Annette John-Hall: Teaching men to be fathers

Joel Austin says his Philadelphia-based organization teaches 60 percent fatherhood and 40 percent manhood. ELISE WRABETZ / Staff Photographer
Joel Austin says his Philadelphia-based organization teaches 60 percent fatherhood and 40 percent manhood. ELISE WRABETZ / Staff Photographer
Posted: June 16, 2012

I can't think of anybody better equipped to run a male parenting program than Joel Austin, the president and CEO of Daddy UniverseCity Inc.

You know how they tell writers to write what they know? Well, Austin runs what he knows.

He knows the rock-bottom feeling of county sheriffs rousting him out of bed at 5 in the morning, cuffing and shackling him, and hauling him to jail for falling behind on his child-support payments — all while his three terrified sons watched from the next room. He's experienced the shock and hurt of being told he fathered a daughter — more than 11 years after she was born.

And he knows what it feels like to be judged as a deadbeat dad when, in reality, he was simply a laid-off, unemployed, broke dad between jobs.

A combination of life-skills education and hard-knock truth is what manages to break through the tough-guy veneers of the men who go through Austin's programs. Teaching men to put their personal issues aside and focus on their children is no easy task, which is why at Daddy UniverseCity, there is no hard and fast "graduation" date.

The organization, its founder says, teaches 60 percent fatherhood and 40 percent manhood, because most men have a skewed notion of what manhood is supposed to be.

"Manhood is usually defined by actions and not speaking," says Austin, who was appointed to Mayor Nutter's Commission on African American Males last year. So often, when a man has drama with his ex, "he's reacting and not responding. Meanwhile the child is watching all this and asking, ‘Are you going to play with me?' "

‘No training whatsoever'

Austin, 43, is a busy man. Every Tuesday at his old neighborhood YMCA in West Philly, he facilitates the Father's Club, a parenting development workshop. And on Saturday, he'll host the seventh annual National Fatherhood Festival, a daylong parenting conference, along with the third annual Daddy Daughter Dance that night, both at the Convention Center. "The first year, we had 50 people," he says of the dance. "Last year, we had 500."

Daddy UniverseCity was born in 2004 out of the inadequacy Austin felt as a parent. He recalls that in 1998, Crozer-Chester Medical Center offered a class to oldest son Aamir (now 18) on how to care for newborn brother Naim, now 15. (Youngest brother Hammad is 12.) Natalie, the boys' mother and Austin's wife at the time, had new-mom classes to take. "I was the only person in the house who had no training whatsoever," Austin says. "I had no playbook. I talked to my buddies and they didn't know anything either. We knew about oil changes, but we didn't know about diaper changes."

As the years went on, Daddy UniverseCity grew from a small support group to a nationally recognized organization. Today, it's needed more than ever.

In Philadelphia, 55 percent of all children live in single-parent homes, according to the latest census. Among African Americans, the number skyrockets to 71 percent. Austin works with men of all ages and races, but he says young black males are the fathers who need the most help navigating the court system over child support and custodial issues, and just learning how to be responsible, supportive parents.

"The picture of fatherhood is set around responsibility, and in America that means financial responsibility," Austin says. "Guys may love and honor their children, do their daughter's hair, but when the financial part stops, they're told by the courts that they're not loving and caring dads. ... If men don't know how to overcome the barriers, they'll turn away."

For his part, Austin, who now shares custody with his ex-wife, also needed help dealing with the anger and bitterness toward his children's mothers.

Imagine the suffocating rage Austin felt those years ago when an old girlfriend called to offer condolences over his mother's death and added, oh, by the way, you have a daughter named Jacinda, now 19 but a preteen at the time.

"I was angry, hurt, miserable," he says, "until I met Jacinda and all the pain disappeared."

Austin interrupted our two-hour chat only once, when son Naim called, wanting to know how much to pack for a six-week science and engineering camp at Penn State. "Just bring the stuff you need over to my house," Austin tells him. "We'll figure out a way to get it into the suitcase."

He acknowledges he's not the perfect father. But he's come a long way.

"I've gone from a F to about a B," he says. "It took a while, but I'm in a good place."

Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986, or on Twitter @Annettejh.

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