The Dovetail Project Helps Young Fathers Succeed in Employment

By James A. Jones, Field Engagement Coordinator, National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity

June 2015 Class
This Father’s Day, as we honor the contributions of dads across the country, we’d like to highlight the needs of an often overlooked population: young fathers. Between 1990 and 2010, the teen pregnancy rate declined by 51 percent. However, that decline may have been even greater if there were an increase in efforts to engage young fathers. Traditionally, young mothers have been at the center of research, prevention, and assistance efforts. As a result, little is known about best practices in engaging young fathers. What we do know is that teen fathers are less likely than their peers to graduate from high school and subsequently face significant barriers to employment and economic stability.

The Dovetail Project is a Chicago-based organization whose sole mission is increasing employment opportunities and parenting skills of young, at-risk fathers. Sheldon Smith, founder of the Dovetail Project, started the organization to address an issue that shaped his life as well as countless other young men in his community: absent fathers. As the son of a young father, Sheldon endured his father’s absence and lack of financial and emotional support, the result of unemployment, incarceration, and no parenting skills. This left Sheldon with a burning desire to end the cycle of fatherless children when he became a dad at age 20. The National Initiatives team recently spoke with Sheldon about the Dovetail Project and the strategies he attributes to its success.

National Initiatives: Can you tell us about the Dovetail Project and the population it serves?

Sheldon Smith: The Dovetail Project works with at-risk youth who are fathers and come from low-income communities. We don’t look at fatherhood one way—we approach it from three different angles. Our goal is to teach young dads the parenting skills, life skills, and an understanding of felony street law that will make them better fathers to their children and stronger men for their communities. The fathers we serve are at-risk African Americans between the ages of 17 and 24. We use a 12 week curriculum that I developed from research, personal experience, and some help from experts at the University of Chicago. We’re also currently working with the University of Chicago to determine what replication of our curriculum might look like.

National Initiatives: You mentioned the importance of having the dads you work with understand felony street law. Can you explain exactly what that is and why it’s important for your participants to understand it?

Sheldon Smith: Our coursework about felony street law breaks down the criminal justice system and outlines how fathers can go into parenting knowing their rights. It involves things like how to respond to officers when pulled over, what is probable cause, how to ask for a badge number, child support advocacy, and how to get custody of your child. You can’t only teach guys to be fathers if they are having run-ins with the law every day. You have to also prepare them with knowledge that will keep them out of prison and in their children’s lives.

National Initiatives: What role does employment play in the lives of the youth you serve, and how does the Dovetail Project facilitate that role?

Sheldon Smith: Contrary to the traditional stereotypes, the fathers we serve really want to play an active role in their children’s lives. Most of them are successfully co-parenting and employment is a big part of what they are trying to do. We get to know them over the 12 weeks they’re in the program. Everybody isn’t going to come to us ready to get a job. Some fathers need GED services and some have criminal backgrounds we have to deal with. Based on those factors, we pair them with one of our employer partners. During their 11th week we begin to send the fathers out to employers for interviews.


National Initiatives:What would you say is unique about the Dovetail Project’s recruitment and outreach process and how does that shape your program?

Sheldon Smith: The young men that we work with come to us because they have already made the decision that they want to be fathers. No one is here against his will, so our participants are self-motivated. Also, the outreach we do is very informal. We go directly to the people. You could possibly find us out in community just talking to random people. Not on busy streets either—I mean right in the middle of a person’s neighborhood, on the block, just talking to a group of guys. Another thing we do is employ our past graduates as recruiters. Every father who has graduated from the program is very happy with they got from the experience and they are the best spokesmen to recruit others. We are currently working with the University of Chicago to streamline our approach into a recruitment and engagement manual.

National Initiatives: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Sheldon Smith: I just believe that the Dovetail Project is really unique in its approach. When we first started we were filling a void. Hardly anyone was working with young men on fatherhood skills. We brought our first group together in the 3rd District Police Department, because I was bringing guys from rival neighborhoods together in one spot and I knew they would get along there. But after that, we moved to the park district on Stony Island and haven’t had any incidents yet. We also don’t have any federal funding for the program. All of our funds are from donors and private foundations who really believe in our mission to bring together father and child.

Like what you read?  Learn more about our work related to fatherhood, employment, and black male achievement:
The B.MORE Initiative
Overview of the Child Support System
Healthy Relationships, Employment, and Reentry

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About National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity

Heartland Alliance’s National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity is dedicated to ending chronic unemployment and poverty. We believe that every person deserves the opportunity to succeed in work and support themselves and their families. Through our field building, we provide support and guidance that fosters more effective and sustainable employment efforts. Our policy and advocacy work advances solutions to the systemic issues that drive chronic unemployment.

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