Strong Fathers, Strong Families

An Innovative Neighborhood-Based Project Harnesses Intergenerational Support for Fathers, by Fathers
Updated Oct 20, 2023

There were kids and dads everywhere at a pop-up event held on an August afternoon in a vacant lot near Lisbon Avenue and 35th Street in Milwaukee’s Walnut Hill neighborhood.

In one tent, kids were getting free back-to-school haircuts, while in another, nurses from Children’s Hospital looked up their vaccination records. From a tent in the middle, the United Methodist Children’s Services, the event sponsor, handed out 300 new backpacks.

Dads were carrying toddlers on their shoulders, sharing lunches of grilled hot dogs and waiting in line with their children to tour the Milwaukee fire department’s “Survive Alive” van, which teaches them what to do in a fire emergency. Many of the dads wore various colors of “FMP” t-shirts, indicating they graduated from the Fathers Making Progress program.

It’s a scene that made FMP founder Terron Edwards feel a bit like a proud father. He is an actual proud father of five, the eldest of two sons born when he was still a teenager himself. Even though Edwards didn’t have the benefit of a father while growing up, he wanted to do better for his own children.

Terron Edwards
Terron Edwards emcees the event

When he’d drop the boys off at Head Start classes and didn’t have to work, he’d stick around to volunteer because he enjoyed being with the kids. He quickly learned that this wasn’t a common attitude among the other dads.

“They’d say, ‘I’m just dropping off the babies for her,’” Edwards said, shaking his head. “I got tired of it, and I’d say, ‘It’s your baby, too.’ It’s like we have this almost toxic attitude towards fatherhood.”

These days, Edwards is so associated with Black fatherhood in Milwaukee that other nonprofits seek his assistance. Some of the booths at the back-to-school were for the parents, including one for Acts Housing, a group that is working to increase Black homeownership in Milwaukee. When Dee Kemp, vice president of programming at Acts, spotted Edwards, she told him about a new men’s financial literacy class that is helping men build down payments and deal with credit history issues.

“I need your help to bring the kings to the class,’’ she told Edwards.

Edwards’ fatherhood work began almost 20 years ago, and continued while he organized fathers’ groups through his jobs at several Milwaukee nonprofits. But during the pandemic, he noticed a higher level of desperation among the men he was talking to. They felt isolated while home with children who were trying to do school from home, as well. Edwards decided to quit his job, and form Fathers Making Progress, a group supported by a grant from the Wisconsin Partnership Program.

What I heard made me want to come back the next week. It was a place for men to talk about important stuff, the things they’ve been dealing with, that we often don’t get the chance to talk about.

– Ty LeRoy

At the center of the program is a 12-week program called “Fathers Building Fathers,” which includes three main units facilitated by veterans of the program and other mentor fathers from the community. The modules are: “The Man Before the Father,” “Relationships that Build” and “The Father I Am.”

The group brings the course to various locations around Milwaukee, which is how Ty LeRoy discovered FMP.

“They came to my former workplace,” LeRoy recalled. He started by just listening in from a spot in the back.

“What I heard made me want to come back the next week,” LeRoy said. “It was a place for men to talk about important stuff, the things they’ve been dealing with, that we often don’t get the chance to talk about.”

Ty Leroy
Ty LeRoy sets up for the graduation celebration

Some of the topics they cover are mental health and emotional well-being, grief, trauma, co-parenting, discipline styles and how to build each other up. Now LeRoy, who has a background in teaching, is a lead facilitator for Fathers Making Progress. It’s a job, he said, that is “20 percent talking and 80 percent listening.”

“We give men space to be heard, valued and not judged,’’ LeRoy said. LeRoy is the father of a 10-year-old son, also named Ty, and has had full custody of him for seven years. Support from the group has made being a single parent less lonely, he said.

“We talk about being no longer an island,’’ LeRoy said. “Now you have a network.”

Joshua Liston, program director at FMP, is a father of four who brought his 7-year-old son, Kingston, to the event.

Liston also has the distinction of being the only certified male doula in Wisconsin. His work as a “dad doula” means that he prepares fathers-to-be to advocate for the mothers and babies during childbirth. It’s a role that has added significance in Milwaukee, where Black babies are three times more likely to die in their first year of life than white babies. Black women in the United States die in childbirth 2.5 times more often than white women.

In the fatherhood groups, Liston said he stresses that once the baby is born, the father’s needs come after those of the mother and child.

“I have to be willing to be last,’’ he said, in order to give space to the baby and mother.

Tobias Carson asks men to fill out surveys on community needs. The discussions can lead to the men learning about the group and agreeing to come to a session.

Many alumni continue with the group, and you can tell by their FMP T-shirts: a different color for each cohort. There’s a Thursday night group just for alumni. And older, more experienced dads are part of the mix. Ty LeRoy describes Tobias Carson as one of them: “an elder who is full of knowledge and gives them his knowledge.”

As the afternoon wound down, LeRoy took the microphone, and passed out red FMP T-shirts to the course’s newest graduates. One of them was Marcus Hogans, who said that while he might be graduating, he’s not finished with FMP.

“I’m fresh out of the program, but I’m in it forever,’’ Hogans said. “There is a need to do better for our community, and we can all be examples.”

He was walking hand-in with his daughter, Maliha, 3, who was wearing a new, red fire chief helmet, a sign she had learned lessons in fire safety. Carson watched like an approving grandpa as Hogans escorted Maliha around the event, exemplifying the positive outcome Fathers Making Progress works to achieve.

Learn more about Fathers Making Progress.

By Susan Lampert Smith