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26 F I N D I N G S

When fathers and sons spend time together,

they grow rich “with love, caring, understanding, quality time, and sharing,” says one graduate of a novel project that’s changed the lives of nearly

200 families in Flint, Michigan.

W I L L I E S M I T H J R .


by Billie Ochberg

F A T H E R S A N D S O N S 27

he most surprising thing T I learned is how my son

processes things, the way he takes in information even for simple things like when I ask him to help

out with chores. I’ve learned how to talk to him so I can get him to be helpful,” says Willie Smith, Jr. who sat down

on a cold December morning in Flint, Michigan, and shared his experience as a participant in an innovative research project designed to improve the health of fathers and sons. “I’ve had a good relationship with my son but I’d

never had an inkling to talk about violence or discuss our African her- itage as a way to improve our rela- tionship.”

In fact, these are two topics of discussion integral to the Fathers and Sons Project, a community- based participatory research project sponsored jointly by the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health’s Prevention Research Center (PRC), community-based organizations, and the Genesee County Health Department, with funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The initial demonstration study for the PRC, the Fathers and Sons Project responds to some of the objectives identified in the Institute of Medicine’s “Healthy People 2010,” a set of health goals for the nation to achieve in the first decade of this century. As a strategy for reducing or

preventing youth substance use, violent behavior, and early sexual initiation, the project focuses on strengthening bonds between non-resident African-American fathers and their eight- to 12-year-old sons. The problems of violence and tobac-

co, drug, and alcohol use, as well as early sexual initiation among the nation’s youth, have long been identified as critical pub- lic health issues. While many programs and education efforts exist to combat these concerns, few have previously focused on the role of fathers as responsible parents with the potential to influence their sons’

“I like when me and my dad start talking about this program.”


“This is very beneficial for a broken family.”


“Fathers can have a positive effect on their sons’ development even when they do not reside with their sons. This means a single mother does not equal an absent father.”


decisions about risky behaviors. But a growing body of evidence suggests that positive father involvement—whether or not the father resides with the child— is linked to better health outcomes in children and adolescents. These findings compelled a group of dedicated public

health faculty to join forces with the Flint community to study the issue and to try to make a difference.

“We started with very little steps and began testing various ideas for developing

an intervention curriculum to pre- vent compromising

health behaviors in youth by using a family-centered approach,” says Cleopatra Howard Caldwell, associ- ate professor of health behavior and health education and principal investigator for the Fathers and Sons Project. “We ultimately devel- oped an innovative, theoretically- based intervention program that was not only appealing from a scientific perspective, but was also appealing to the community in which it’s been implemented.”

“What’s unique,” says her col- league Marc Zimmerman, co–princi- pal investigator on the study, “is that we’ve learned that fathers can have a positive effect on their sons’ develop- ment even when they do not reside with their sons.” That means a single mother does not equal an absent father. From a public health perspec- tive, adds Zimmerman, who is also director of the PRC and chair of the

Department of Health Behavior and Health Education, “we’re all better off if we can engage the fathers.”

Recently, the Fathers and Sons Project received funding to begin dissem- inating successful aspects of the inter- vention to four other communities in Michigan. Since its inception in 2000, 159 families have completed the inter- vention component of the study. A com- parison group of families in a neighboring community in Saginaw, Michigan, did not get the intervention.

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T he primary challenge the pro- “I think this program fathers and refusal skills for sons,
ject’s steering committee strengthening father-son communication,
is good for everybody.
members faced was to design and reinforcing cultural values.
Me and my father we
  an intervention program that Participants are given an extensive
made sense to the community. They need- need to work together pre- and post-test that assesses everything
ed to devise a comprehensive approach to from fathers’ employment status, educa-
in the program. I love
program development that included focus tion, financial situation, and stress levels
groups and pilot tests with non-resident Dad and Mom.” to how they define themselves and what
African-American fathers and sons. This connection they have to their ethnicity as
would allow the researchers to constantly S O N well as their perceptions about discrimi-
assess the effectiveness of the interven-   nation. Both fathers and sons are asked to
tion under develop-   describe their physical
ment, thereby increas-   activity, substance use,
ing not only the relia-   and the nature of their
bility of the curriculum   communication with
content, but also the   one another. In addition,
chances of its being   sons are asked about
replicated in other   their sexual activity.
communities. It was   Although mothers are
also critical that the   not yet part of the inter-
intervention be cultur-   vention, they are integral
ally relevant.   to their sons’ participa-
“We knew from   tion, because mothers
the beginning that we   must be in favor of their
wanted the Fathers   sons having a relation-
and Sons Project to be   ship with their non-resi-
culturally relevant and   dent fathers. The moth-
gender-specific,” says   ers are the ones who
Caldwell. “We had to   give permission for their
think of unique ways to   sons to participate.
reach a population that   Mrs. E. Hill De Loney,
had not been the focus of much research “Homework is the cool the project’s community co–principal
before—that is, non-resident African- investigator and a long-time Flint resident,
American fathers—and bring them into thing about the class is especially passionate about the cultural
an intervention setting for two months.” emphasis of the program. She remembers
because it has been a
Because Zimmerman had previously well the days when racism and segrega-
conducted research with African-American long time since I had to tion were blatant in Flint. In the fifties
adolescents in the Flint community, the and sixties, she says, “if a woman wanted
do homework. All
researchers were able to build on relevant to qualify for public assistance, she could-
empirical findings that suggested that n’t have a man in the house. A mother
around, this fathers and
fathers mattered in the lives of their had to live alone.”
children when it came to health risk sons course is the best In traditional African cultures, moth-
behaviors. ers and fathers loved and reared children
thing I have been a part
After three years of collaboration with they knew were not even their own—the
community partners, a comprehensive of in my life.” idea that it takes a village to raise a child.
15-session curriculum emerged. And that’s an essential component that
The intervention is conducted in small F A T H E R De Loney is most passionate about, con-
groups of fathers and sons that meet twice   necting family members and showing
weekly, over the course of two months, in   them how much influence they can pro-
two-to-three-hour sessions led by commu-   vide whether or not they reside with a
nity facilitators. Sessions focus on three   child. “We start early in the program
areas: enhancing parenting skills for   getting families connected and talking
  “I have been having fun culture, fathers who take part in the inter-
about what it means to be a father and a vention are encouraged to get to know
man, and how critical a father is in his in the program playing
child’s life.” who is important in their sons’ lives. Using
basketball. I under-
During the third session, participants a hierarchical mapping technique, each
learn about Adinkra symbols from Ghana son maps out his own social network of
stand my dad better
—African designs that illustrate specific family and friends by writing the names
and that is what is good
moral values. Each group selects an of those closest to him in three concen-
Adinkra symbol as its own. The symbol is tric circles. “The purpose of this activity
about this program.”
printed on a T-shirt that they get to keep is to allow the fathers to see who is impor-
and wear at later community activities. S O N tant in their sons’ lives, especially with
One symbol, Sankofa, meaning “return   regard to their friends,” says Caldwell. The
and fetch it,” illustrates     fathers don’t make their
the idea of retrieving     own social network dia-
and going back, never     grams but instead work
forgetting your history     with their sons to com-
and knowing you can     plete the sons’ diagrams.
undo mistakes.     If a son includes some-
Project Supervisor     one his father does not
Cassandra Brooks     know, facilitators encour-
oversees the project’s     age the father to find out
implementation and     more about that person.
practical challenges,     Communication is
which have included     vital. Early on in the
a bus strike and city     program, facilitators
budget cuts. She’s seen     ask both fathers and
firsthand how those     sons to write a letter to
who may have been     each other and say what-
initially cautious or     ever it is they want the
reluctant have quickly     other to know. It’s very
become invested in the     open. Facilitators then
intervention and its     put the letter into a
goals. “Our community partners use the   memory book, along with other journal
“Not only did I get to
phrase ‘we are not doing business as entries, photographs, and the map of each
usual,’ meaning we’re not doing things spend time with my child’s social network. Participants get to
the way many other institutions have in keep their memory books as a reminder of
son, but I also became
the past, bringing programs to Flint with- their experience in the program.
closer to him because
out taking the time to first determine the    
needs of the community,” Brooks says.   hey also write letters later
I was able to learn   T
The emphasis throughout the cur-   on in the program. Program
more about him and  
riculum is on positive strategies to avoid   researchers have analyzed the
negative health behaviors. According to his frame of mind.   two sets of letters and found
the CDC’s 2003 Youth Risk Behavior a clear transition. For example, one
The information
Survey, too many high school students father’s first letter showed his need to
engage in risky behaviors such as drink- I gained actually made establish himself as the child’s father. By
ing alcohol, using marijuana, getting into the second letter, the same father used
me realize the things
physical fights, and having sexual inter- language that revealed more emphasis on
course. Males tend to have higher rates I was doing right—and his child’s future and his expectations for
of several of these behaviors. his son. In another example, a son wrote
the things I was doing
Parental monitoring has been found in his second letter, “When we do things
extremely wrong.”
to be one of the best predictors of posi- together…” The phrase demonstrated his
tive health behaviors in adolescents. So expectation that he and his father would
in addition to studying African-American now spend time together.
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30 F I N D I N G S

he Fathers and Sons curricu- T lum provides all kinds of

additional techniques to guide participants and to

teach effective communication. There are two sessions at the recreation center, for example, where participants learn com- munication through sport without aggres- sion. They get to swim, play basketball, whatever they choose, but they do it as a family. These are “teachable moments,” says Caldwell, where fathers and sons can talk in a less structured environment.

“We have African dancers and drum- mers come in to teach our families about this form of communication and to discuss the health benefits associated with music and dance,” Brooks says. Participants get computer sessions and learn to use

e-mail so they can communicate when they are not together. Families are intro- duced to places in the community, such as the public library, where computers are available at little or no cost, so that they can stay in touch by e-mail even after the intervention has ended.

The emphasis on communication and on the father-son relationship as a powerful, positive connection is visible everywhere in both the curriculum and at the Fathers and Sons offices in Flint. “Fathers and Sons” is printed on pens, water bottles, Frisbees, and stress balls. “It lets them know we care,” explains Brooks, “because so often, especially in this community, people just don’t think they matter. That’s simply not the case here. They know beyond a shadow of a doubt that everyone involved in this pro- gram cares about them.”

One of the ways the program curricu- lum helps break down some of the barri- ers to communication is through role-play. Willie Smith Jr. remembers role-playing with his son, Willie III, about smoking. Willie III pretended to be a father who discovers his son is smoking. “I was acting the role of the son,” says Smith, “and Willie III gave me a 20-year punishment for smoking! I learned how seriously he wanted me to take it and what a taboo smoking was to my son.”

Dear Dad,

I wish that me and you can be with each other every day. I wish that you will give me some- thing for my birthday. I want you to be there when I want you.

I need you to be at school to see what I am doing so I can learn.

Dear Son,

I am writing you this letter for these reasons:

1.It’s our homework.

2.Sometimes words look and sound better

on paper.

I want us to have a relationship and maybe even understand each other a little better, I’d like to make a little into a lot. And I hope that by the end of this program my wish may come true.

Love, Daddy

Luckily, Smith doesn’t smoke and now knows how much his son never wants him to start. But, as Smith pointed out, there is another cherished person in his son’s life who does smoke. Smith realized this might cause his son some distress and now knows he can help his son cope with those feelings.

The fathers and sons discuss risky health behaviors and come up with strategies for how to avoid them. They use a Maya Angelou poem about black families, for example, as the basis for a family pledge against violence. As a fami- ly, the fathers and sons are given a home- work assignment in which they must come up with practical ways to avoid engaging in or promoting violence. And an extensive list of resource materials is made available to the fathers.

Willie Smith Jr., who after being a Fathers and Sons participant then went through intensive training to become a facilitator of subsequent intervention groups, says the resource guide is invalu- able to fathers. “Many of them had never heard of the different social services or organizations available to them,” says Smith, who works in social service him- self. “At another session fathers share success stories they’ve had with different community organizations and how closely they felt those organizations met their needs.” This strategy puts fathers in touch with agencies that can help them with fathering responsibilities that extend beyond the scope of the program.

hile the fathers learn what’s W available in their community,

the sons are making a family tree and learning about their roots, says Brooks. Halfway through the

program, participants are encouraged to share whatever is on their minds and talk about what has been the most or least helpful aspect of the program, as well as what they may still need. One son wrote on his comment form, “I know that my father loves me now.”

The thing I’ve found most startling is how many of the fathers just didn’t know

their sons wanted to spend the time with them. They didn’t know it was that important,” Brooks says.

Caldwell is excited about the next steps: disseminating the program and getting other community organizations to implement it. She and her colleagues will distribute aspects of the program to four communities in Michigan, beginning with Saginaw. Caldwell would ultimately like to implement the program nationwide, but her initial focus remains providing scientific evidence that the intervention is beneficial. She’d like to revisit some of the Flint sons when they are older to see what kinds of decisions they’ve made on issues like violence, substance use, and sexual initiation.

Caldwell is also seeking funding to design new studies that build on findings from the Fathers and Sons Project. Future studies will involve African-American mothers and fathers—regardless of resi- dential status—in intervention programs with their preadolescent sons. Caldwell would eventually like to begin working with daughters, too. She knows from pre- vious research and experience that boys and girls and mothers and fathers are socialized differently and thus communi- cate differently. She’s most interested in acknowledging these critical conceptual differences and issues and carefully designing interventions that are guided by theories, empirical findings, and an under- standing of the needs of different popula- tions. Her ultimate aim is to facilitate further scientific study of parent-child relationships as protective factors in ado- lescent health intervention research.

In the meantime, as the Flint Fathers and Sons Project wraps up, and its evalu- ators analyze the quantitative and quali- tative data to verify which aspects of the curriculum work, the anecdotal evidence pours in through e-mails, letters, and comments from participants. “The best thing I learned,” says Smith, “is how much I mean to my son.”

Billie Ochberg is a writer who lives and works in Ann Arbor. She holds an MSW from Case Western Reserve University.

F A T H E R S A N D S O N S 31

Dear Dad,

This is what I want you to know about me… I am responsible for my own actions and I want you to know that I LOVE YOU with all my heart. And I know that you will be there for me when I need you. But also sometimes you will not be there.

Love, Rashid

Dear Son,

I would like for both of you to know how much I love you both. I would like also for both of you to be more responsible for all your actions and thoughts. Jamiel said it is tough for him to grow up. I am letting both of you know that is going to be tougher if you do not learn responsibility and discipline. This is why I am always talking to both of you about discipline and being responsible for your actions and thoughts. This is why

I am trying to get you both to think before you start doing things. It is especially hard because you are not staying with me. It is hard when both parents are not communicat- ing the same things. Rashid, you said you can be responsible, but I am wondering if either of you really understand what responsibility or discipline really is. My job is to help

you learn what it means. Love, Dad

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