Published in the Spring 2007 issue of SSA Magazine

Focusing on African-American males from 10- to 16-years old, the African-American Initiative of the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago aims to bring resources to an underserved population through partner agencies in five Chicago neighborhoods. In 2005, as the program was being developed, United Way asked SSA Associate Professor Waldo E. Johnson, Jr., director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture at the University of Chicago, to help frame the issues. Johnson continues to work with United Way on the project, and in this Conversation, talks with Janet Froetscher, the president and CEO of United Way Metropolitan Chicago, whose experience includes serving as the chief operating officer of the Aspen Institute and executive director of the service arm of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago. Their wide-ranging discussion touched on everything from how family impacts poverty to how researchers can better influence work in the field.

Froetscher: One of the reasons we started to focus on African-American males was the feedback from the agencies we work with. They said, "It's a lot easier to get resources that focus on mothers and children; it's a lot harder to get resources that focus on males."

Johnson: In a number of instances, community resources have not been targeted toward males just because of the way male identity is constructed in American society. Males are expected to be able to be self-sufficient. They're expected to be responsible for their families. But such perspectives fail to acknowledge that African-American males are integral victims of a U.S. legacy of slavery, and as a result, the African-American population remains disproportionately poor. African- American males are specifically unsupported with community resources because they are often viewed as threatening—boys as well as adult males.

So part of this project is to say that if African-American males can enhance their educational and labor force preparation during their developmental stages, more of them support themselves and pull their families out of poverty. Unfortunately, women in the U.S. earn between 72 and 76 cents of every dollar that males earn when they perform comparable paid work. So focusing on African-American male development not only enhances their potential self-sufficiency but also has an important implication for strengthening African-American families.

Froetscher: Our partner agencies have asked a lot of community stakeholders— kids, parents, community leaders, African-American girls—to articulate the issues facing young African American males. I think they thought they would hear the needs were about things like mentoring or Chicago Public Schools. But what they heard instead, very consistent among all those groups, were things related to crime—inability to travel or gangs— and parents. What they heard very loudly was, "I need you to teach my father how to be a father."

Johnson: We need to develop family and community enhancement strategies that enable African American boys to have more enriching and fulfilling experiences with their biological fathers or other father figures in their lives to break the intergenerational cycle of male absence in their families. In my research on young African-American males, the young males recognize this problem and often set their own personal goals by saying "When I become a parent I want to be a better father to my child than my father was to me. I want to be able to support my family." But too many of them fall into the same cycle, becoming parents far earlier than they are prepared to assume the attendant responsibilities. As a result, they become the father that their fathers were, even though they have identified that as a part of the reason why they were having these difficulties as boys.

I think that a focus to address family, as well as community issues, to intervene with African American males holds great promise. I'm wondering if you are seeing this across all of the communities that you're investing in via this initiative.

Froetscher: We're just starting to begin a Latino initiative now. Interestingly enough, from the perspective of the data—health rates, drop-out rates, instance of disease, unemployment, that type of thing—impoverished neighborhoods are very much the same. We're trying to unravel the family piece, because it looks different for the Latino community. For instance, usually there are more adults in the house. Some folks say, "Well, they're in the house, but often they're working two or three jobs, so there's not an adult who really is in the kids' daily life." Others will say, "Well, you have still have adults who are physically present with the kids."

Johnson: That would not surprise me. There is some research that suggests that presence alone doesn't necessarily mean involvement in any kind of substantive way. We also see this phenomenon in some African-American families. Men may have resident status but may not be permitted or feel empowered to play socially anticipated parental roles, particularly when children are not their biological children.

Froetscher: Right. Another factor: Even when the Latino parents have an interest in playing a role with the kids, they don't always know how to access the schools, they don't know how to help with homework. So they need help in learning how to be an effective parent too.

Johnson: Their inability or reluctance to engage social service agencies or even to engage the schools as advocates for their children may be compromised by their immigrant or legal statuses.

Froetscher: I think there's a fear from an immigration point of view; there are also a couple of other things. One, there's a lack of knowledge that services exist, so they don't even know that they're there to be accessed. And then there are language issues. Sometimes there's a child who can speak the language, but a lot of times the parent doesn't. If you add all those things together...

Johnson: It makes for a very complicated family system. Families also may represent a cultural background where fathers don't participate in various domestic activities within the family as they are expected to do in the U.S. And in some of these cultural contexts, mothers, who may be the most likely people to reach out, aren't permitted to do so. They're not allowed to engage people outside the family, or all of the problems in the family are handled within the family. Social service agencies and schools need to take these kinds of cultural perspectives into consideration.

Froetscher: Another thing you helped us think about was this jobs piece, helping the kids understand the kinds of jobs they can get if they stay in school. There are often a lack of role models in the African-American population, while in the Latino population, there are jobs but not necessarily jobs the children want. So I think they're kind of similar pieces but they play out in very different ways.

Johnson: Having a second initiative can allow us to have a broader understanding of the degree to which family and community problems are not necessarily peculiar to a particular racial or ethnic group, but more specific to difficulties experienced by males in urban environments and their socioeconomic statuses. These are very important issues, because to the extent that we tend to believe that these problems are peculiar to certain groups, then we also pathologize those groups. We often say that the problem is with black males or the problem is with Latino males, when in fact these may be much more problems experienced by people living in poverty or at the margins in urban environments.

Froetscher: Let's talk about national [implications] and what we can learn from this. We want to create something that we can replicate. I think what we see often is that our two disciplines don't talk to each other. Practitioners tend to read the research. But we don't always necessarily incorporate it actively into the design of what we do.

Johnson: I agree. Researchers and practitioners too frequently operate in very different worlds. I think one of this particular initiative's important contributions could be a broadening of the dialogue.

Practitioners or people who work with families at the ground level have enormous contributions that they can make to researchers, but it requires us to spend more time getting comfortable with one another's language. And there are often both research and practitioner perspectives that have already been developed that don't necessarily get challenged or explained.

Froetscher: We [the United Way] are the largest source of funds for human services after the federal government. But we're still pitifully small in terms what resources are needed. So how do we focus our resources in the most effective way? That's where you have been so helpful, pointing out key leverage points and what the research says in terms of different options. We rolled that information into conversations with the practitioners and looked at what we're seeing in the community. Putting those pieces together is hard when you're working in very distressed neighborhoods. I think when we start examining outcomes and some successes we'll need to ask why. Was it just this community or this agency that was effective? Or was it that the partners happened to be the right ones right here?

Johnson: Well, research and practice don't always line up neatly. And I think one of the real problems of research is that it's not always accessible to practitioners. It's not always framed from a practical standpoint, so although people might find it very interesting, they may find it difficult to try to relate it to the problems or issues they encounter in their work with families. I think that a lot of family researchers would like their work to be viewed as engaged scholarship; that is, to have a social utility and help individuals and families cope better in society. What really holds the greatest promise is to articulate what you've done in ways that make sense to how people operate right there at ground level. I think there is great value as a family researcher in staying connected to practice with families. The degree to which a family researcher understands how problems are understood and taken into consideration when developing the research question is powerful.