As part of our ongoing Project Milwaukee series on black men in prison, we hear from men trying to steer their kids away from life on the streets.
During our series, many ex-offenders have said they grew up without a dad at home – someone who might be a role model, and teach right from wrong.
In Milwaukee, groups are working to help fathers strengthen relationships with their kids, even when the family has broken apart.
At a recent workshop at Next Door in Milwaukee, Fatherhood Specialist Alphonso Pettis starts by asking the eight participants, mostly young, black men, to stand up.
"What we’re going to do, this is agree, that’s disagree, and that’s unsure over there," he says.
Pettis recites so-called "value statements" and asks whether the men agree, disagree or don't know.
“Men and women are equally capable of caring for children...," Pettis says. "Wow, I want to hear from the disagree (group). Why do you guys disagree?"
Some say they feel women are more capable simply because they’re with the kids more. One father said he’s less able right now because he can’t provide for his children.
Pettis moves on to another topic designed to get the guys thinking about their roles as men and fathers.
He asks whether a woman is more responsible than a man for taking care of birth control.
Nicholas Flinn, 34, has three children with two different women. He says he thinks women bear more responsibly for birth control because they know their bodies.
"She know what to do. That man don’t know what to do. That’s like her sending him to the store, saying, 'Go get me some tampons,'" Flinn says. "He don’t know what grade to get. He don’t know what brand she likes. So at the end of the day, it’s her responsibility to make sure she keep taking her birth control."
Flinn says he’s come to Next Door to learn ways to be a better dad, and to improve an often toxic relationship with his kids’ mothers.
"I’m here to actually figure out a way to break that barrier of the negative communication, instead of arguing all the time and trying to use the kids as weapons to hurt the father," he says. "I believe regardless how you feel about that person, let that kid be the one to grow up and actually see it for themselves."
Flinn says as a kid, he fell in with the wrong crowd and got into plenty of trouble – even served time in jail. The best he can say about his father, who was in and out of life, was that he taught him how to survive.
"Instead of looking at my father like I want to be like him, I always tell myself I want to be better than him," he says.
Flinn says one of his priorities as a parent is shielding his children from drugs, profanity and violence. When it comes to his daughters, he says he’s trying to counteract what they see on television and hear in music – women, mainly black women, who seem to only care about finding guys who have lots of money.
Darnell Reid is also raising a daughter – a 4-year old named Kanyisah. She was born when Reid was just 15.
"I love taking her out to eat because she loves to eat," Reid says. "So we love going out to eat and to the park and to the movies. Stuff that daddies do with their daughters."
Reid has already graduated from a fatherhood course at Next Door, but still comes to meetings.
"Since I’ve been coming here, I haven’t gotten in trouble," he says. "I’ve been getting jobs left and right. I’ve been doing what I’m supposed to do. I felt like before I came here it was so hard to do right, but it was so easy to do wrong."
Reid says for a time he sold drugs, while his mom and grandmother took care of Kanyisah because the girl’s mother had another baby.
"I really wasn’t taking being a parent serious because I always had my mama to help and then one day, she was like, 'We not gonna help you anymore. You do it, you the daddy. You do what you gotta do to take care of your baby,'" Reid says.
Reid says he has a job now, and hopes to get into a training program to become a welder.
When we head back into the classroom, instructor Alphonso Pettis is leading a discussion about how dads can bond with their kids, like encouraging boys to show their emotion.
"I tell my son to this day, whatever you go through, share it with me, whatever it is," Nicholas Flinn says. "You know, don’t keep no secrets from me, tell me what’s up."
Next, Pettis asks how the fathers interact with their girls.
"Who’s played makeup with their daughter? I mean I’ve had nails painted, lipstick on, everything," he says.
Another father adds, "Yeah, you gotta show them that the person that really love them gonna enjoy what they do, so you gotta spend that time with them."
The men go on to share frustrations, including worries that their child support money is going to the moms or moms’ boyfriends. And they bemoan a court system they feel favors mothers no matter what.
But over the two hours, most talk focuses on how the men are making life better for their children.