Fresh out of solitary confinement, Jonathan Wilson sat in the prison mess hall amongst other inmates. For the first time in 16 days, he took a hard look at them and had a moment of clarity.
“What I saw is that this is the greatest squander of human capital ever,” Wilson said.
Fast-forward seven years.
Today, Wilson, 44, is a doctoral student at Wilmington University and is two years into realizing his dream of uplifting the impoverished and crime-ridden communities in Wilmington through the Fathership Foundation. The idea is to strengthen men, families and communities by supporting male parenting and formal education.
In prison for robbery, he realized most of the young inmates, himself included, didn’t have a positive father figure in their lives. There wasn’t really a word for this problem, and technically – or perhaps biologically, everyone does have a father. Pondering this issue in solitary confinement, he came up with his own term for the missing void in most criminals’ lives: fathership. Wilson’s definition? The duties or acts associated with being a committed father.
Wilson takes issue with people and communities not addressing the importance of fathership. “They can’t build enough prisons or hire enough police to replace what fathers can do, period,” he said, adding that tapping fathers as a resource will disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline.
Some might ask how Wilson came to be the expert on fathership, considering his storied past. His journey began in 2010, when he chose to clean up his act and opened a barbershop in south Wilmington. The place became a community phenomenon where kids stayed after school to do their homework and where he served as a mentor. Wilson had just formed partnerships with some local schools to help bring desks and supplies to a section of his shop when a robber came in and shot him in the chest. The incident left Wilson paralyzed, and he eventually had to close the shop.
That’s when he decided it was his time to commit his life to stopping a culture of crime.
Wilson entered graduate school at Wilmington University at the College of Behavioral Sciences and graduated in 2013. In school, he began researching ways to engender fathership and education in communities, which were the two things his studies showed him were factors in crime and poverty rates. In fact, he found that a father who is active in his child’s education is the number one factor in the child’s academic success.
He launched the Fathership Foundation as a 501(c)3 organization and hasn’t looked back. Giving kids the fathers they deserve, Wilson said, is a priceless investment in the future workforce.
And so with the Fathership Foundation, Wilson has started three programs that he developed as a Wilmington University grad student:
- Community Academic Re-Entry Program. This gives men a second chance in education through help with high school, GED preparation and testing, adult basic education programs, vocational training and college.
- Academic Fathership Program. Wilson created this program to get fathers involved in a positive way with their children, particularly through academics. A subset of the program, Fathers in the Classroom, formally invites fathers to participate in classroom activities, and it has been successful at Elbert Palmer Elementary. The other subset is Fathership Workshops, which teaches fathers about child development and academic achievement.
- Peer-Informed Workforce Development Program. This 49-hour program teaches men how the workforce itself works, including the skilled and unskilled labor sectors, and how to prepare for and apply for jobs.
Hundreds of men have participated, Wilson said, and the programs have received a positive response. In the immediate future, he hopes to expand the program in Wilmington and across the state. Someday, he’d like to see the Fathership Foundation’s programs in action across the country. There is, as far as he knows, no other group dedicated to educating at-risk or previously-incarcerated men and showing them fathership skills.
Wilson has also learned some valuable lessons along the way. The first is that having a noble idea doesn’t translate into change. New to the world of nonprofits, Wilson quickly learned the power of funding and community support. “Ultimately, we want to be popular enough to be giving money away,” he said. “We want to be everybody’s favorite charity.” But doing so, he’s found, takes a lot of work.
He garnered his base of grassroots support through social media, and credits it with the organization’s successful launch. The Foundation actually started as a Facebook page before it was a registered nonprofit, Wilson said. The page boasts close to 9,500 likes. On Instagram, the Fathership Foundation has more than 600 followers. Wilson also learned, upon doing initial research projects, that he needs bigger samples of men to participate in his programs to get the data he wants. And he learned a thing or two about the power of incentives when trying to get dads to attend events at schools (he introduced free passes to Chuck E. Cheese’s and the Stratosphere Trampoline Park with great results).
More than anything, Wilson has the optimism that the Foundation’s programs work and can change communities for the better. In fact, his own once long-estranged father was released from prison in California the other week and is completing his son’s re-entry program from afar.
That makes Wilson proud and hopeful for the future: “I’m just really happy.”