When Brandon Hay found out he was going to be a dad at 24 he was anxious about becoming a good parent. He soon realized it wasn't just him feeling lost. Other black fathers throughout the GTA, some also raised by single moms, had questions about fatherhood. So he started a support group in 2007, called Black Daddies Club, which now has 15 volunteers running events throughout the city.
Mr. Hay tells Carys Mills about the group ahead of Saturday's second annual picnic that's expected to draw 1,000 families
Why did you pick the name Black Daddies Club?
When I started it, I wasn't sure in terms of the name. Should I leave it as the Daddies Club? But I went to see my cousin who was in the Toronto East Detention Centre. I was walking into the jail and seeing my cousin in the same orange jumpsuit and remembering seeing his dad years before. Young males growing up here need to find eldership and mentorship. When I left my cousin that day, I was convinced. I don't know if the name would have been as relevant because there are still issues within the black community that have to be spoken about and are not getting dealt with.
So is the group only for black fathers?
Other cultures are welcome, but the priority is black fathers. There are topics discussed that are across the board. Last week we had guys who are white, Hispanic, Indian and black and the conversation flowed effortlessly. Poverty crosses colour barriers so it's just about finding guys to connect with.
What are the community-specific issues?
The things that come up are police brutality, knowledge of self and feelings of isolation. Like myself, others may have grown up with a single mom or grew up with dads but didn't have a connection with them. Now these guys have youths themselves and they don't know what to do as fathers.
This year we're trying to focus on civic, education and health issues. At the picnic we'll have a speaker about diabetes and prevention. A lot of fathers are stressed because of employment or having a kid going to post-secondary and not knowing where the money is coming from. The other piece is mental health in the black community. In terms of the civic piece, it's about how people of colour get power through their votes. We hear residents say they don't feel engaged but it's not an excuse.
You mentioned police issues. What are they?
One of the perceptions and realities for some of these guys is that in certain areas, cops are on high alert. If two or more guys are together that's enough reason for them to be stopped. These guys sometimes don't know how to handle themselves. It goes back to knowing your rights and how to handle yourself in a way that doesn't accelerate tension.
Were statistics backing up what you saw anecdotally?
It's very important for us to document these programs because one of the challenges we found over the last four years is that there's no stats that speak to Canadian black fathers. We can find American stats but we're totally different. As we're doing this programming we're always documenting and making some kind of paper trail to get funding and prepare for the future.
How did this all start for you?
I grew up with a single mom and I had my first son when I was 24. I was still trying to figure out what it is to be a man and how to be a father. I heard there were some good programs for moms in the area so I asked if there was anything for fathers. I wanted to find out about discipline, nutrition and even relationships because I was now in a relationship that was more serious than I'd ever been in.
When I was looking for dads groups I wasn't seeing any and I see the need of having something culturally specific ... Not knowing how to be a father and feeling the need to connect with other men who look like me, who have been through the same challenges.
When we started we went to Malvern (Scarborough), North York, Kensington Market and Peel. It was to see if a program like this would be needed. We got a good turnout, but it was more women than men. A lot of women, single mothers, really empathized with the group and wanted to pass the information on to their kids.
How did you get dads involved then?
We had to change the medium of what we were doing. Men – black, white or whatever culture – traditionally aren't used to coming together, sitting down and talking. We started sessions at Onyx Barbers downtown. It's on a regular day so people are coming and going for haircuts as well as people coming for the discussion. We have a topic and we learned we need some kind of media, like a documentary or a film, because young people felt intimidated when they sat down in a room with elders. It was easier for them to share their experiences based on the film. Then later we survey them to get feedback because that's the key thing with programming.
Why programs like this fail is because individuals who don't live in the community come in and say what the community needs. The community doesn't gravitate because it's not dealing with those issues. Before we went into Jane and Finch we had a town hall and found out how we should design it.
Are you thinking of expanding outside of Toronto?
We get guys asking about opening clubs in B.C. or Montreal or in St. Louis. I think for next couple of years we need to really focus on the GTA. We have to deal with our backyards and before I can think about other places I have to think about Malvern, where I live, where there are guys getting murdered, so there's still stuff to be done. The focus is making the black community in Toronto stronger.
Visit blackdaddiesclub.com for information about the picnic. This interview has been edited and condensed