13 Jun Celebrating South L.A. Fathers
Determined Dads Break the Cycle
By Carla Maria Guerrero and Tyra Goodman
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At the age of nine, Kusema Thomas was out hustling on the streets of South Los Angeles, selling drugs to help take care of his little brothers. By 18, he had already served five years behind bars. With some help, he left that life behind. Now 37, he dedicates himself to his community and his two sons, whom he is determined to raise with all the love and care he can provide.
Thomas rarely saw his own father, who was in and out of jail. “I can remember really wanting my father at home, because I remember growing up and feeling like I was always missing something,” said Thomas, who joined Community Coalition as a community organizer five years ago.
In communities like South L.A. where thousands of men have been taken out of the home and community by joblessness, lack of opportunity, racial profiling, drug abuse and mass incarceration policies, men like Thomas are striving to break the cycle of fatherlessness. They are fighting to raise their children in a society that still fails to provide young boys of color in particular,
the economic, educational and social opportunities to succeed.
Fatherhood on Track
After returning home from jail at 18, Thomas had his first son. The experience left him feeling more vulnerable than ever. “It was a struggle and I greatly contribute that to me not having had a father and not having been in a substantive relationship before. I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing. I had no idea how to take care of my son Kahari,” he said.
Today, Thomas maintains a strong and steady relationship with 17-year-old Kahari, who lives with his mother. By the time he had his second son, Thomas was much older. This time he vowed to be there for him in ways that he couldn’t for Kahari and that his father wasn’t for him. Thomas has full custody of 3-year-old Kusema Jr. “I want him to know his father loves him. I want him to know that I am there in his life. It’s hard for me sometimes to not spend time with him,” Thomas said of the struggle to be a single dad. “You’ll see me on the weekends with him when I have to work. Even though I could leave him with his grandmother, I want him to see the work that his father has done and even one day, hopefully, be a part of the movement for social justice that means so much to me.”
There are enormous challenges for fathers of color, said Aqeela Sherrills, a community activist based in Watts who is part of Project Fatherhood, a support group for dads.
One major barrier is unemployment, which Project Fatherhood tries to address by helping members and jobs. But it’s also larger
than that. “[We’ve] been defeated, everything taken away from [us] and [we’ve] been deemed negative or evil,” Sherrills said.
To Sherrills, these are not excuses but they are reasons why men’s fatherhood skills and confidence need to be built and supported.
Project Fatherhood does just that by providing men with tools and practices for being good parents. There are many fathers who also extend their role beyond just their own children.
John Jones III is the head of East Side Riders, a service organization that involves children and youth in positive and affirming community-building activities.
Jones started the bike club to reconnect with his own dad and to spend time with his three children. “I take fatherhood very seriously,” Jones said. “It’s my job to help my kids understand what experiences you can expect in life, and to even teach the same lesson to kids who aren’t even [mine].”
The rewards are priceless for Jones. After returning from a recent bike ride, Jones’ son asked him to make a purchase for him. “You must think we’re rich huh?” Jones questioned his son. “Of course,” his son replied. “Why would you think that?” “Because Dad, we may not have a lot of money, but we have love and that makes us rich.
Carla María Guerrero is the communications assistant and Tyra Goodman is the executive assistant at Community Coalition.