Nation, World + Society

Q&A: UCLA professor’s new book highlights ex-gang members who embrace role as dads

In her new book, Jorja Leap writes that helping them become good fathers would be the best gang prevention program

Jorja Leap book

In her first book, “Jumped In,” Jorja Leap, professor of social welfare in the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, told the story of her life as a “gangster anthropologist” and an observer and advocate for the young men and women caught up in the life of gangs. Her new book, “Project Fatherhood” (Beacon, 2015), takes its title from a program of the same name and follows ex-gang members who have chosen to become better fathers to their children and father figures to other children in Watts. In advance of the book’s release party on June 4, Leap answered questions about “Project Fatherhood.”

How did you become involved with the Project Fatherhood program?
I’ve known Mike Cummings [co-facilitator of Project Fatherhood] for 15 years. I wrote about him in my first book, and he called me about this group he was starting with the Children’s Institute. They needed a social worker to co-lead the group, so I jumped at the chance.

What made you interested specifically in the Watts community and this project?
I got my master's in social work at UCLA in 1978 and started working in Watts. I see it as the community I belong to — my parents are from South L.A., and I was born and raised there for part of my life.

How does Project Fatherhood work differently from other gang intervention programs? What makes it effective?
Without any organization or guidance, these are former gang members who wanted to reach out [to their children] and be fathers. We all know that the absence of fathers is a huge youth risk factor that leads to a lot of problems in school. This is also a way for men who are former gang members to [act as fathers] for one another. They all grew up without fathers, and now they are helping each other learn to be fathers. It’s so incredible to witness and be part of this for four years.

One of the key research findings is the kind of strong leadership that already existed in this community. If we are looking at how to rebuild communities in the future, we need leadership that comes from within the community.

So this was a group of approximately how many men, former gang members, who wanted to support each other in their effort to raise their children and serve as mentors to other at-risk young men?
It began with only two men but eventually expanded to a core group of about 20 fathers, with additional men who participated as their jobs and obligations allowed. The fathers wanted to support one another as they struggled to raise their own children — sons and daughters and, in some cases, grandchildren. They met weekly to discuss every situation under the sun — from getting along with their significant others (“baby mama drama”) to education to violence to wanting to get jobs to support their families. They also expressed their feelings about ongoing issues that emerged in the media — Trayvon Martin, Christopher Dorner, Ray Rice — and even recently, what occurred in Baltimore.

Over time, the group extended their concerns beyond their own children. They wanted to help their own kids, but they also wanted to act as fathers to the children of the community whose fathers might be absent — particularly those who had fathers who were locked up.

How often do they meet now?
The fathers continue to meet every week — they started four years ago — and now this has changed simply from a group to a movement. It is important to note that this is a product of an amazing program called “Project Fatherhood,” which was started by the late Hershel Swinger of the Children’s Institute in Los Angeles, who obtained grant funding to help support the program. It is further supported by the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) because it takes place in the housing projects. “Big Mike” [Cummings] and I are now starting a new group in Nickerson Gardens. Because these are communities plagued by violence, Project Fatherhood represents one of the best violence prevention strategies I know!

What would you say was their biggest concern about being fathers and mentors?
For their daughters — they wanted to raise them to have self-respect, and to date and eventually marry men who would respect them and NOT abuse them. For their sons and the young men of the community they mentored, they were adamant that they did NOT want another generation to repeat their mistakes. They did not want another generation going to prison or, worse still, dying. “Our prisons and graveyards are too crowded with our babies” was an outcry I heard over and over again. They had two great concerns, which must be noted: one, they wanted jobs to work to support their families and provide for their children; and, two, they wanted their children to get a good education, which they saw as the way up into American society.

What were some of the challenges they had to overcome?
Their concern about working, getting jobs, supporting their families — this remains a huge challenge. Along with their economic concerns, one of the big challenges they faced involved getting along with their significant others.

And can you give me an example of how one father resolved the challenge or issue facing him?
There is a wonderful part of the book that details how fathers would bring their own children into the group for help with parenting. One father who will be part of our UCLA [book launch] event — Ben Henry — brought his two daughters in because they had been fighting with each other at school. He said, “I just don’t know how to handle this alone,” and he turned to the group for guidance. I don’t want to spoil what is a beautiful part of the story, but I will say that, together with the group, he and the girls resolved their issue and slowly, steadily changed and ultimately strengthened their relationships.

Working in the field, teaching at UCLA and publishing a book each have a different scope of impact. What sort of impact do you hope to make with Project Fatherhood, and what do you hope readers will ultimately take away from the book?
My goal is that the program will be funded and supported. All the proceeds from the book go to Project Fatherhood, the men who really deserve this kind of funding. I want the stories of these men to be out in the world. We also need to build leadership in the community, and we have to be the support for what exists in that community. UCLA Luskin plays an important role in this — the role of wanting to support and conduct research within these communities. It’s wonderful to be here and be part of a program working to build that kind of community strength.

I want readers to understand what the experience of these men is truly like, who these men are as human beings. I want to show the “new Jim Crow,” this issue of men of color being incarcerated for long periods of time, and what it costs them, their families and their community. I also want people to have hope as they read and see how devoted these men are. This is not a problem story, but a hope story.

How did the fathers react to your decision to write a book about them?
I was a little bit worried when I brought it up, but they were very positive, very proud and excited. When I did “Jumped In,” I worked carefully to disguise the interviewee’s identities. As I interviewed the fathers [from Project Fatherhood] and asked how they felt about being named, they all said, “Don’t worry, you can use our names. Tell the truth.” They were so honest and so open in wanting to share. It was an overwhelming experience, seeing how meaningful their commitment was to the program.

People who read the book will understand that we [the fathers and I] had big fights — it was not all sunshine and roses. We really struggled, but we were very open about how we made each other angry. I could have never imagined that through the past four years, this closeness and understanding would develop.

How can the public contribute to a solution for gang violence and poverty in communities like Watts? Do you recommend any programs or resources that offer the chance for people to take action?
I am hoping to bring support for the programs that already exist, that are there and are working. I hope this book will help leadership development and economic development. These are good fathers, good providers who want jobs. They don’t want to raise kids on the county and public support. They want to make a living. It’s quite striking; many people think they want to live on welfare, but that is the furthest thing from the truth.

As part of the UCLA Luskin faculty, I will be sponsoring a book party on June 4. This is an all-day event, and we’re even bringing youth from Watts to tour UCLA and work out with the football team. Copies of the book will be available before the release date on June 9, or Father’s Day. [The event] is really not about me, but the fathers who will be there to speak about their experiences.

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