Diana A. Sears interviews Dawan Williams about the Promise of a New Day to end fatherless households of incarceration.
Take a deep breath. Close your eyes. If you could create the “Promise Of A New Day” for the village, what would it consist of? Would we find responsible and accountable Men committed to protecting the most vulnerable members of the village – our children – our babies — and our Elders? Would we find positive male role models positively shaping the minds and souls of our children – the village’s next generation of leaders? What would the “Promise Of A New Day” sound like? Would the cacophony of children’s incessant playful banter and spontaneous laughter reverberate throughout the village? And what would the “Promise Of A New Day” feel like? Would it feel safe, loving, and nurturing? Is this possible?
Yes! Mr. Dawan Williams and the Unity Community Action Network (U-CAN) through the Fathers and Children Together (F.A.C.T.) Program are creating the “Promise Of A New Day” for the village.
Mr. Williams is a graduate of F.A.C.T., a dynamic two-tiered parenting program which is heralded as a global model for healing, redemption, ending Fatherlessness, and rebuilding the village. After ten years of incarceration, Mr. Williams recently returned to his family and his community. He credits his strong sense of purpose, parenting skills, and resolve to help eradicate the devastating effects of Fatherless households which are at the root of the chaos enveloping our communities.
So, how did you, a spokesman for F.A.C.T., become involved with this powerful program?
I transferred to SCI Graterford in 2012. One of the board members – one of the Internal Board Members — came to me and made me aware of the program and the components of the program and how it would be beneficial not only to me, but to my children and my family. So, I signed up. Before going on the visit with my child, the Men at Graterford – the Lifers at Graterford who are involved in the program – brought awareness about the effects of a fatherless household and how when children are coming up with their mothers to the visiting room, the Fathers are more involved with the mother than the child and the child is left with his or her own experience.
Mr. Williams, can you describe the F.A.C.T. program?
There were five sessions that I had to take at Graterford which would lead up to the workshop sessions with my child.
The first session was about the effects of a fatherless household and pretty much covered the root of the problems in our community as far as the fathers not being there, how our children are affected, how the children’s mothers are affected – our grandmothers – our uncles — are affected – how the whole family is affected by the male not being in the household.
The second session was entitled, ‘Accountability and Responsibility’. At Graterford, they diligently tried to make it clear about accountability and responsibility and to show you what it is to be an accountable and responsible adult. For example, checking homework, and showing your children rather than telling them.
The third session explored the importance of education which is a real blockbuster for our community. With regard to the importance of education, they went over how important it is to talk to your child about education and that when you make it back into society how important it is to meet the principal of your child’s school, to sit down with your child and check their homework, and let the child know that education will take them far.
The fourth session was called ‘Bonding’. A lot of us were not taught how to properly bond with one another because, again, the fathers were not present in our lives. It is very important to bond with your child.
These sessions were giving you the necessary tools to have so during the visiting room workshops when you are with your child you are not stuck – you know – looking at your child not knowing which way to go. So, bonding taught us how to find your child’s strengths and weaknesses, how to get to know your child, how to find your child’s likes and dislikes, and how to build a better relationship with your child. We were taught the importance of bonding because once you share a bond with your daughter or your son, that bond cannot be broken.
The fifth and final session is called ‘Love/Self Worth’. We need to build self-worth in our children and let them know that they are worth more than what they see every day in our community. A lot of us… we don’t know how to love. Love is a verb. It is an action word. A lot of us need to teach our children how to love through our action and to show them that we love them through our actions. There is a way to love by showing that you care by giving them support and listening to them – utilizing your listening skills.
After these workshops are done, the mother or guardian of the child then goes to meet with our External Team to get counseling and to learn how to become better mothers. They are given resources as to where they can get help for some of the problems that are going on in their lives.
The mothers or guardians are also told what to expect with the one-on-one visits between the Fathers and the children. So, after the final session, the one-on-one visits with the children start. The mothers – parents or guardians – go to the prisons with the children.
The External Team will bring the mothers – parents or guardians – and the children, free of charge, to the prison. The children will be dropped off with members of the External Team and Internal Team members at the prison while the Mothers are dropped off at a restaurant where they are served a meal. They also receive counseling during this time and it is an opportunity for them to discuss things that are going on in the community. They are also letting each other know, ‘You are not alone. You are not the only one going through this.’
This process continues for seven weeks in a row. Week after week, the relationships begin to grow.
There is a mural arts program going on. The fathers and children sit down and learn about each other. We learn about our children’s favorite colors. We know that from bonding with them. We talk to them about their favorite subject in school, and we talk to them about the importance of getting an education. By doing this, we are demonstrating accountability and responsibility. We apologize to our children for not being there in their lives because we understand the effects of a Fatherless household. All of these things were covered by the Lifers at Graterford. They actually train you on how to become a Father – a true definition of a Father – and we do exercises.
The Lifers take the children off to one side and take the Fathers off to another side. They ask the children: ‘What is your favorite color?’ The children will write their favorite color on a flash card. Once we all get back together in the visiting room, the Lifers would ask the Fathers: ‘What is your child’s favorite color?’ In the one-on-one session, we would be going over our children’s favorite color. So, in the end, your child would know your favorite movie, your favorite color, your favorite vegetable, and the foods you like to eat. The Fathers would know what is going on in school, what is going on in the community, and what is bothering the child. This helps to form an unbreakable bond.
What about week seven of the F.A.C.T. Program and the certificate ceremony?
Week Number Seven is the actual ceremony. It is a very tear-jerking and emotional ceremony because the mothers have built a bond – they have built a sisterhood with one another. Our children have built a sisterhood and brotherhood with one another. Our fathers, inside the wall at Graterford who have gone through the sessions and learned about the effects of a Fatherless household, accountability and responsibility, have worked together on all of the workshops and sessions – we have built a brotherhood. Our children have become family. The parents and guardians of our children have become family.
After the Certificate Ceremony, it is time to say good-bye. So, what are we going to do now? What are we going to do at this point? This is where the real work begins because now there are no weekly sessions. We have after care components that are set up in the event that you are having issues. The External Team is available to you and State Representative Waters’ doors are open to you. We also added a ‘Letter Writing Campaign’ as a component of F.A.C.T. We are now writing to the principal of our children’s schools.”
What was the catalyst for the “Letter Writing Campaign” that has become a component of F.A.C.T.?
When I was inside, I sat down and looked up the school that my son went to in a phone book and I wrote to his principal and explained my situation. I poured my heart out. I told him that I was incarcerated and I explained to him that I am a Father who is fortunate enough, not only through the F.A.C.T. program, but through his mother and my family, to be with my child. So, while I am visiting with my son I want to utilize the time to help meet the school in the middle to resolve the issues that our children are going through. So, I can talk to him and try to help to get to the bottom of what’s going on with him. So, the principal actually wrote me back and provided me with all of the information that I asked for. He thanked me for writing him and was blown away that, in all of the entire 10 years he had been a principal, he had never received a letter from an incarcerated parent reaching out saying, ‘Help me help my child.’ I shared the response I received from the principal with members of the U-CAN Internal Team. It sent shock waves throughout the prison.
The quest to help your son excel academically forged a partnership between you and the school. Can you tell us how this struck a chord with Dr. William Hite, Superintendent for the School District of Philadelphia?
We had a meeting after my arrival from Graterford with Dr. Hite, the Superintendent for the School District of Philadelphia and this was brought to his attention. Dr. Hite agreed that incarcerated fathers should have a copy of their children’s report cards and records, that they should know what is bothering their children in school.
He is moving toward giving the ‘go ahead’ to principals of schools in the School District of Philadelphia that when the fathers are writing from the prisons trying to acquire information about their children, the principals should go ahead and meet them in the middle so that we can try to stop the pipeline to prison. Now, one of the first things they do in a case where an incarcerated father is asking the school for information about his child, is to contact the child’s mother to obtain permission to release the records and if the mother says ‘It’s okay’, the records are released to the incarcerated father.
On Monday, 6 October 2014, you were released from SCI Graterford. With help from the F.A.C.T. External Team, how did you release became a “groundbreaking event”?
After completing my 10 years of incarceration, the External Team set it up so that I could surprise my son by visiting him at his school. No one knew I was coming home except the members of the External Team of the F.A.C.T. Program. They contacted the principal and let him know that an incarcerated father was returning home after doing 10 years of incarceration.
Now, prior to going to prison, my son’s mother was just impregnated with my son – Little Dawan – and I was arrested right after that. So, the whole nine months of her pregnancy, I was incarcerated and missed every single birthday that Little Dawan had. So all he knew of me was through the visiting room and through letters and through phone calls. I was not able to spend one single day in society with my son and throw a football or go to a basketball game or go to the store with him for a soda or a bag of chips or anything of that nature. So, we wanted to make this a groundbreaking event.
The External Team talked to the principal. State Representative Ronald G. Waters made a few phone calls because it was kind of ‘last minute’. I was coming home Monday morning, 6 October 2014, and nobody knew until that Friday. Everything was like ‘all of a sudden.’ And Monday morning, Dr. Johnson, Penny McDonald, and the External Team and Lorraine Ballard Morrill from Clear Channel went to Pennell Elementary School. They set up in the school library with the Principal and the Vice Principal and everybody else who agreed to be there. They had the video cameras rolling. I was on my way.
My brother picked me up at the prison at 8:37 A.M.. It was phenomenal. When I was released from prison, I went straight to Pennell Elementary School. I didn’t stop to change clothes. I didn’t stop to eat. I didn’t stop to say ‘Hi’ to anybody. I went straight from the prison – with my prison uniform on – straight to Pennell Elementary School.
When I got to the school, I was ushered in through the side door because the children could see out of the windows – the children do look out of the windows – through the hallway and straight to the school’s library. When I walked in to the school library, the cameras were rolling. Lorraine Ballard Morrill began the interview and I went right into giving my testimony. About 10 minutes into my testimony, the principal left and brought my son to the library out of class.
He was in class going about his normal day and the principal comes into the classroom to get him. I think my son thought he was in trouble. The principal brings Little Dawan in and asks him, ‘Do you know that man standing right there?’ And the look on his face was priceless – it was unbelievable. And the hug he gave me! It was a shocker. It was a Kodak moment.
After the reunion with myself and Little Dawan, the principal went back out the door and went down to the kindergarten classroom to pick up my daughter. It didn’t dawn on me that she was in the same school as Little Dawan, but I knew that we planned to go to her school. So I was shocked as well as she was. The principal brought her through the hallway and there she was with her barrettes clicking. Well, that’s my baby! The principal asked her, “Do you know that man standing right there?” She looked and then said, “That’s my Dad!” She ran over to me and jumped into my arms and gave me a big hug with her barrettes clicking. She just wrapped her arms around me and it was like – you know — it was a phenomenal event. That was like the ribbon cutting. That was like the groundbreaking event.”
When an individual is incarcerated, everyone connected to him or her is a co-defendant. How is this possible?
On Monday, 6 October 2014, we were all released from prison because when we commit crimes, we become willing participants in mass incarceration, and we are making our families and our community co-defendants. And it’s not just fathers. It’s mothers, too, because the fastest growing incarceration population is females. So what we are doing is making our children – our mothers – our loved ones – our support system – our co-defendants. Because they are bringing our children to come see us. They are signing the consent forms to allow our child to participate in the program.
Who is answering the phone? Your family, your support system. Who is sending money up here so that we can buy soap or anything else that we need? It’s your support system. So, I always believed that my mind was always free but my body was at Graterford.
I knew one day I would get out and would have a better understanding and another shot at redemption and if I ever get my chance at redemption, I am going to show my son – I am going to show my daughter – I am going to show my family – I am going to show my support system – that I am never going back to prison and that for me doing the right thing is the only thing for me to do and prison is not an option.
I have to personally apologize to Dawan’s mother and to all of my support system, you know, for doing the things that I did that led me down the path to prison and the highway to hell. You know, they didn’t deserve to have to go through the metal detectors. After working Monday through Friday, on your only day off, you have to go up to the prison to make sure that a father can see his child – go through a metal detector and deal with the nasty attitudes from the people up there and be on point to answer telephone calls and to take time out of your day after working 12 and 13 hours and having to go home to wait on a phone call. So, I had to personally apologize for that.
As you build a life for you and your family, what role did the F.A.C.T. Program play, and the F.A.C.T. External Team continue to play, in helping you successfully navigate the arduous journey to redemption and reintegration?
I can’t thank the F.A.C.T. Program enough. Ever since I have been home I have been working closely with Dr. Minnie Johnson and the External Team members who have helped me with job readiness and job searches and preparing my resumé. Dr. Johnson has been a mother, she has been a sister, she has been a friend, she has worn many hats.
Then there’s Ms. Penny McDonald and State Representative Ron Waters and the entire External Team. You know, it’s that old African proverb, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ And what is happening is when guys return home from prison they don’t have this type of support system to encourage them , to support them, and to uplift them. This is why a lot of guys resort – not to make a lot of excuses– back to doing the same thing, because it comes naturally – the same thing that put them back on the highway to hell.
One of the most important things is that although I am a strong individual at the end of the day it still boils down to free will, so to speak, because you can have all of the right things in place but still choose to step outside of the box and do some dumb crap.
You know I have been out of prison now for 45 days now, from a 10 year, 6 day, 16 hour sentence and I haven’t gone back to the neighborhood yet and I don’t plan on going back to the neighborhood. There’s nothing there for me. I don’t want to see you. I don’t need you as a friend. I don’t need the same friends. Now, I have a new definition of a ‘friend’.
Based on what I now know about what is a friend, I never had any friends, so there is no need for me to return to the neighborhood because there are a lot of people there who are still in the same condition that I left them in a decade ago. In order for me to stay on the path, I need to stay in this lane.
If you have the right people in the right places, good things will happen. I am on the road to success and I am not getting off that road. You know, even with the fathers not being there, a lot of our mothers did the best they could with what they had. They fell victim to a fatherless household too, and they fell into an intergenerational curse. However, there came a point in our life where we had to make a decision to either do the right thing or do the wrong thing and with that said, some of chose to do the wrong thing.
Now, when you have a second chance and you have the ability to make a decision, I find it easy to say ‘I’m doing the right thing’. I look over there to see who’s around and who’s walking past. This support system that has been in place, and as far as I am concerned, has rolled out the red carpet for me is helping me with job fairs and job interviews. I have received three job offers – for three good jobs. We are taking F.A.C.T. and we are going to correct Fatherless households and we are going to take F.A.C.T. to the top.