THE BLOG

It's Time For A Paradigm Shift: Teen Dads As Community Leaders

Sep 17, 2013 | Updated Nov 17, 2013

I believe strongly in the inherent resilience of all young people, and in their capacity to create positive change in their own lives and to catalyze positive change in the lives of their peers. This belief has laid the foundation for my inspiration to develop a peer advocacy training institute specifically for teen fathers.

I want to give young fathers the tools and confidence to break down barriers to education and employment so they are able to maximize their potential as parents, partners and men.

More and more, the news is filled with stories of the educational and employment challenges facing low-income Black and Latino men. It is unacceptable that so many young men are being left to flounder in poverty -- becoming what Gandhi deplored as "throw-away children" -- simply through our systemic failure to ensure access to critical resources like education and employment.

The challenges faced by these young men are felt even more severely when the young men are also fathers. The fact that the resources exist to support them, and we know that they work, makes our failure to ensure equal access one of our city's deepest societal injustices.

As a lawyer working with low-income single parents and their children, I saw first-hand the unique frustrations of the young Black and Latino fathers that I worked with as they attempted to effectively parent the children they loved, while also navigating the trials and tribulations of adolescence.

When I founded the Resilience Advocacy Project, I brought this awareness with me, gathering research and partnering with other organizations to explore the needs of this population. Although there is little data available about teen fathers, what research there is shows that they are generally less educated, less skilled and less capable of accessing available supports within complex government agencies and court systems than their adult counterparts.

As a result, thousands of Black and Latino teen fathers are foregoing, or missing out on, supports that could help them succeed in school, find and maintain employment and provide emotional and economic support for their children.

The key to addressing this problem is to put the power to change their trajectories directly into the hands of those most impacted: teen fathers. That is what our training institute aims to do. We want to build a citywide corps of young fathers that have the knowledge and skills to serve as peer leaders, and education and employment advocates, for one another in their own communities.

Now is the time for an institute like ours. The past three years have been a watershed moment in our city's approach to meeting the needs of young fathers.

The Mayor's Fatherhood Initiative and the efforts of the Department of Youth and Community Development to create programs for young fathers have created a strong foundation for work in this field. The Teen Father Peer Advocacy Training Institute is a critical next step, engaging teen fathers as real partners in the city's efforts to support their educational and employment success.

Our comprehensive 10-week Teen Father Peer Advocacy Training Institute will educate young fathers about NYC government, their legal rights, and the community resources that are available to help them succeed. Most important, it will train them in the leadership skills that are critical to success in the employment world: self-advocacy, peer leadership, communication, problem-solving, and critical thinking.

Upon graduation, our young men will work together to transform core public institutions (like schools and libraries) into education and employment resource hubs for young fathers. These hubs will serve as one-stop-shops for teen fathers to address critical education and employment issues such as applying for a government ID, finding money for college, finding appropriate and available internship and job training opportunities, and navigating interviews with a criminal record.

Our trained peer advocates will be able to offer concrete legal rights information, referrals to professionals like lawyers and social workers, and concrete help with basic forms, such as applications for State ID.

In addition, the dads will provide much needed peer support in their communities through monthly "truth circles." These circles -- which run like semi-structured discussion groups -- create a peer mentor community that can provide a safe space to discuss challenges, questions and issues of importance in their lives.

Our model has far-reaching implications. It has the potential to transform every teen father in New York into a powerful community leader with the tools to break cycles of poverty.

I saw the potential for this type of model when working with one young man who went through one of RAP's other peer advocacy programs. Durell was a 19-year-old GED student and new father from Brownsville.

Midway through the program, Durell asked how he could help some of his friends - also dads - learn the kinds of skills he was learning. I watched as Durell began to translate his experience with our program into concrete help for his friends as a peer advocate, helping them apply for jobs, sign up for a State ID, and finding parenting classes in their schools. It was exhilarating to see the transformation in Durell's view of his own ability to create positive change in his life, as well as in his potential as a father.

Ultimately, we are building the capacity of teen fathers to lead individual and community level change, and to make their communities' more responsive to their needs. At the same time, we expand their personal beliefs about themselves. When they see that they are able to have a concrete impact on their own lives and on the lives of their peers, they begin to see their own longer-term potential as parents and as young men.

This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, Ashoka Changemakers, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Young Men's Initiative in recognition of the "My Voice, Our City" competition, which aims to empower black and Latino young men ages 16-24. To see all the other posts in the series, click here. For more information about "My Voice, Our City", click here; about Ashoka Changemakers, click here; and about the Young Men's Initiative, click here.