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Service & Impact
January 9, 2024

Father Figures

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If it takes a village to raise a child, it can take a team to shape a man. So says Will Jawando, a community activist and former White House adviser whose life of policy work has been molded by his personal experience of being coached, challenged and channeled by a series of influential men.
He writes of them in My Seven Black Fathers: A Young Activist’s Memoir of Race, Family, and the Mentors Who Made Him Whole, a book shortlisted as a must-read by The
New York Times, which called it “a manifesto on the importance of intergenerational mentorship in the Black community.”
National Book Award winner Ibram X. Kendi (How to Be an Antiracist) says Jawando’s book “lays waste to the racist stereotype of the absent Black father,” offering instead “a bold idea: that Black men can counter racist ideas and policies by virtue of their presence in the lives of Black boys and young men.”
Strong women played a role in Jawando’s life, for sure—among them his mother and his wife, Michele, with whom he has four children—but his well-received book focuses on the men who “played an extraordinary role in literally saving my life.” They include his biological father, his stepfather, a teacher, co-workers and others “who stepped in and fathered me and mentored me,” he says. “They kept me on track when I could have gone astray.”
Among those Jawando honors is Jay Fletcher, one of his mother’s co-workers and the first openly gay Black man he encountered, who took him to Broadway to see the play Seven Guitars. Another is his fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Williams, who “pulled me back” at a stage when he was starting to lose hope, believing “that something was wrong with me, that I was a bad child, that I didn’t have value.”
Jawando didn’t recognize all the influence these men and others had at the time, nor did they necessarily—two quiet takeaway lessons from the book; that mentoring is important but not always obvious. His broader goal, he tells WayMaker Journal, was “to write something affirmative about what we as Black people, our Black community, the Black family can do to support and change the lives of young Black people, particularly the young Black boys and men.”
There’s not a lot written about “the inner lives of Black folks,” he explains. “There’s a lot of things said about us in a negative light, but stories by us for us about us, particularly as Black men, can be sparse.” He describes his book as “a love letter to Black men and boys through my life story of the power of these relationships.” It’s also “a call to action that we need to enable more of these relationships.”
“They kept me on track when I could have gone astray.”
A powerful moment
Jawando’s personal experiences inspired a life of community service, perhaps most publicly as Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement during the Obama administration. That role was followed by a position as an adviser to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
But those responsibilities were only one chapter in his story of activism and public service. Having started the first NAACP chapter on the campus of the Catholic University of America, where he earned a law degree, he later founded Our Voices Matter-Maryland, a social justice nonprofit, spearheaded Summer R.I.S.E., a summer job-shadowing program and co-founded the African Immigrant Caucus in Maryland, D.C. and Virginia.
Jawando has been an at-large county council member in Montgomery County—neighboring Washington, D.C., it includes four of the 10 most culturally diverse cities in the U.S.—since 2018. The role involves him in community affairs big and small—from ribbon-cutting at the opening of a new restaurant to fighting unreasonable rent that puts families at risk of losing their homes.
Jawando’s message on mentoring had been growing in him for years and the COVID-19 shutdown—along with the economic downturn and the outrage over the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd—provided the impetus and the opportunity to get it out. “I really needed to write it during that time… to have an affirmative story to make me feel like there was something I could do even in the midst of all this trauma.”
Jawando believes that we all have the opportunity and the responsibility to be a waymaker for others in some fashion. It may not mean getting involved in changing systems, such as his advocating for high-quality afterschool programs in all of Maryland’s 200-plus schools (“Research tells us that 3-6 p.m. is the most important time for kids to be engaged in productive activity”).
He offers two thoughts for those who want to make an impact in young lives. First, he says, bear in mind that you can sow a seed in a single encounter. “You can mentor someone in a moment,” he says. “And then if the next person does, those moments add up. Whether you’re spending five minutes with somebody or five years or 50 years, those engagements matter.”
By way of example, Jawando recalls how he was impacted watching President Obama speak at the 2014 National Democratic Convention, on television. When the president spoke of the need to “eradicate the slander that a Black youth with a book is ‘acting white,’ he was mentoring me,” he says. “He was making a way for me in that moment.”
Jawando also remembers personally how positive role models can make a difference—even between life and death. His best friend from childhood, Kalfani, was a teenage victim of gun violence. That loss was “an inflection point for me in my life in so many ways,” Jawando says. “I can trace back almost everything I’ve done in public policy and working in the White House and being an elected official, becoming a civil rights lawyer, to trying to right those wrongs that contributed to Kalfani’s untimely death.”
“You can mentor someone in a moment. And then if the next person does, those moments add up.”
A different narrative
Looking back, Jawando sees how he had the benefit of being exposed to “this diverse set of Black men who were intentional in the time and love and care and skills that they bestowed upon me” and that Kalfani didn’t have those same kind of relationships. “It was clear as day.” Not that Jawando didn’t face his own challenges following the divorce of his Nigerian father and white mother. He went through “trials and tribulations and points where I messed up,” he says, but the significant men in his life “brought me back onto the path.”
With the seriousness of those consequences in mind, would-be waymakers also need to be open to being rebuffed when they offer help, Jawando cautions. That’s because some young people have already “started to harden” because of their negative experiences—as he had before encountering Mr. Williams.
“They’ve started to believe either consciously or subconsciously that they don’t have value, that they don’t have something to give or that there’s only one way out—or that there isn’t a way out,” says Jawando. “Be open to receiving them,” he goes on. “The first time you try to engage with one of those young men, it might not work, but the third or fourth or fifth time it might work.”
Jawando calls that persistence “the aggregate power of every time a Black child encounters someone from their community [and] they are engaged in a positive way. Particularly for Black men and boys, it might not be the first time, but maybe the 10th time breaks through. They needed all those other times to be open to it.”
Part of being a waymaker also means pushing back against the narrative that your own life doesn’t matter, Jawando believes. “For 500-plus years we have been told that we are not of value,” he says. “The systems and structures have been set up and designed to dehumanize and devalue us, particularly as Black men; other marginalized groups as well. So, this is a pushback against that narrative.
“You have something to give. It doesn’t have to be through a program, it doesn’t have to be for multiple years, but we all have something to give and to do.”
He’s not talking about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, he says, as though that’s all it takes. “No, the system is jacked,” he says. “But in spite of that, in spite of the storm, in spite of the racism and discrimination and inequality, these relationships have the power to overcome that while we fix that system.”
From an interview with Louis Carr
This article was originally published in the Winter 2022 issue of WayMaker Journal.