‘Under Construction’: Center for Urban Families - Baltimore, Maryland
February 24, 2014
Under Construction is a multimedia online exhibit showcasing some of the best and brightest organizations working with males of color. The UC team of filmmakers, photographers, writers, and nonprofit experts worked directly with each of these organizations for several weeks. The collaborations yielded comprehensive portraits of the services men of color receive. Each profile features a short video, a photography exhibit, a visual program model, and a narrative essay detailing the efforts of these organizations.
To learn more about the Center for Urban Families, visit BMAfunders.org.
Joseph Thomas knows how deterioration works. It is the same process for the shuttered blocks of West Baltimore where he was a boy as it is for the man who has no one to talk to. The facades are the last thing to go.
"In prison you have a lot of time to think," says Thomas, who served two years. A quiet, gentle man, he thought about how he had drifted through life since an early age with no one to steer him. Most of all, he thought about his daughters, wondering if he still had a chance to give them what he didn't have, a positive role model. Today, you listen to him talk about his teenage girls, what it means to make it to one of their badminton games, and he almost blushes. He was always in their lives, but he has learned that there are different kinds of presence.
Thomas, 38, is one of more than twenty thousand people who have come through the doors of Baltimore's Center for Urban Families (CFUF), where fatherhood and employment courses re-order their ideas about what a man's life can mean to his family and to the neighborhoods they call home.
The center operates out of an angular, bastion-like building here in Sandtown, where Thomas was a boy. "It was wild," he says. "It was drugs on every corner. It was people getting killed." But in the center's halls, people carry themselves with a refined confidence. They show up on time and sit around boardroom tables, or in large, university-like classrooms. And Thomas, like everybody else, is wearing a suit and tie. "The training wasn't just about training for a job," he says. "It was about succeeding in life."
Founded in 1999 by a former drug addict, the Center for Urban Families has become a model for how to reach urban men, perhaps the country's most underserved demographic. Here in a community that many think of as a "city of neighborhoods," the center's work targets the hardest of these, the street corners that have found infamy as the backdrop of popular television crime shows like The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Streets.
"Every time you turn around, you see a woman holding the hand of a child, but not a father," says Marcus Dixon, 28. "One day someone will see me holding my child's hand." Dixon, a father of two, is studying for a degree in pharmacology and molecular biology after years spent dealing "illegal pharmacies."
Each of the center's four courses is designed to strengthen families. Instructors take nothing for granted, except for a parent's innate desire to love. In the Baltimore Responsible Fatherhood Project, personal histories are unwound as men go back to their earliest childhood memories and give grades to their own fathers. Later comes a diaper-training contest judged by women. In STRIVE, an empowerment course developed in New York to help people find sustained employment, men learn how to carry themselves in a job interview, how to tie a tie, and how to advance in a company once they've landed a position. If the information seems basic, it helps that many of the teachers have histories that parallel those of their students and may have sat in the same chairs not that long ago.
"A lot of the population that we deal with, they gravitate to people who have been where they are," says Cedric Petteway, a CFUF outreach and child support specialist who goes into the neighborhoods to recruit. The target recruits are easy to spot. They're the ones gathered around stoops in the middle of the day, a ubiquitous sight here, and they usually mistake Petteway for a detective. "A lot of the times when I do talk to them they think I graduated from Harvard or somewhere, but, you know, I tell them, 'Look, I just came home from prison three years ago and I went through every program in here', and it's like, 'Well, I can do this too'."
The center's knowledge of inner-city realities begins with Joe Jones, a Baltimore native and CFUF's founder and executive director. He watched his dad leave home with a duffel bag when he was eight. By age 14 Jones was shooting heroin. And at 30, after sixteen years of addiction, he entered a drug treatment program to escape a prison sentence. "For too many children in our country, particularly African-American children, we have little boys and little girls growing up not knowing who their dad is," he says.
For all their work with men, it is the evergreen potential of children that the Center for Urban Families is really trying to protect. Building off the old maxim that change begins with the youngest generation, the center is betting on the kids who will inherit their fathers' ways.
Reflecting back on Sandtown before crack hit, remembering a proud neighborhood where your buddy's parents were just as likely to scold you as your own parents were, Thomas sees the center's work as a way to heal a broken community. That's why, like so many others who have graduated every program here, he still comes around. He's got work and hopes to open his own construction company, but it helps to remember that he's not alone. "I always thought it was about me and mine," he says. "But it's not just about fathering your own children. It's about being a father to the other children in the community."