Brotman: Thousand Man March will call for fathers active in children's lives

The Friday morning Bible study meeting opened with testimony, and in his, Lloyd McNeal reported that he had done something remarkable: He had called the police with information about street activity.

Back when he was engaged in street activity himself, "I would never have called the police," he said. "I would have gone out on the street and settled it myself."

He is 41 today; he is different. And "the guys out on the street are different than I was when I was out," he said. "They don't want to settle it; they want to use weapons."

They are all older now, the men crowded into the North Avenue storefront office of the Westside Health Authority.

Some are in their 40s and 50s. Most have done time in prison. Their lives have been hard. When Jacqueline Reed, the founder of WHA who leads Bible study, asked how many have ever felt like killing themselves, several raised their hands.

But they have found friendship and support, financial and otherwise, around the conference table, piled this morning with Rice Krispies Treats. So many had shown up that there was barely room for the folding chairs.

And they are galvanized by their mission: to encourage men in this West Side community to be fully engaged fathers.

They have formed a group within WHA called Daddies for Shorties that sends mentors into area schools to encourage boys, and have organized a Thousand Man March through the Austin neighborhood Saturday.

The shooting deaths in Chicago of two children, Hadiya Pendleton, 15, and Jonylah Watkins, just 6 months old, have brought a grim urgency to their work.

On one hand, when Kerry Owens, 42, vice president of Daddies for Shorties, hears stories of kids being shot, "I don't like it, but it's commonplace now," he said. "It's not shocking."

But it is grievous.

"What happened to that baby and that 6-month-old baby," said Steven McKinley, "that really hurt."

Times have changed, the older men said. "I came up in the '80s," said Charles Perry, 47, director of community organizing at WHA. As a high school drug dealer, he said, he shot another student. "The difference between then and now is, I was the only one with a gun. Now everyone has a gun."

And now, he said, the city's many smaller, splintered gangs can't discipline their members in the way the large gangs of the past could.

"A little kid getting shot — that never would have happened in the '80s, because the people who did that would have been dealt with," he said. "It's like the Wild, Wild West in Chicago now."

But it doesn't have to be. The answer they say, is fathers.

"We want to see the men step up, be held responsible and be held accountable to their children," said Shannon London, president of Daddies for Shorties. "If children don't see guidance from a male figure, they're going to seek out other options."

"We just got to get the men more involved in their children's education," said Andre Davis, 29, a Safe Passage school safety monitor who serves on the local school council at John Hay Community Academy. "You've got to be there every day, so kids can say, 'Look at that, that's my daddy.'"

Black men aren't entirely to blame, argued 19-year-old Malcolm London (no relation to Shannon London), a teacher in the Young Chicago Authors program. The nation's drug policies, he said, have constituted "a war on black men."

Brian Henderson, 40, communications director of Daddies for Shorties, was not letting the community off the hook.

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