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Blog Home > CEO Joe Jones Featured in Newsweek's Latest Cover Story, "The Fight for Black Men"
CEO Joe Jones Featured in Newsweek's Latest Cover Story, "The Fight for Black Men"
[Excerpt from Newsweek]

There is an easy way to meet Joe Jones, and a hard way. Let’s start with the easy way. If you and I were at a cocktail party, I’d introduce you to a tall, bald, black man, standing a shoulder above most everybody else. Knowing Joe Jones, he’d probably be wearing a tan suit and muted tie. Joe’s subdued, square-rimmed glasses fit nicely with his veiled intellect—he’s the kind of guy who readily drops six-dollar words without a hint of pretense.

I’d probably ask Joe to tell you about the nonprofit he runs, the Center for Urban Families on Baltimore’s West Side. CFUF is a national model for helping men and women who are confronting addiction, poverty, and despair turn their lives around, and teaching absent fathers how to reconnect with their kids. Joe’s a modest guy, so I’d have to brag on his behalf, about the bigwigs who have dropped by his center, and all the awards the organization has won.

Finally, I’d say in passing: “You know, Joe has a powerful personal story himself. His own father wasn’t around, he struggled in the streets for a while, and then pulled himself up, and made it out.” Nice and neat. Joe would nod and smile. You’d nod and smile. I’d nod and smile. We’d all be smiling—appropriately inspired.

That’s the easy way to meet Joe Jones. But there’s also the hard way. The hard way is to grapple with the fact that Joe’s family didn’t just emerge from some unseen ghetto thousands of miles away. No, his grandfather migrated to Baltimore from North Carolina, and started a business—a waste-management facility, one of the city’s more successful ones. His grandparents were “models of stability,” Joe told me. A few generations before that, Joe’s family were slaves.

It’s hard to figure out what happened to Joe’s dad, and thousands of other black fathers like him. Joe’s dad was training to be a teacher, but one day in the mid-’60s he hopped into the driver side of a Ford Thunderbird, visibly angry, slung his duffel bag on the passenger side, and drove off for good. Joe saw the whole thing from his upstairs window in the Lafayette Court housing projects; he thought his dad was going to the laundromat, and sat waiting for him, for hours.

It’s tough to stomach what happened later. How Joe, an adorable kid of 13—never a smoker, never a drinker—met a guy a couple years older than him. And this person put it into Joe’s young head that maybe it wouldn’t be a bad thing to stick a needle in his arm, and let a bit of heroin rush in. So, as a 13-year-old, he did. Joe’s two cousins shared the needle with him—their dad wasn’t around either—and his best friend, Barry, also fatherless, did too.

So now Joe’s an adolescent junkie, hanging out on Edmondson Avenue in West Baltimore and shooting up wherever he can find a shadow long enough to hide himself: sometimes in a bowling alley bathroom, sometimes in his aunt’s basement. He was 14 when he was busted for the first time for using drugs, along with his two cousins and Barry. The other boys’ parents bailed them out, thank God, but the police suggested that Joe, the ringleader, should stew for a little while to learn his lesson—you know, “tough on crime.”

Turns out, this wasn't the best move for Joe. During his few extra days in jail, in the throes of heroin withdrawal that his young system wasn't handling well, Joe met a local kingpin who taught him how to be a more efficient junkie, and a more effective criminal. Or as Joe puts it now (in his always-impeccable phrasing): "This man created a pathway for me to negotiate the street environment in a way that I hadn't anticipated. It was the worst thing that coud've happened to me."

So in the span of a few years, Joe went from a stable household to a single-parent family. From a middle-school honor student to a street-corner addict. From the grandson of a businessman and great-great-great-grandson of slaves to the son of an absent father, and a future deadbeat dad himself. It was a jumble of inputs—bad parenting and bad policy, misguided culture and tragic history—resulting in one clear output: a woefully lost kid.

There is a lot more to Joe Jones’s story—more pain than most can bear; more beauty than you’d expect. We’ll get to all of that, including his fateful encounter with the president of the United States.

Read the rest of the story here »
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