Seven months ago, 16-year-old Dominic Johnson became a dad.
His own dad wasn’t around much when he was little, not when he was being bullied or teased or wanted to learn how to ride a bike or talk about girls or school. Eventually Dominic ended up in foster care.
Though he does have challenges – like co-parenting with the baby’s mother who lives two counties away – the Baltimore high school student knows what kind of father he won’t be to his new son, De’Shy. “I know I won’t be like that,” Dominic says.
Dominic and other young dads gathered at the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs last week for a two-day hackathon. The goal: Develop a digital campaign to help other young dads navigate the demands of new fatherhood while they’re navigating the steps to adulthood themselves. And the best way to do that? Ask young dads about their experiences, good and bad.
“We know when kids have better relationships with their fathers that they’re happier, they’re better adjusted, feel more secure emotionally and physically and have better relationships as adults,” says CCP’s Tina Suliman, who led the effort. “What we want is for young dads to know that they matter in their children’s lives and they can be actively engaged in a healthy way. We’ve asked these young dads to help us find a way to spread that message.”
The hackaton was implemented as part of the federally funded Map 2 Success program, which provides support and assistance to Baltimore parents aged 24 and younger. CCP is the communication partner for Map 2 Success, which is led by the Baltimore City Health Department and implemented through community hubs throughout the city. It is funded by the Maryland Department of Health through the federal Pregnancy Assistance Fund.
The dads initiative is a follow up to one done last year with mothers who worked with CCP to help create an interactive and aspirational workbook to act as a guide to a healthy pregnancy and beyond. The finished project doesn’t just share important facts, but includes spaces for the young women to chronicle their hopes and dreams and get away from the stigma associated with being a young mother.
For young dads, CCP learned, it is often about being heard, about having people care about what they are going through in a setting where the new mother is usually lavished with attention and services.
The hackathon made it so “these young fathers were able to have a voice, able to share their truths and share their stories,” says attendee Angela Cole, who the East Baltimore work of Map 2 Success.
For the hackathon, CCP partnered with B’more for Healthy Babies Upton/Druid Heights, represented by resource dad, Meldon Dickens. In addition to serving as a facilitator, Dickens and others served as a different kind of role model: Older men who had once been young dads themselves.
The group split in two to develop prototypes for campaigns that could help reach young dads who often find themselves ignored. Being a young father poses so many challenges, most notably co-parenting with someone they likely don’t live with and may not even be in a relationship with. It’s hard enough to navigate relationships as a teen or young adult, but trying to parent a baby together raises things to a whole new level.
Dominic says he is no longer with the mother of his son, mostly because she moved in with her mother, a $40 Lyft ride away. And since he lives in a group home, he can’t have De’Shy for overnight visits. It makes for an even more fraught relationship. But he said it was comforting to feel a camaraderie with the other young fathers he met. “I’m not the only one going through this,” he says.
Dominic’s group came up with the idea of a mobile app that could facilitate communication and scheduling between co-parents might help young dads not only improve their relationships but themselves. The other group focused on looking to the future came up with what they envision to be an Instagram or web video series showing the trials and tribulations of navigating new fatherhood while trying to plot out a secure future for dads and their children.
Dickens says he was “really impressed” with the young dads who were able to make valuable contributions to help others experiencing the same ups and downs as they are. “All of them had something they brought to it,” he says. “This structure allowed them to be intentional about sharing.”
The next steps will be to see if the prototypes can be adapted for a wider use.
“Hopefully we will be able to take our prototypes and use it to impress other young dads,” Cole says. “Let them know they have a voice and that their dreams and aspirations are valued and achievable.”
“This is just the beginning of the journey,” Suliman told the group as the session came to an end. “Thank you all for being generous with your experiences and your creativity.”