Sheldon Smith’s dad wasn’t there for him. His grandfather wasn’t there for his dad. Sheldon was determined to stop the cycle. At the age of 19, on the verge of becoming a father himself, he founded The Dovetail Project, an initiative designed to teach young African-American fathers (ages 17-24) the parenting, life and job readiness skills that will empower them to become better fathers.
I met Sheldon on Twitter and recently talked to him about his fatherhood initiative.
JF: One thing that strikes. me about the Dovetail Project is that you’re building boys on both ends. You’re helping young men become better people and responsible fathers, which helps the boys (and the girls) that they’re parenting.
SS: I always tell people, ‘when you save a father, you save a generation.’
When I say the word fatherhood, what age do you think of? Most people say thirties and forties. So the 17 to 24 population is often times looked over, because that’s really not the age that people tend to think of a young person as a parent. I’m trying to change the conversation and get attention put on that particular group of young people, because they are raising our next generations. And if they don’t have a map or manual, they might not pick up the skills that they need to be as the parents.
Sometimes people forget that young people are young people, and when you’re young sometimes you make mistakes. But if we don’t help this particular age group, we have something heavy coming . It’s critical that we get more resources for these young people.
JF: When you started The Dovetail Project, your group met in a police station. Why did you start The Dovetail Project in a police station?
SS: It was only because I did not want anyone to get shot coming to the program.
At the time, the location was shocking to a lot of people, because this particular police station had incarcerated some of the young men who were in the program. But Chicago is a segregated city; people were going to have to cross gang lines to come to programs and I figured they wouldn’t bring a gun to the police station.
[After the] Chicago Tribune did a big story on the program, I had to find a bigger location. Now we’re at the Jackson Park Field house, where there’s a playground outside, it’s a meeting room and a weight room on the inside; it’s pretty father- friendly.
JF: Tell us a little bit more about what The Dovetail Project entails.
SS: We teach parenting skills, life skills and felony street law. Fatherhood isn’t just ‘hey, I’m a father.’ Fatherhood is, ‘I’m a man first, then I’m a father.’ We talk about what are my duties as a man, because if I know my duties as a man, I will do the things I need to do as a father, as a leader.
Fatherhood isn’t even just taking care of the baby. It’s going to work, it’s being there, it’s not getting in trouble, it’s not going to jail, it’s being there for your significant other, it’s being a part of your child’s life even if you and the mother of your child isn’t getting along, it’s being the bigger person.
We look at the life skills component, things like how to approach your employer, things to say, things you need to wear, what your email address should say, what your voicemail should say. It’s those things that we’re reinforcing for these young men who have not had a father in their lives.
One of the things that I do, I make things realistic. Doing the fatherhood component, I bring in a father who was formerly incarcerated and his child is now incarcerated, so that he can say ‘hey you know I was a dad, I was young, I made bad choices, I went to jail, my son’s in jail. So when you make bad choices, it’s a trickle-down effect.’
JF: So many people say that part of the problem with our boys today is that we have a lot of boys growing up without dads. How do you think that we, as a society and as individuals, can better serve and help boys who do not have fathers involved in their lives?
SS: If I have 20 young men in my room, out of the 20, 18 grew up without their father and the other two may have had or still have some kind of contact with their father. So when I talk about this particular age group, it’s not that just they’re 17 to 24, but that they don’t have even the male figures around to help them mature, to help them to be the men they need to be.
We have to change the environment. We have to give boys a boy environment, give them a man environment, because a lot of our schools and places for our children, including daycare, are filled with women.
Our boys need an environment with a lot of positive men around, men who aren’t judging young people, men who understand where these young people come from. And these men don’t have to be professional men. When you have men come in why can say, I’ve walked that walk, ‘I did this when I was young, but I turned my life around,’ it’s relatable.
JF: What misconceptions do people have about the youth you serve?
SS: There is a myth that African American fathers don’t take care of their children or aren’t involved in their children’s lives. And I personally don’t believe that if you don’t live at home with your children, you’re not a great dad. It just may not have worked out with the mother of your child.
JF: Why did you pick the name, The Dovetail Project?
SS: The definition of dovetail means to bring something together, so what I wanted to do was bring together father and child. We bring families together.
More than 150 fathers have completed The Dovetail Project over the last three years. Researchers from the University of Chicago are currently studying the program to determine the feasibility of replicating it in other parts of the country. Want to learn more and/or support The Dovetail Project? Visit their webpage for more information.
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