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.
Under Construction is a project of Frontline Solutions and was made possible through the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
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.
At the core of the center's work is a belief that many of the issues that feed on poverty — despair, violence, drug abuse — can best be stemmed by strengthening the family unit. In a time when more than half of all African-American children do not live under the same roof as their father, inner-city Baltimore is starved for male role models.