On Saturday, June 16, Kenneth Braswell and the Obama Administration are taking over 100 neighborhood barbershops in 8 cities across the country — and it’s all in the name of fostering better-equipped fathers. On the day before Father’s Day, Mr. Braswell, director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse, is heading up the launch of President Obama’s new Fatherhood.gov initiative, “Fatherhood Buzz,” a unique way to connect fathers to local resources that will help build strong families and communities through their most trusted advisors: their barbers.
In an interview with EBONY.com, Mr. Braswell explained how he came up with the idea to funnel valuable information on everything from parenting, child support, jobs, mental health and healing broken families to local fathers.
KENNETH BRASWELL: [The Fatherhood Buzz Initiative] has been something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I started my own non-profit [Fathers Incorporated, a contractor to HHS] in 2004, but I’ve been doing community work with men and fathers on some level since 1990 and I’ve always noticed that the barbershop is where most of the critical conversations are taking place for men. I’ve often sat in a barbershop chair and told my barber about life experiences that I was going through and I’ve watched other men tell their barbers very similar family stories. And we’ve gotten advice from our barbers that’s been great and advice that hasn’t been that great. So the critical piece is that we’re now equipping barbers with good information and resources to give these men that are struggling with fatherhood and provide free support and resources and services to those men.
It doesn’t hurt that we have a president in office who is the model for responsible fatherhood and happens to be black. We try to be diverse, but [Black] barbershops in particular have a love for President Obama and his family, so when we tell these men and these barbers this is an initiative spearheaded by President Obama and the White House, barbershops have gotten excited and are happy to be involved. So we take that love and passion they have for Obama and bring it together with information to start the conversation about what a responsible father looks like.
EBONY: What will this initiative look like on Saturday?
KB: Well, the information has already gone out in big huge boxes to 100 barbershops across the country. We have “Fatherhood Buzz” t-shirts for the barbers to wear and give to their customers, as well as gift cards designed fliers with parenting tips and economic stability tips — particularly centered around local jobs. There are some other tip sheets in their information packets about the free hotline we’ve established for struggling parents — including women. Any issues these men have regarding child support, mental health jobs, they can call this number [1-800-716-3468] and be connected to trained counselors and social workers on staff who can walk an individual through his issues.
And this is not a one shot deal. We’re launching Fatherhood Buzz on Saturday but we want to come back every quarter in essence change the buzz about fatherhood. The buzz now is economic stability, three months from now when school starts, it could be parental engagement with respect to education. During the winter holiday season it could be about giving, and February about building healthy relationships with your spouse or your child’s mother. These are conversations that men are having in barbershops anyway, and we to equip these barbers with community resources and build their capacity to still do what they do, stimulate the conversation and be trusted resources, by putting good information in their hands and connecting them intimately with resources in their communities.
EBONY: President Obama is definitely held in high esteem as an example of a loving father and husband, but are you concerned that there may be a disconnect between what President Obama has been able to do – chiefly attaining the highest office in the world – and what your regular dad may feel he’s able to do, and if so, how will you combat that disconnect?
KB: I wrote an article about this some time ago called “A tale of Two Obama’s” that kind of addresses that issue. While we revere the notion that he is the leader of the free world, he also happens to be Black and happens to be a husband and happens to be a father. What [other Black men] see first is a successful black man who has an educated wife and two wonderful children that he talks about all the time and even as the leader of the free world he still finds time to be a husband and father. That is intriguing to men and they can say “If he can do it, how come I can’t do it?”
We know that he’s the President but the challenge is here’s the busiest man in the world and he still makes time. You don’t need a whole lot of money to be a good day. Support and money is necessary but in the end children want presence. So the message is take time to be a dad today. So I think that for these fathers, they learn so much more from President Obama as a model than what they hear him say. That is the transcending model from the lowest levels to the highest levels we find something we can relate to in him, whether it’s being fatherless or growing up with dysfunctional family members, we can find a space in his life that allows us to be able to connect with who he is and feel like we can do what he’s done too – if you’re in the midst of the right support and services, which is what we’re trying to provide.
EBONY: You’re a father of four yourself, and like you said, have been working with men and fathers for over twenty years. What made you want to get involved with fathers at this level?
KB: Well, I always say I’m the director of this program and a client. I had a very bad relationship with my first child’s mother and became estranged from my child as a result of that. But it was when I had my second child where it came to me that parenting and co-parenting should not be this hard or this stressful. So I made a pact with myself and with my God and I said I’m going to do everything I can to be a good dad and there for my children.
A year and a half after my second daughter was born, her mother and I broke up, but my attitude at that point had taken a 180-degree turn. I said to her “I will never give you a baby daddy drama story that you can sit in the midst of your girlfriends and talk negatively about me.”
It was my driving force and in the midst of that statement, as we were going through custody of our child, I was sitting in the court and [my child’s mother] was sitting on the other side and our daughter was running back and forth between us and she didn’t really understand where her loyalties lie and I saw other kids in the court doing the same thing and I just thought, “this has to stop.” [At one point] I was on a couch contemplating ending my life and while I was sitting there God just gave me a message, “Your mission and purpose in life is to speak to the hearts of men.” That was in 2004, and today the story continues.
EBONY: How where you able to heal and turn away from the thoughts that had you contemplating ending your life?
KB: You know, I think my daughter at the time was probably my saving grace. Because as much as I can contemplate me not being here, there was one thing I couldn’t stand the thought of, and that was my daughter being here without me. So fortunately, that feeling was stronger than my feelings about myself. I’ve always loved my children more than myself and that’s the key.
I tell my guys when I talk about the difficulties of being a co-parent, [my first daughter’s mother and I] we were at each others’ throats for more than 4 or 5 years. We couldn’t even speak to each other cordially. Today, our relationship is one of the best relationships that I can describe. When we talk to each other now, we’re laughing and joking to the extent that when I just got married a year and a half ago, she came to my wedding. I have a picture from my wedding where my current wife and her were actually talking together and hugging in the middle of the church and I was just watching them with tears in my eyes. My pastor saw it too and came up to me she just said, “Wow. Wow. You don’t see that every day.” But I worked very hard for that.
EBONY: That is awesome. So the key, you said, is loving your children more than yourself. What other tips can fathers take to get along better with the mothers of their children?
KB: You have to walk it out every day. You have to be mindful of the fact that the best thing you can give your child is a healthy relationship with that child’s mother. It has to be healthy nurturing and loving, no matter if you’re married, separated, divorced or broken-up. You have to show you respect that child’s mother regardless of how you may or may not feel [romantically] about her.
So the keys are patience, stay focused on the goal and be humble. It’s not about you, it’s about the child. Stay focused on the happiness and environment of the child, even if it feels like you’re losing. Is the choice of winning or losing a battle more important than the health of your child? It takes some time if there’s a lot of wounds and a lot of pain, but just be patient.
When you break up, don’t go out and find someone else right away. Slow down. Don’t have any more kids because that just causes more problems. It’s not easy to blend families because too many relationships have to be maintained. With my wife, I walked into her life with two girls and she walked into my life with one girl and we all have to get along or it doesn’t work. That s the reality of blended families and it gets even more complicated the more people you have involved. When you’ve got that big of a matrix going on and folks that don’t like each other and can’t get along, it’s only a matter of time before it explodes.
EBONY: At what point do you think you can call the Fatherhood Buzz initiative a success?
KB: The end goal is healthy children. We will be able to see the success in our working with parents through the outcome of our children. If we can create an atmosphere that is healthy for children, we will create great atmospheres where people can fall in love and want to be married and want to take care of their children.
An Ad Council survey was just put out that says 97% of all dads say that on the day of their child’s birth was the most exciting and best day of their lives. So you’re going to tell me that many men have a change of heart and decide they don’t want to be there for their children? Life happens. When you’re trying to survive, you’ll do anything, and if you’re trying to survive and you’re in pain, take it up a notch. You’ll do things you couldn’t ever imagine yourself doing, like abandoning your children. But if your environment is right, you’ll probably do the right things when it comes to making a family. We’ve just got to create an atmosphere where mothers are not overburdened and mothers and fathers aren’t debating each other but are having conversations and starting the healing process for our kids.
I believe in this initiative. I really do. And I believe in 10 to 15 years, we can turn this whole situation around.
To find out if your local barbershop is participating in Fatherhood Buzz tomorrow, visit Fatherhood.gov.