The Center for Urban Families: Changing Lives

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The Center for Urban Families: Changing Lives

Adam left drug treatment in 1986. Without a support system to rely on after his release from treatment, he fell back into the hands of gangs and drugs and was eventually arrested and charged with committing robbery. In 1994, he was sentenced to 13½ years in prison, leaving behind two sons and a daughter to be raised alone by his wife, Tasuha.

As Adam explained to The New York Times, “I didn’t know how to be a parent before I went to prison…I never had a man show me how to treat my wife, how to treat a woman. Never had a man teach me to discipline. Never had a man there for me – my father was never there for me my entire life.”

From behind thick glass, he watched his children grow older as they accompanied his wife during visiting hours through the years. By the time of his release from prison in 2008, his youngest son was about to begin high school, his oldest had dropped out of school in tenth grade and his teenage daughter had dropped out of school to have a baby. Adam was determined to change his life this time, and determined to be there for his children.

“Being a parent today is one of my major tools for survival because every day I say: ‘Will I do this, or will I be a father?’” said Adam.

This time around, Adam has access to the support network he needed long ago. Through the help of the Center for Urban Families, an organization based in Baltimore, Maryland that works to empower low-income families by enhancing both the ability of women and men to contribute to their families as wage earners and of men to fulfill their roles as fathers. Since 1999, the organization has grown from a staff of eight to more than thirty and has provided more than 14,000 individuals with family, workforce development and responsible fatherhood programs and services.

At the Center for Urban Families, Adam and Tasuha were able to access career development and financial literacy support that helped them create a roadmap to follow as they work together to fulfill their individual career aspirations. Today, Adam is enrolled at the Community College of Baltimore County in Maryland and is well on his way toward reaching his goal of becoming a fitness instructor. He has also been able to reconnect with his children and is helping them think about their educational and career pursuits.

The story of Adam has the kind of happy ending that unfortunately too many men, families and children in the United States do not. The numbers are shocking and the effects are real.

Federal statistics show that on any given day, over 1.5 million children in this country – approximately 2% of minors under age 18 – have a parent serving a sentence in a state or federal prison. In addition to increased financial instability, pressure on family relationships and the shame and social stigma attached to parental incarceration, research has shown that children of incarcerated parents are more likely to show behavioral and performance problems at school. Families of color are bearing the brunt of these problems, with African-American children nine times more likely and Hispanic children three times more likely than white children to have a parent in prison.

“In Baltimore, there are two statistics that break my heart. 76 percent of African American males do not complete high school in this city and more than half of African American men in their 20s in Baltimore are in prison, jail or under criminal justice supervision,” said Joseph Jones, founder and executive director of the Center for Urban Families. “That gives you the magnitude of the problem. The juvenile justice system is overburdened, unplanned and unwanted pregnancy numbers are dramatic, there is a high out-of-wedlock birth rate – you can’t have those kinds of situations and have children thrive in this community.”

In the fall of 2009, the Center for Urban Families will move into a new facility nearly triple the size of their current location, where the organization will continue to empower and support fathers, mothers and families and will no longer have to turn people away due to lack of physical capacity. This undertaking has been several years and several million dollars in the making.

“When it is completed, our new facility will allow us to expand our programs while still allowing for growth potential in the future. We will also have the space we need, in-house, to provide technical assistance to other organizations around the country who hire us to train them on the services we provide here in Baltimore. This is a valuable revenue stream for our organization; I can directly attribute the audacity of thinking that our organization could provide this service to what I learned at the leadership workshop.”

Jones also learned that to be truly innovative, an organization needs to be willing to take risks.

“I realized that if I, as a leader, am going to be an innovator, the people on my Board needed to have backgrounds different than only nonprofits and human services. We’re in the helping profession, helping people overcome obstacles and challenges – but from a business standpoint, I needed a different kind of individual and a different kind of Board. I began to go to the business community,” explained Jones, adding: “There was a tension with the Board at first because business people and human service professionals people have different principles; but it turned into a healthy give and take because my Board became comprised of the right people with the right skills who understood this tension was necessary. If this hadn’t happened, we never would have been able to grow and take on a capital campaign to raise funds for our new facility like we did.

Through The Center for Leadership Innovation, I learned not to worry about risk taking. Playing it safe is not going to have an impact on anything you do – you can’t be afraid to take chances or be constrained by your own limitations.”

By 2012, the Center for Urban Families plans to meet a benchmark of having served 20,000 individuals. When it opens this fall, the organization’s new facility will be able to increase its capacity to serve by a ratio of nearly three people for every one person it served in its old facility; which means that thousands more men, women and families will be able to create their own happy endings, just like Adam.