[THE FATHER FIGURE]
Organizational Partnerships Manager
I’m an O.G. One of the original godfathers who’s been with the Center
for Urban Families since the beginning. Looking back over the years, I
think the greatest gift has been how many people have shared their lives
with me. So many transformations.
Our staff is supportive but we don’t give our members everything. We
give them the tools they need for self-discovery. We help them find the
key to unlock the creativity and talent that hasn’t been nurtured in the
During a recent STRIVE orientation, one of the participants stood up to
say his name. I’d heard that name before. Turns out this young man’s
father was one of my childhood friends, a Marine who was killed during a
tour of duty when his son was just an infant.
The son came up to me later to ask me a favor: “Will you please tell me
about my dad?” So I gathered a bunch of guys from the old neighborhood
in West Baltimore and we met him for lunch.
We sat together for hours; laughing, crying, telling stories. It helped
him immensely. (It helped us, too.) Now he has a successful career
working for a property management firm.
I can’t put into words exactly how it feels to help people fill the hole
in their hearts for a living. I just know it’s the thing that makes
Senior Manager, Economic Success
Our members are the reason I get out of bed in the morning. They give me energy; keep me grounded. They teach me things I need to know, like about social media and what’s new on the streets, from fashion trends to the latest drug lingo.
Usually I play a motherly role, but sometimes I have to give them the business.
We keep it real here. I’m not above getting out of my car to ask a member what they’re doing hanging out on the street corner at night.
You should see their friends’ reactions, like “Who is this lady?”
I just hand them my card and say, “Come see me.”
Once young people see you care, it opens up the lines of communication. They will share their dreams and aspirations, as well as their struggles, whether that’s being overlooked for a job because they have a record or the the lack of training programs for guys who want a career working with their hands.
Our members are some of the smartest, kindest, hardest-working people I know. It crushes me when life makes them feel like nothings.
But I tell them: “Hold on. Keep trying. You’re just one opportunity away from the something you’re meant to become.”
[THE HOPE DEALER]
Baltimore STRIVE Trainer
There are a lot of young guys out there making rushed decisions to go after the American Dream. Trying to grow up so fast and make the best of whatever they’ve been given.
I was that guy back in the day.
But over time, you mature and realize those things don’t add up. You weren’t prepared for the choices you were making. You had so much left to learn … and you still do. There’s a redemptive nature to that. You can buy back some time. You can change.
There are diamonds in the rough here in Baltimore. But to get diamonds, you usually have to dig.
That’s really what we do at the CFUF: we’re professional excavators. We unearth the gems that already exist beneath the surface and just polish them off.
During that process, I get to watch miracles happen. I see people who’ve gone through so much find the strength to speak about their pain, articulate their greatness and begin reinterpreting their own story. I see people learning to love themselves. And as that love grows, they carry it back to their communities to help change habits on a larger landscape.
When our members go out into the world, they help others see that failure isn’t final. In fact, you can fail forward. They become hope dealers for a better tomorrow.
[THE GAME CHANGER]
Baltimore STRIVE Trainer
Back in the 1990s, I was off the chain. A total rebel. I ended up in jail in Virginia and when I got out, I asked my mom if I could move back home to New York to turn my life around.
She said yes under one condition: To live under her roof, I had to enroll in the STRIVE program up there.
During the first week I thought, “She must hate me to make me do this!”
STRIVE is no joke. It’s hard work; it’s emotional work. At first, when someone confronts you about the things you’re oblivious to that are holding you back, you get angry.
But that’s necessary to help people make big changes in just three weeks.
I love when our members come back to tell me how they’re using the skills they learned or dusted off to succeed in the workplace and life. I love when they share milestones like getting a promotion or buying a house or car.
I actually just reached a milestone myself. A few weeks ago, a letter arrived in the mail. It was a full pardon from the governor of Virginia restoring all my rights, including the right to vote.
That’s one box I’ll look forward to checking next time.
[THE MUSIC MAKER]
Wendy Camilla Blackwell
Senior Manger, Practitioners Leadership Institute (PLI)
The thing that gets me jazzed is when our PLI fellows have a-ha moments.
I can see it in their faces. Something just clicks and they start to
think more expansively or see how the curriculum relates directly to the
work they do in their communities.
One of my favorite units is called Resilient Leadership. It’s a tiny
module, but it reverberates throughout the fellowship. I teach it from
the perspective of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” which is the most
complex piece of music played on one instrument. Usually an orchestra
would perform such a piece, but Coltrane said he took each note and
played it from both ends.
Human services practitioners do that balancing act every day. Their work requires
great empathy and strength — and their stress levels are often equal to first responders’.
So we talk about self-care strategies and how to recognize the signs of
vicarious trauma. We talk about how organizations can best support their
team, so they can continue to do their work even on days when there’s a
devastating song playing in their own communities.
It gives me joy to think about the cumulative impact this work will have
on fathers and families all across America. It’s like we’re composing a
symphony of change.
[THE WORD KEEPER]
When you’re doing outreach in the streets, most of the people you talk
to are in a really bad place. They might be unemployed, have made some
bad choices or maybe their life just took a turn they didn’t expect.
You’re probably their last option. So if you come through for them, that
could mean the world to them.
When a member takes that first step to enroll in one of our training
programs, they have no idea how it’s going to turn out. All they have is
my word. So it means a lot to me when they show up. It’s kind of like
they took a chance on me, too.
Once they get to CFUF, they see we really do what we say we’ll do. They see they can lean on us and we’ll go the extra mile.
no different from the people I interview. I came here six years ago with
a dream of making it out of a very dark situation. And it happened. It
continues to happen.
Someone asked me the other day how it feels to be a role model. It took
me a second to even consider that possibility. But you wouldn’t believe
how many big, tough guys come up to me and say, “Hey, man. I want to
wear a shirt and tie every day. I want a cool job. I want to be just
It’s a great feeling to be seen for the best parts of yourself.
And I’m going to keep trying to get better. Ten years from now, if you
Google my name, I hope you’ll find the words “noted philanthropist” next
to my picture.