Police Officer Corey McCray, ISWE Executive Director Stephen Vick and Drew JonesRoundTable photo

The Infant Welfare Society of Evanston (IWSE) unveiled a documentary film, “The Evanston Fatherhood Initiative,” on Feb. 21 at the Family Focus Theater. The film was followed by a panel discussion and then questions and comments from the audience.

Steve Vick, Executive Director of IWSE, told the RoundTable, “One of the main purposes of the documentary is to bring awareness to the issue that there are a lot of fathers in Evanston and in the region and country who are involved and engaged with their children, and they could be more engaged in the process of early childhood development.”

Mr. Vick told the audience on Feb. 21 that learning starts in the first three years of life – pre-natal to age 3. He said a report issued in 2017 by the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child found that the brain architecture is developing in infants at the rate of one million neural connections per second, which is much higher than the previous estimate of 700-1,000 per second. This makes pre-natal to 3 the “most critical time,” he said.

When people talk, read, touch, hold or even make eye contact with infants, neural connections are forming, said Mr. Vick. “The more fathers that we can engage, coming into our centers, working with their infant children, getting into groups, that’s going to have a profound impact on how those children are going to develop.”

Bettye Cohns, Executive Director of Reba Early Learning Center, said, “What I see on a daily basis is that children are happier, that they are more confident, that their social interactions are more positive, that they are gaining academic skills and communication skills more readily and that overall they have pride and confidence in themselves and their relationships, I think, partially based on their fathers being involved with them on a daily basis.”

“The data is very clear that an engaged father has an impact,” said Mr. Vick. “If we’re talking about kindergarten readiness and all the disparity issues in education, if we try to engage our fathers more, we’ll see better results.”

TehRay Hale, Sr., Fatherhood Project Coordinator, said he worked with IWSE starting in 2017 to form a group of dads who came together every week, and at times, the men played basketball, ate pizza and had mentoring conversations about how to become better fathers. Mr. Hale led the group and was the facilitator of the group. When funding for the program was shifted, they decided to take a step back and produce the documentary film showing what they – the dads – were discovering, he said.

The documentary includes comments from fathers who participated in Mr. Hale’s group, and others who were interviewed. Fathers of different races/ethnicities, ages and walks of life talked about some of the rewarding things about fatherhood, the challenges faced by being a father, and the best part of being a father.

The film also included comments by leaders of organizations working with youth in Evanston and who are working to shift societal notions of fatherhood and develop strong relationships between men and their children starting at birth.

Mr. Vick said early childhood providers have traditionally focused on the mother, and there has been a bias, especially in early childhood, that the mother is the primary caretaker. “It is essential that we work with early childhood providers and the community to change the current narrative. Fathers want to learn and connect; they need to be recognized as primary caretakers.”

Mr. Hale said one thing that struck him is that there is no image that portrays men as fathers, saying there should be an image like the poster of Rosie the Riveter. That poster had the wording “We can do it,” and was aimed at recruiting women to work in defense industries during the World War II.

Massai Amewa, an Evanston father who appeared in the film and who served on the panel, said “It’s just good to be able to talk to other dads about issues you may have, be it financial, emotional, parenting or a marriage relationship. There are so many things that go into fatherhood.

“I love when I see my boys and the love in their eyes. … They remember the love.”

Mr. Vick said, “There are a lot of dads that feel there isn’t anyone to talk to, or the whole machismo thing, and ‘I’m not supposed to have emotion and be sensitive, nurturing and caring’ – when the reality is a lot of dads are, and they’re not encouraged to express it. Sometimes being around dads helps to solidify their role as caretaker.”

One young father said the hardest thing about becoming a dad is not having had one and learning how to be one. “We should be helping that young dad figure it out,” said Mr. Vick.

Nathan Norman, an outreach worker in the City’s Youth and Young Adult Division, said he and Evanston Police Officer Corey McCray co-founded a program for dads to get together at Mason Park – sort of an outgrowth of the group that Mr. Hale led. Mr. Norman said it was “very, very needed. We wanted to do our part in creating a foundation for young fathers.”

Officer McCray told the RoundTable that about 10-15 men meet on Friday night for several hours and discuss issues relating to being a father.

Officer McCray said, “Men, we have to tell our wives, our moms, our mothers-in-law, ‘Step back, let me learn it. If I don’t know it let me learn it, let me do it. Give me that opportunity to figure it out. You can’t keep saying, “You don’t know how.” Because what eventually happens is, we stop trying.’”

Martha Ortiz, Family Advocate at IWSE, said sometimes the message out there for children is that dads are not capable. “It’s so important to me as a mom that the message my child gets from our community is that dad is equally capable, that dad is equally nurturing.”

Drew Jones said he is an uncle, a great uncle and a great, great uncle. “Sometimes uncles are fathers and people don’t recognize that. Just the presence of a man constantly in a child’s life is a very positive thing.”

“The Evanston Fatherhood Initiative” documentary and community outreach is supported by Evanston Cradle to Career and the United Way and is a partnership with Family Focus, Youth Job Center, the YWCA Evanston-North Shore and the City of Evanston Parks, Recreation and Community Service.

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...