Son, Father, and Fresno EOC’s Director of Local Conservations Corps
I’m a lifelong resident of Fresno — I work 5 minutes away from the street named after my father. He was a minister in West Fresno for about 46 years and was considered the unofficial “Father of West Fresno.” Many of the African American ministers in the city were mentored by him.
Looking back as children of a pastor, my siblings and I always felt the eyes of the community on us, regardless of what other peoples kids were doing. On the other hand, we grew up with a strong father while many of my friends did not have that resource.
My father remarried when I was very young and trying to blend two families was not easy. However, my father and stepmother did the best that they could at the time.
Being a father is very important to me. When my ex-wife, who is my daughter’s mother, gave birth, being in the room was important because I lost my mother when I was two years old. She died, along with my baby sister, during childbirth. I felt I had to be in the room to see my daughter being born.
When I was in the room with my daughter’s mother, the anxiety came back: “Was what happened to my mother going to happen again?” I tried to give the best support I could aside from making sure I could be there due to my previous trauma.
I cried a lot when my daughter was born. A lot of the crying was because of what I knew had happened to my mom and my little sister, but also because I brought a human into this world. I didn’t have my daughter until I was in my 30s so I was a bit older and mature. It was very emotional for me.
I come from a blended family. I don’t remember my mother. There are stories that my older siblings have shared about me walking around the house crying and looking for my mother after she died. It’s hard to understand, even to this day, what I must have gone through.
My father would tell me how after my mom died, he would put me on his lap and drive up and down Highway 99. He had a 2-year-old child and three other kids, and now his wife was gone and he had just lost his daughter. He did not know how he was going to do this.
My dad used to talk to me all the time about how he felt when he lost my mom and how it impacted him. Because he was a man who not only had to bury his wife, but his daughter at the same time. Even 20, 30 years later, it still impacted him.
I didn’t connect what happened to my mother to the larger issue of Black maternal mortality until I was an adult. My wife is a nurse, so I had the medical point of view. I also know that African American women, and many women of color, do not receive the same level of care or treatment as their white counterparts. There are several interesting TED talks on medical racism which details this practice.
I didn’t realize it was connected to preterm birth and other adverse birth outcomes that the African American community was facing — and that it wasn’t just my story — until we started the first fatherhood program, POPS. (POPS stands for “Proving Our Parenting Skills.”) That program was federally funded and went from 2011 to 2015. It was when we started working with a lot of fathers, I really became aware of the issue because we were looking for resources for these fathers. That’s when the larger picture became clear to me, like “Man, it wasn’t just something that happened to me. A lot of families go through this.”
I am the director of the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission (EOC) Local Conservation Corps (LCC) and have been for the past 12 years. The LCC is a vocational training program for young adults ages 18 to 26. For a lot of our students, this is their first job and we train them in construction, forestry, weatherization, solar, and healthcare, and green jobs, such as recycling.
During my first year as a new director, I routinely asked the new recruits, “How many of you feel like you have grown up with a strong father figure in your life?”
A lot of them have been exposed to the justice system, or foster care, and were young parents. When I asked that question, out of 50, only about 14 people raised their hands. And I was like, “Wow!” Because my father was always there for me. I knew I had to do something.
Young people accessing vocational training is great, but how do we break the cycle? Their fathers might not have been there for them but we need to create resources so that they can break that pattern.
At the time, we were working with First 5 Fresno County and a conversation of a fatherhood program came up so we applied for federal funding. When we received the federal grant, we served 1,300 fathers over 5 years. It was an incredible program.
We used the 24:7 Dad curriculum, which “equips fathers with the self-awareness, compassion, and sense of responsibility that every good parent needs.” It has case studies that discuss how to be there for the mother of your child. We connect fathers to Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and they encourage fathers to be supportive of breastfeeding, because children who are breastfed are healthier.
We also provided an anger management class through the Marjaree Mason Center and worked with a local domestic violence prevention agency. We had a relationship course for our fathers and the mother of their child — I hate the term “baby mommas,” because it takes away from the mothers’ experience.
I also shared my own experiences being divorced from my daughter’s mother: Even though you might not be with the mother of your child, that child is still going to take from both of you.
Don’t go home and talk bad in front of your child about your child’s mother, and they shouldn’t be doing that when the child is with them. So we provide resources so that they can put aside whatever contributes to them not being together in the interest of the child and putting that child first.
I divorced from my daughter’s mother — who I am still good friends with — and reunited with my first girlfriend and now wife. We have a unique relationship: My daughter’s mother and my wife are on good terms, because we all had to co-parent my daughter.
My daughter was 2 years old when we separated so all of us had to learn to live with one another for the purpose of being together for my daughter. It’s interesting that my daughter also suffered what could be seen as a traumatic parenting incident at the age of two, but due us intentionally ensuring that we remained on good terms, she has not been impacted in the same way I was. My daughter is preparing to enter a doctorate program, so we did something right!
My wife, Dr. Andrea Lee-Riggins, showed me how to love. We have been together 35 years in total. We were together when we were 17 and 18. I really credit her for that.
For POPS, I brought in beauty schools to show fathers how to do their daughter’s hair. That was personal for me, man! When my wife and I first separated, and my daughter would go to preschool, they would know when she was at my house and when she was at her mom’s house. Because when she was at my house, she would go in and have a ponytail but it wasn’t a great ponytail — I would just try to put the hair up. But when she was at her mom’s house, her hair was all done! So they always knew and would go, “Oh, you were with your dad!”
As a single father, that didn’t feel good so I wanted to help provide resources to help our fathers. There were ladies who volunteered their time and came in and showed the dads how to do their daughter’s hair. It sounds so small but it is huge for a man. It’s a huge issue for us.
Our current fatherhood program is funded through Fresno County through Babies First and the Perinatal Equity Initiative (PEI). Fathers can be referred when the mother of their child is enrolled in Babies First. And for PEI, we work with fathers and partners of African American mothers, regardless of the race of the father.
For me, what matters is reaching fathers. Even if we can’t serve them here, we will make a referral. POPS is so well known that before we received county funding, we would continue to receive calls every month asking if we were still facilitating the program.
A lot of the young people I work with don’t know one or two of their parents. They might have been placed in foster care. When I share that my mom died when I was two and that I didn’t know my mom either, I am able to share my vulnerability and let them know that who are now is not who you are going to be.
It’s important for me to say even though I am the director, there is stuff I have dealt with and I am still here. So if I can do it, coming from the same neighborhood you came from, you can too.
For fathers to understand the impact that they have on their children, and why it is so important to be there. People say “fathers,” but it is not just fathers, it is “responsible fathers.” The impact that their presence — even if they are not with their child’s mom — includes children having a reduced chance of being subjected to the criminal justice system, better test scores, and educational attainment.
At the EOC, I work with a lot of young men whose fathers were not there for them. Just know the impact that you will or will not have on that child.