males in predominantly minority schools in Texas graduate from high school. Experts at the Texas Center for Educational Policy, a national, independent advocate for public education, have predicted that if the trend continues, the graduation rate for black male students in Texas will drop below 50 percent by 2018.
According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, as of July 2007, black men made up 37 percent of the state’s overall prison, jail, and substance-abuse-center population. The number indicates a drop of about 10 percent from a decade ago, but black men are still the most numerous racial group behind bars in Texas.
UMOJA’s founder, Luther Perry, believes that those numbers will come down further if kids have more positive male role models. “What we have always tried to do … is to say to other African-American men, ‘Step up and do what’s right,’” he said. “We got started because there are a lot of kids that are suffering and really need some honest leadership. In 16 years we have dealt with about 25,000 boys.” In 10 Fort Worth public schools, UMOJA members, under contract with the district, act as mentors to and a sounding board for young people. One of the ways that the district utilizes UMOJA is by sending them kids who are suspended from school. “During the school day, we will work on what got them suspended,” said Perry. “In two or three days, we can help the kid understand what they’ve done is wrong and get them back in class. They’ll [more than likely] stay in school. The school won’t lose any state money [due to drop-outs], so the program pays for itself.”
Chuck Hoffman, executive director of the Fort Worth school district’s student services, said that the district appreciates the work that UMOJA has done in area schools and fully supports the million-father march. “They’re just very community-oriented and kid-oriented and an important part of our student support-service program,” he said. “We know that kids are [affected], we see a difference. We actually survey teachers who have had students that UMOJA volunteers have mentored, and they say that those children have really made a lot of gains in class.” Tatum, who grew up without a father around, said he believes that UMOJA is making up for the shortcomings of the local school system. “Fort Worth has done pretty much everything in its power to eliminate the impact of the black male,” he said. “So it’s no wonder that we have kids with their pants down around their waist; it’s no wonder that they’re dropping out of school at [the rate of ] 120,000 a year [nationally]; it’s no wonder that they’re not taking responsibility because there is no direct connection, systemically, to their culture.”
Ultimately, Perry and others said, the success of the march will be judged by the continued involvement of fathers. “Let’s demonstrate that there’s a lot of men who will show support by bringing their kids to school all year,” he said. “Our thing is not just what we do on the first day of school, but what we do on those other 180 days. If it’s just a one-time thing, it’s not going to be worth it. What we’ve got to do is make sure that men are involved in the whole educational process, because that’s what’s important: the sustainability of the whole concept.”