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'The joy was there, but also that fear': Milwaukee's Black men discuss fatherhood ahead of Father's Day

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel logo Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel 8/4/2021 Talis Shelbourne and La Risa R. Lynch, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
a group of people sitting on a bench: Brooks Griffin, a father engagement specialist with the African-American Breastfeeding Network leads a frank and open dialogue about the challenges of Black fatherhood and the need for Black men to support each other and be their own safety net Thursday, June 17 at All Saints Family Center, 2400 W. Villard Ave. Among the participants from left to right are the network’s Griffin, Robert Brox, Shannon Reed and Alphonso Pettis, who operates the Mentoring through Arts and Sport Enrichment program. The men talked about the need to remove the fear surrounding being a new dad while embracing the joy of fatherhood. © La Risa Lynch / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Brooks Griffin, a father engagement specialist with the African-American Breastfeeding Network leads a frank and open dialogue about the challenges of Black fatherhood and the need for Black men to support each other and be their own safety net Thursday, June 17 at All Saints Family Center, 2400 W. Villard Ave. Among the participants from left to right are the network’s Griffin, Robert Brox, Shannon Reed and Alphonso Pettis, who operates the Mentoring through Arts and Sport Enrichment program. The men talked about the need to remove the fear surrounding being a new dad while embracing the joy of fatherhood.

It was game night. The Bucks were vying for a win Thursday night over the Brooklyn Nets after a disappointing loss in Game Five.

But the talk among four Black men gathered in a conference room at All Saints Family Center, 2400 W. Villard Ave, was not about sports. It was about the joys and fears of fatherhood. 

Alphonso Pettis experienced both those emotions when he became a first-time dad at the age of 16.

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“I was excited because I am a man,” recalled the now 60-year-old Pettis, who is the father of four adult children and the grandfather of seven.

“I’m going around telling everyone I’m getting ready to have me a little shorty," he said. "But in my quiet place, I was scared to death because I didn't know what I was doing because I didn’t have my own father.

"The joy was there, but also that fear of how I’m gonna handle this.” 

Becoming a father was a big step for Shannon Reed, Jr. He and his girlfriend decided to adopt a relative’s child, a two-month-old boy to raise as their own.

“That was a very fearful step, specifically for me, seeing that I didn’t have any children at that time,” said Reed, now 26, who is expecting his first biological child, a daughter, in October.

“To really step into that role, it was something that I could say I was completely ignorant of from the beginning, and it was definitely learning from the basics,” he said. “But it has been a beautiful journey. It truly has. You don’t know anything and then all the answers kind of come day by day.”

Such candid talks between Black fathers are part of an initiative by the African-American Breastfeeding Network to create a safe space where Black men can support each other to build stronger Black families and reshape the narrative around Black fathers.

The initiative brings new and expecting fathers together with more veteran or seasoned fathers to have a frank discussion about the challenges of being a Black father.

The network provides educational services to pregnant, breastfeeding mothers and their families, while its peer advocates facilitate discussions around fatherhood. The aim is to find ways to engage Black fathers in not only raising their children, but also in their prenatal care.

Brooks Griffin, the network’s father engagement specialist, said increasing awareness about how Black fathers can be supportive of the mother during the pregnancy can greatly improve maternal and infant health outcomes.

Black infant mortality rates have been stubbornly high in Milwaukee for years.

In 2019, the Black infant mortality rate was 12 deaths per 1000 live births, more than double the rate for Hispanics (5 deaths per 1000 live births) and triple the rate for whites (3 deaths per 1000 live births). The citywide infant mortality rate in 2019 was 8 deaths per 1000 live births, according to the Milwaukee Health Department. 

RELATED: Facing grim infant death rates, Milwaukee focuses on black fathers

Griffin said there are simple things Black fathers can do to help alleviate maternal stress, one of the main causes of premature births, including rubbing the mother’s feet or cooking meals. He said more resources and information could help remove the fear fathers have about the birthing process.

“A lot of these conversations are new for men where we are really tapping into the emotions,” said Griffin, who led Thursday’s discussion. “Just being transparent, authentic and then showing them how that benefits not just them, not just their child nor just the mother or the co-partner, but overall how that helps the health of our community. It takes hand-holding.”

Gaps in resources? Create your own

Hand holding is what Pettis needed when he became a father in the late 1970s.

At the time, he said, there weren't a lot of resources for teen fathers. But help came from within his own family. He tapped his uncle for advice. Even today, he said, community members can be great resources to help teens navigate the travails of fatherhood.

a man sitting on a table: Alphonso Pettis, 60, spoke on a Black fatherhood panel discussion on Thursday, June 17th about his fears of becoming a young dad at 16. While he was excited to be a dad, he was also scared to death. He looked to men in his community, including an uncle to model how a father should be. “The joy was there, but also that fear of how I’m gonna handle this,” he said. © La Risa Lynch / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Alphonso Pettis, 60, spoke on a Black fatherhood panel discussion on Thursday, June 17th about his fears of becoming a young dad at 16. While he was excited to be a dad, he was also scared to death. He looked to men in his community, including an uncle to model how a father should be. “The joy was there, but also that fear of how I’m gonna handle this,” he said.

“Even though my uncle was into a 'lifestyle,' I still saw him being a husband and being a father to his kids. I still saw what positive discipline looked like,” said Pettis, who as a youngster was involved in gangs and drug dealing similar to his uncle. “I kind of drew off of that (and) that kind of helped me to navigate through that fear.”

It’s not unusual for Black men to turn to community members for guidance, Reed said, adding that if expecting fathers can't find resources, they should create their own. They could team up with one another to create a “mastermind” group of fathers to amplify their voice, their needs and their concerns.

“You are not the only expectant father looking for answers and you now found a group of others who are doing the same and now you’ve created an answer for yourself,” Reed said at the meeting. “That would be my tip — go out and find the resources, specifically if you don’t have one.”

Pettis also stressed self-care for mothers and fathers. With bills and the other stresses of life, he said, parents or couples must be aware of their own wellbeing. 

“If we don’t focus on self-care, it leads to all the mental illnesses, the depression and all the stresses," he said. "We have to understand that kids feel what we feel. … They are very perceptive.” 

'You never arrive'

When Griffin got the call that he was going to be a father, he was 20 years old, attending junior college in Texas and dreaming about becoming a professional basketball player.

“But when I got that call,” he said, “my world stopped.”

Knowing how the lack of an involved father had affected some of his friends prompted him to return home, where he found himself surrounded by other men lending a hand.

“Definitely, (it) was scary at first, but the gap organically filled in and individuals started to come and open up about their life,” he  said.

Now, Griffin is the father of a 4-year-old and 7-year-old, and in his role at the breastfeeding network has become a mentor for others.

As a noncustodial father, Griffin saw what he calls “gaps” in support for fathers: affordable access to legal assistance, information about child support and visitation, understanding how to support maternal health and how to co-parent from different households.

That’s why he is excited about the research being done in conjunction with the network that will ask 75 Black mothers and 75 Black fathers to complete a survey outlining what they need to be the best parents they can. The network is working with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which provided a 12-month grant for the study.

Griffin said that he wants to change the narrative around fatherhood, pointing out that even the lack of images showing fathers with their children can lead men to doubt their ability to be involved parents.

“A lot of fathers give up before children are even born,” he said. “But I think it’s awareness: if you know better, you do better.”

Programs like the one he held Thursday, he says, help them know better.

One of the program’s attendees, Terron Edwards, knows the needs of fathers better than most; he has been organizing meetings for Milwaukee’s Black fathers for more than a decade. 

As a trained facilitator in men’s wellness, parenting classes and other resources, Edwards said he started the meetings to create community and long-term holistic support around the shared experience of fatherhood.

Edwards founded Fathers Making Progress, in 2006. The organization became a nonprofit in 2020. Despite the pandemic, it still held 100 fatherhood meetings and nearly a dozen events.

“The existence of FMP became important for me over the years because I found that there isn’t a consistent place in our city that is dedicated to Black men, run by Black men, for Black men,” he said. “I’ve been a part of initiatives that come and go, but it’s always been based on funding (and) what’s trending. But what happens when that’s not trending anymore? These guys still need a place.”

Classes from his group run the gamut: healthy masculinity, mental health, and African-centered rites of passage are all included. The group also organizes activities, such as intergenerational workshops, mentorship programs, community cookouts and literacy nights. One of Edwards’ favorites is the Jaha Camp experience, where men take their sons along the Mississippi River to fish and spend time exploring healthy manhood. 

Edwards said he regularly advises fathers to rely on their support systems and to make co-parenting as conflict-free as possible. As part of a blended family and the father of five — three sons and two daughters — Edwards said fatherhood is a constant learning process.

“You never arrive,” Edwards said, laughing. “It’s like you always need to be working on something or building on something because you never get to a point where you can say, 'I've learned everything as a dad.' ”

Resources for fathers

Fathers Making Progress has a website and you can contact the organization at fathersmakingprogress@gmail.com and donate here. The group is putting together a Friday Fish Fry fundraiser with Emerald City restaurant. To participate, you can call 414-672-3434 to place a $15 order between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. on June 18. Half the proceeds will go to the group.

The Direct Assistance to Dads (DAD) Project is a free program that involves fathers receiving home visits from specialists to provide support and resources on education-related topics. Eligible fathers are those who are expecting or have children up to 3 years old. For more information, visit the website here or call 414-286-8620. You can also refer fathers to the program through this form.

The African American Breastfeeding Network hosts a Father2Father Empowerment group on 2nd Thursdays and 3rd Saturdays at 8 pm. For more information, email Brooks Griffin at brooks.griffinaabn@gmail.com.

The Milwaukee Fatherhood Initiative holds an annual summit for fathers, as well as ongoing support for mental health, driver's license recovery, employment, education and other resources. For more information, you can use this webform or call (414) 278-5139. 

The George M. Sanders Fathers’ Family Resource Center at the New Concept Self Development Center at 1531 W. Vliet St. provides employment searches, job readiness and other services to fathers throughout Milwaukee county. For more information you can visit their website or call (414) 344-5788.

The Milwaukee Diaper Mission provides practical supplies for newborns. You can reach out to them via email at hello@milwaukeediapermission.org or through their webform.

You can also reach out to Impact 211 for information about fatherhood resources by dialing 211 or visiting their website.

The Parents as Teachers program is not located in Wisconsin, but features information sheets as part of its Fatherhood Toolkit.

Contact Talis Shelbourne at (414) 403-6651 or tshelbourn@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at @talisseer and message her on Facebook at @talisseer.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: 'The joy was there, but also that fear': Milwaukee's Black men discuss fatherhood ahead of Father's Day

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