The Dovetail Project inspires fathers, makes families

December 1, 2011 3:32:30 PM PST
Inspired by a visit from Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign, Sheldon Smith created an organization where men inspire each other to build stronger families.

Smith, 23, has a 2-year-old daughter, Jada. He says too many young fathers don't participate in the day-to-day tasks that go with raising a child.

"I believe that a lot of young men that are running around here now, young fathers. They're trying to provide for their kids the best way they can. They're under-resourced and I'm providing resources for them," Smith said.

In 2008, then presidential candidate Obama spoke on Father's Day. His words motivated Smith to act.

"Some of it has to do with a tragic history. But we can't keep using that as an excuse," Obama said in 2008. "What makes a man is not the ability to have a child. That doesn't make you a father. It's the courage to raise a child that makes you a father."

With a grant from the Open Society Foundations, Smith started The Dovetail Project ( in 2010.

"The Dovetail Project is essentially a fatherhood initiative used to teach young fathers between the age of 15 to 24 parenting skills, life skills and felony street law to reduce the incarceration rate of young fathers," Smith said.

Timmie Johnson, 20, has a 9-month-old son. He hopes the 12-week program at the Jackson Park Field House will help him break a negative cycle.

"My father was in and out of my life and I knew how a father should be and what his role to a child. A child is easily raised and has a better environment with his mother and his father in his life, not his father in and out of his life. So I figure, coming to this program will help me better myself as a parent," Johnson said.

Another key component to the program is helping the men become job-ready. Mitchell Powell, 23, says his 6-month-old son motivated him to seek help.

"Right now, I don't have a high school diploma. I'm unemployed. So that's crippling my relationship with my son right now," Powell said. "I didn't want to be stuck in the same position in my life forever."

For Smith, who was raised mostly without his father, The Dovetail Project is his way of equipping the next generation with the skills to do better.

Two social scientists are currently examining the results of The Dovetail Projectto see if it can be used as a model for expansion into other major cities. Smith was recently selected as one of 20 outstanding young social innovators by the International Youth Foundation. The foundation seeks to develop a new generation of leaders who create positive change.

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