JET Daddy: Meet Sheldon Smith
Black fathers. They do not get the respect they deserve in our society, though statistics show they are just as, or more, involved in their children’s lives as their counterparts from other racial backgrounds. But don’t just review the numbers, check out some of the dads JET is profiling in what we hope to become a recurring feature: JET daddy. We are looking for pops that live for their kids and vice versa.
Sheldon Smith is more than a father to his young daughter. He’s a mentor to hundreds of young Black men in Chicago who have become dads at an early age. To say that Smith takes parenthood, particularly Black fatherhood seriously would be an understatement. The 26-year-old Chicago native sees the importance of being a good dad so much to the point where he’s dedicated his entire life to providing Black dads with the proper tools that they need to be positive and productive members of society. JET spoke with Smith, who is the founder of The Dovetail Project, about the importance of arming young Black men with the proper tools to be role models for their seeds.
Name: Sheldon Smith
How many kids? 1 daughter
Kid(s) Name(s), Age(s): Jada 5
JET: Tell me how The Dovetail Project came to be.
Sheldon Smith: So The Dovetail Project came into existence because as a young boy, I grew up with my father in and out of my life. So I started doing community organizing for a nonprofit agency by the name of M.A.G.I.C. (Metropolitan Area Group for Igniting Civilization). And while I was there, I just fell in love with community organizing and I worked on issues around education, youth and gang violence, juvenile justice, health and that’s where my love for community organizing started. From there, at the age of 20, I found out that I was going to be having a daughter. And when my daughter was born, I wanted to create a fatherhood initiative. So I started The Dovetail Project at the age of 21.
JET: Tell us about the project.
Sheldon Smith: The Dovetail Project is a young fatherhood initiative used to teach fathers (17-24) parenting skills, life skills and felony street law. I came up with that particular concept for two reasons. My father didn’t have parenting skills. He never really worked a real job and was always hustling. So he didn’t have life skills and was in and out of jail. I don’t believe that you can help young African American fathers who live in urban communities by just teaching them parenting skills and not giving them life skills or teaching them about the criminal justice system or their rights as fathers. The program started in March 2010 out of the 3rd District Police Department and the reason I started there is because I thought that violence would occur with bringing young men from throughout the city into one particular place. But…if you run a program out of a police station, a Black man [isn’t going] to want to come inside of it. Secondly, I found out that I didn’t need a police station to keep these brothers from getting into it with each other. So the program was successful, at the police station…the Chicago Tribune did a big story on it. But we moved it to the Jackson Park Fieldhouse, which is a father-friendly environment and we haven’t had any altercations at that particular site. So I had that all wrong in my head.
JET: I’ve always heard that you can’t really teach someone how to be a parent. What are some of the things that men learn while in your program?
Sheldon Smith: I would argue that point. Fatherhood doesn’t come with a map or a manual. Especially for young men who have grown up in single parent households without their fathers. 18 out of the 20 young men who attend the project have grown up without their fathers and they’re looking for a way to challenge the skills they currently have to become better. Some of the things that we teach them is effective discipline with their children. So if your child takes your keys and stick it in a socket, don’t whoop them. Instead, pick up a cord and actually show them what goes inside the socket. Another example is effective co-parent. Like, being around the mother of their child and being able to be the man that you need to be to support and help her with whatever it is she needs. And we go through different scenarios. What if she’s dating another man? What are your feelings towards that? So it isn’t us really teaching them, but enhancing the current skills they have through discussions and challenging them to think a little bit more.
JET: That sounds great.
Sheldon Smith: Yeah and my program coordinator, Vernon Owens does all of the “teaching.” He’s a father of six and has sons their age. Our program is a curriculum based initiative.
JET: What are some of the lessons that you’ve learned being a father?
Sheldon Smith: As a kid growing up, my father’s way of parenting was through giving money, not time. He thought that since he was giving money, that was it. So being there. Communicating with my daughter. Reading with my daughter. Riding a bike with my daughter. Doing things with my daughter that my father didn’t do with me. My father didn’t teach me how to ride a bike. Just enjoying the moment. Loving her. Expressing love to her. Being able to give her all the love that she needs. Time and communication is valuable.
JET: You mentioned that The Dovetail Project was a curriculum based program. Is there some sort of certificate that comes with it?
Sheldon Smith: Yep. Last week we had our 11th graduation. We had 20 fathers graduate from the program and that brings our total to 194 fathers who have completed the program within five years. What takes place is the fathers meet once a week for 12 weeks and at the end of the program they receive a $300 stipend and it’s a cap and gown ceremony, they all get 5 tickets a piece and they get to invite their family. It’s a commencement speaker. One of the fathers gives a speech. Then we talk to the families about the importance of not giving up on the dads.
JET: You know, it sounds like your program accomplishes two things. One, it educates young men on how to be fathers, and two, it empowers them. Especially, walking across that stage. It seems like you’re setting them up to stay on track overall, not just in terms of fatherhood.
Sheldon Smith: Yeah. Our goal is to help fathers stay involved, engaged and responsible in fatherhood so they can be there for their children and uplift themselves at the same time. [The program is] more like a brotherhood and that helps the other young men who are struggling. It let’s them know that they’re not alone and that it is solutions to the problems they face. I love the work that I do because I grew up a broken kid without my father and I do it more for the kids than for the fathers. Our slogan is “When you save a father, you save a whole generation.”
JET: That’s awesome. So how can young fathers get involved?
Sheldon Smith: So the way that we recruit fathers is that we go out into the community with alumni who have completed the program and hire them for a two-month period to go out on the ground and do recruitment. My goal is to inform people about organizing and tell them about The Dovetail Project and give them the opportunity to sign up for it. [To have] them speak to the community and recruiting young men.
To learn more about The Dovetail Project, visit. http://www.dovetailproject.org.