“1 in 3 black men will go to prison in his lifetime. 67% of black children grow up in a single parent home. 85% of all youths in prison come from fatherless homes.”
These statistics appear in rotation on the homepage of Chicago Beyond’s partner The Dovetail Project, and they tell the story of the cycle that plagues fatherhood nationwide; when a child, particularly a black child, grows up with an absent father, they are lacking stability in the home, a consistent male role model, and are often times at high risk of incarceration.
In 2016, Dovetail was one of three winners of Chicago Beyond’s inaugural Innovation Challenge, which sought innovative, early-stage ideas from nonprofits backing the fight for youth equity. In the past three years Chicago Beyond has watched Dovetail double its reach and impact the lives of hundreds of young fathers. Chicago Beyond invested in Dovetail for its triple bottom line: impacting young fathers economically changes the trajectory of their lives, their children’s lives, and ultimately strengthens the entire community ecosystem.
Dovetail is an organization that gives young black fathers the skills and resources they need to fortify relationships with their children. Throughout its 12-week program, designed by founder and Executive Director Sheldon Smith, Dovetail’s curriculum teaches its participants how to be present, through felony street law education which helps them avoid incarceration and stay in their children’s lives; how to be a provider, through financial literacy and job interview preparation; and how to be a parent, through basic and individualized parenting skills. Beyond the curriculum, the fathers receive holistic support from Dovetail’s case managers.
Each class of Dovetail participants is called a “cohort,” with each cohort made up of about 50 fathers. Dovetail recruits its participants by sending a team consisting mostly of Dovetail alumni go into communities around Chicago, clad in bright orange shirts. They strike up conversations with young men on the street, asking if they’re fathers and inviting them to Dovetail.
“They’re meeting these young men where they are. They’re bringing together men from different cliques, different blocks, but when they’re together as a cohort, they’re all Dovetail dads,” said Chicago Beyond’s Director of Growth Nichole Wilson. “They’re coming together to be there for their kids, and they’re realizing for the first time that they’re not alone.”
Sheldon’s goals for Dovetail transcend race, class and neighborhood; according to him, the problems that fathers face are universal.
“Fatherhood is not just a black issue,” he said. “It’s not a white issue, it’s not a brown issue, it’s not an orange issue. It’s a people issue. It’s a global issue. It’s a national issue. It’s an issue that we all need to pay attention to. It doesn’t matter what color you are, what background you come from, we all have those issues within our family, and family is everything.”
On June 13, the Spring 2019 Dovetail cohort graduated, which marks the fourth cohort since the Dovetail Project and Chicago Beyond partnership started.
“You see this room?” said Sheldon at the graduation ceremony. “We call these young men mythbusters. [The Dovetail Project has] been in existence now for 10 years. This is our 20th graduation. We’ve graduated 476 young men. And it’s a major accomplishment. I never thought at the age of 21 when I launched the Dovetail Project that we would be here today at this moment.”
Sheldon also surprised Chicago Beyond with an award to show his appreciation for Chicago Beyond’s investment in fatherhood, and for the approximately $1 million investment made into Dovetail.
“This philanthropic organization believed in the mission and vision of [Dovetail],” he said about Chicago Beyond. “We would not be able to serve as many fathers as we serve, we wouldn’t have the three campuses across the city, we wouldn’t have been able to scale up to 18 staff across the board– none of these things would have happened without that initial investment into our infrastructure.”
In its three years of working with Dovetail, Chicago Beyond has supported four cohorts of young fathers through the program, and partnered with them on strategic initiatives. As Dovetail works to disrupt and change those rotating statistics on its website, Chicago Beyond is excited to enter a new chapter of our partnership with them and find new ways to continue working together to empower young fathers to reach their fullest potential.