And when Covid-19 hit, Smith mobilized to make sure they have the resources and support they need.
“When businesses were closing and doing layoffs, many of our young men lost employment,” said Smith, a 2016 CNN Hero. “We wanted to just make sure that our fathers knew that we were there for them.”
Since April, Smith says, they’ve helped more than 2,500 fathers.
And now, in the fight for equality and justice, Smith’s work — and message — are as critical as ever.
“I grew up in a poor community. I don’t have a college degree. I am a felon. I would be considered a statistic,” Smith said. “But then I turned around and built one of the largest fatherhood initiatives in this country.”
“Black fathers are important,” he said. “We have to continue to believe and work together.”
CNN’s Laura Klairmont spoke with Smith about his current efforts. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
CNN: What do you want people to know about the men in your program?
Sheldon Smith: Our young, fearless men who attend our program have beautiful hearts. What they’ve had to overcome and how much they just love their kids — they are volunteering their time so that they can find the tools, skills, knowledge and resources that they need so that they can be better fathers.
No one is making them be there. They just want more. Many of us want more. But oftentimes if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. And the communities that they come from is only what they see. They come from disadvantaged and unfortunate situations, broken families. So, we are that shining light of hope. I tell our young men all the time that they are myth-busters.
CNN: Normally, your 12-week program also covers felony street law and family law. What does that entail?
Smith: From the very beginning, we knew that Black and Brown men who joined the program needed to learn how to interact with law enforcement. We wanted to make sure it was done in a friendly way. So, we invited officers into the class, along with attorneys who fight for issues like this. Family law is just as important for them to learn about custody rights, child support and things that can railroad you into the criminal justice system.
We know in disadvantaged communities they are overly policed. And that dynamic brought about fathers and the community feeling different with police engagement. We want to practice it and be able to get it out and understand it. And it’s not just role-playing amongst each other. It’s inviting law enforcement and attorneys in at the same time so we can have this broad perspective together of how it all comes together. It’s bringing about more unity.
The truth is, as Black and Brown people, we shouldn’t be training and teaching our kids and prepping them for how to deal with the police or how to put your hands up or all the windows down or don’t reach for your wallet quick. That’s not normal. We’ve reconditioned ourselves to accept that as the norm. And right now, as a nation we have an opportunity to change that.
CNN: How have recent events brought your work into a new light?
Smith: When I first seen the incident with George Floyd, I was disappointed and saddened. And the other side of it is it happened during Covid-19, when everyone was at home, looking at TV. When the world could see it. And now it’s been a global reaction. And we’re talking about injustices in America that need to be changed.
We know that it’s been a big struggle in Black fatherhood, and now that black or brown issues are coming up to the forefront, we are excited as an organization, because we get a chance to talk about our work in a different way. Black fatherhood is in the forefront of everything that we do because we know that when people say mentoring, they really mean that they need their dads at home. But if we’re killing their fathers, if we’re overly incarcerating their fathers, and we’re doing it with no reason, with no compassion — what will our children have left?
We have to continue to believe and work together, and not make it about when a death occurs that this is a time we need to stand up. Supporting black and brown youth and them going on to do successful things will happen. And the more our next generation of kids see it, the more it’s going to continue. So, we just have to continue to be that example. Once you invest, build and believe, you bring about a different solution.