Black fathers work to dispel stigma, stereotypes round fatherhood by mentorship

A couple of Mid-Michigan groups are helping black fathers develop relationships with children and combat some of the stigmas placed on fathers.

Involved Dad in Flint and Power of Dad in Saginaw work to support fathers and children through group settings in which feelings are shared and skills are imparted that will last a lifetime.

Brian Pruitt, a powerhouse dad and mentor to fatherless children and fathers, has officially bonded with his father for the first time in his life after the two were not in a relationship for years.

The meeting, which Pruitt failed to notice, was an opportunity for him to have a bittersweet final chapter with his father.

Pruitt’s eldest daughter had a dream about her grandfather at the end of 2019 that she had never met. In a dream she saw that he was going to die and encouraged her father to find his father to make amends.

“One weekend my daughter had a dream and the next weekend I was standing in front of my father after twenty years,” said Pruitt. “It was a supernatural series of events.”

Pruitt, a married father of 26 and four children, met his father in Cleveland, Ohio after his sister found him. The couple talked, cried, and had conversations.

Almost two months later, in January 2020, his father died.

“I could make amends to my father and I could forgive him and the last conversation I had with my father was, ‘I told my father that we didn’t spend much time on earth, but we can have a time spend a lot of time in heaven. Would you like to know the Lord Jesus as your Lord and Savior? And he said, ‘Yes.’ That was the last conversation I had with my father. “

Pruitt’s father was absent from his life, but he had mentors like coach Lawrence McKinney, who started coaching at Saginaw’s Heavenrich Elementary in the early 1970s and overseeing at least three generations of families at the school. He died in 2008.

McKinney would support Pruitt when he went to college and distinguished himself as an All-American running back at Central Michigan University and became a husband and father.

The coach is one of the main reasons he decided to give back to his community with the Power of Dad.

“He said, ‘I want you to find other young men like you, and I want you to do for them what I did for you.’ “So I paid for it with Power of Dad,” said Pruitt. “I paid for it by keeping my promise to my coach and mentor.”

Pruitt, 48, founded the Power of Dad about 14 years ago – a nonprofit that improves father-child relationships and combats fatherlessness – around the same time Saginaw was among the top 5 most violent cities in the country.

“I knew that much of the violence that was being committed was because there were many fatherless young men on our streets,” said Pruitt.

He began gathering men and women around town who wanted to partake in fathering a generation of young men.

To date, the organization has helped over 1,000 young men in Saginaw and the Great Lakes Bay Region.

The Power of Dad teaches fatherless young men 22 life skills over a 12 week period that their fathers did not teach them.

The program is built up over weeks, but a lifelong connection, explained Pruitt.

Among other things, skills such as tying a tie, conflict resolution, anger management and dating are taught.

“Many of the young men who started with us as young men are now adults who are married and have children of their own,” said Pruitt.

In addition to caring for children, the organization also honors fathers and has held ceremonies in the past to set an example of what a consistent and dedicated father looks like.

Another group from central Michigan is also helping to bind these ties of fatherhood closer together.

Shon Hart, 45, founded Involved Dad to encourage men to become committed fathers by providing training, coaching, and peer support in a safe environment with other men.

The New Jersey native, who shares three children with his 17-year-old wife, had a father in his house when he was a child, but he was never involved in life, Hart said.

“I created (Involved Dad) while on vacation with my family and on the way to my room it almost hit me like a ton of rocks because I was human, what a great time with my family and it came to me like any other child should be able to experience this and be with their mother and father somewhere, ”said Hart.

Soon after, he began hosting events for dads at Cafe Rhema in downtown Flint. He also used social media to share the message he wanted to get across and reach out to more dads.

While Hart was posting on social media, officials from several programs in Genesee County asked him to partner with fathers to provide resources.

“I wanted to create a space where men, regardless of race, belief, anything … for fathers and men, would come and be authentic and start talking about themselves and helping other people, and that’s where it started,” Hart said.

Through Involved Dad, Hart was hired by the county to offer one-on-one sessions, but his main focus is on group sessions.

The organization has resources to help fathers, particularly in northern Flint and Genesee Counties, learn how to be better involved.

“Through these open sessions at Café Rhema we begin to hear the different stories of how these men, young fathers and 40, 50 and 60 year old men come and are so broken because there are not many places where they are can be transparent. “, said Hart.

Hart, who now has a better relationship with his father, was sometimes unsure in his youth whether his father loved him because his father didn’t know how to express it.

Hart added that he did not know how to express that he wanted more from his father, and as a result of the lack of relationship, he developed problems such as low self-esteem.

“I didn’t have it there to power me,” said Hart. “My mother was there and very present, but it was different to come from a mother. I wanted my father. “

While Hart was playing soccer as a freshman at Michigan State University, his older brother was killed.

During the trial for his brother’s murder, the killer laughed in the courtroom, causing Hart’s father to experience an emotion his son had never seen before.

“That left me scars and it was the first time I heard my father cry,” said Hart.

After college, Hart worked in a prison where he was initially bitter over the experience of his brother’s murder, but after a while his heart softened and he began caring for men before Involved Dad was ever thought of .

“I’ve found that the majority of the men I’ve served with grew up without a father, and that was a common theme,” Hart said. “It was there that my journey of healing myself began to deal with my father’s problems, and I began this journey and this new path because I knew that I would become a new father and that I had to become whole and healthy myself to be this father Children needed me. “

One of the scenarios Hart encountered involves a father who could default on alimony, which in turn leads to incarceration, loss of driver’s license, and other punishments.

“Often times they don’t have the tools because their parents don’t teach them,” Hart said. “But they want to do something different. The men who come to my program are not ordered by a court, they come because they want to do better. “

Ian Agee, 40, is one of the fathers being looked after by Involved Dad. He has two daughters. He learns how to cope with the mother of his oldest child through a co-parenting situation.

“I wanted to be a more engaged dad, especially with my oldest daughter, because that’s where I had the most maintenance and parental leave problems,” Agee said.

Agee, a native of Flinter, defaulted on maintenance payments in a truck accident in 2015. He has changed his career path in a more entrepreneurial direction, which has resulted in some financial difficulties.

“But now that everything is improving, I have to do my best and get more involved in my children’s lives,” Agee said.

The father said he found support in meeting other men who are facing similar obstacles.

“It was nice to get advice from other men, not just from other fathers, but also from partners and staff in the court,” Agee said. “They have attorneys and staff available free of charge to help you give you advice and guide you in the right direction to improve your relationship with your child.”

Over the years, the organization has also added resources to combat domestic violence and leadership training.

Both Hart and Pruitt recognize that fatherhood is stigmatized in black communities, but stress that the problem is not the norm.

“Society highlights this and wants to make it the norm that black men are not involved when this is absolutely not the truth,” Hart said, adding that most of the fathers he comes in contact with are loving and want to get involved more. but often there are other challenges that created the gap.

“For the fathers who have grown up and may have left their families, I don’t think any of them dreamed about it,” said Pruitt. “I think most of them have grown up, lacking information, lacking expertise, lacking role models, and imitating what they hated.

“Until you have another model in front of you, some more information, and someone who can encourage and tell you that you can do this thing called fatherhood, you could get into trouble.”

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