The public discourse is filled with talk on the state of children, youth and families in the territory. The tenor of this discourse is not positive, as we long for the days when families were stronger, children respectful of their elders and youth hopeful and thoughtful about the future.
This longing always seems to give way to accusations and recriminations as to the causes and who’s at fault. If it takes a village to raise a child, it is safe to say the village is under pressure.
Rather than have dialogue on these issues, we have spirited dialectics on the moral climate of today’s society, or argue the relative importance of changes in the educational, legal and economic systems.
Recognizing that individual and government responsibility is a continuous public discussion, we get stuck in what Professor Cornell West of Harvard University calls the opposing views of the structuralists and the behavioralist. And no matter what side you’re on, men and fatherhood are in the center of the discussion.
As a community we need a new way of looking at fatherhood that gets beyond the impasse of trying to decide whether the crisis in families is a result of moral, cultural, economic or legal machinations.
The pressure on our children, youth and families precludes us from waiting for changes in either the moral climate or government programs.
The Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands, or CFVI, through its Our Children Now! initiative, decided to focus on what can be done now. As a result the Fatherhood Initiative was launched.
The initiative seeks to change the public discourse to focus on three elements:
— The importance of connecting men to their children, regardless of their marital status.
— The shared responsibility of individual fathers and mothers and those who work with families.
— The opportunities that community agencies have in fostering those connections.
With the support of the national Coalition of Community Foundations for Youth, CFVI put a plan in place to gather information on the status of fatherhood in the territory. The plan’s key strategies are to get the man’s point of view on fatherhood, develop a support network for fathers and identify institutional barriers to responsible fatherhood.
Over the past six months focus groups have been held on all three islands to begin collecting data from fathers. Many men expressed excitement that for once, someone was finally asking for “their side of the story.”
For many of the men the sessions were a catharsis. Brutally frank and honest, the men talked about their successes and their failures as fathers. Make no mistake about it, men are well aware of what it takes to be a “good” father.
Soon after the convening of the focus groups, CFVI sponsored fatherhood events with many of the men who participated in the focus groups.
All the men in the St. John focus spent a day with their children at Coral World, St. Thomas’ aquarium. On St. Croix, the men and their children went on a day sail. In both cases men got an opportunity to be fathers in settings outside their normal routines. The men proved that tying a shoe lace or changing a pamper was not exclusively woman’s work.
In the coming year CFVI plans to establish formal support groups with the men from the focus groups, using them to reach out to more men in the community.
A concomitant goal is to identify support services, when needed, for the men who participate. A process to map institutional barriers to responsible fatherhood is also being developed.
Much of the guidance for this work is coming from national practitioners on the mainland, where the issue of fatherhood came to the forefront of social service discussions in the early '90s.
We know there is a lot of work to be done, and we don’t proclaim to have all the answers. We are not yet certain of how to create community expectations for fathers. And we are only now grappling with how to influence support systems, and the government agencies that have a direct effect on fathers and families.
We are, however, committed to identifying issues and implementing solutions. You see it’s not just our children who are at risk, it’s the village.


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