Coaches: Time to Train Citizen Fathers

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©Andrea Morisette Grazzini, Father’s Day 2012

Brad Fiedler and Bill Doherty are outwardly different, and yet, in many ways similar in their self-appointed and community-critical roles as citizen fathers.

Bill is a global leader in the work of healthy relationships and communities, a committed husband, father and grandfather. Brad is part-time staff at my community YMCA. He’s never been married, and has no biological children.

Let me tell you about Bill.

Bill Doherty playing dodgeball with his granddaughter, at Paha Sapa: Play it Forward community play event.

Beyond being an ever-present professional adviser, a role I know he also serves in for many others, he has also become a “dialogue partner” who I “co-learn” with. Of the many topics he’s co-processed with me, perhaps the most challenging have been around gender differences. When I’ve wanted to give up on men, Bill has patiently supported my frustrations while meanwhile offering me a more nuanced male view.

Maybe the most hopeful he’s shared has been through his “Fatherhood Project,” an effort to re-engage fathers in their children’s and their communities lives.

I encountered it first hand after he invited me to take one of his courses, which I loved. But I was not eager to attend a day of class during which the group would be speaking. As explanation, I’ll just say this: I’m divorced. During the talk, I was afraid the look on my face might betray my feelings, so I spent part of it pondering the pattern in the carpet in front of my table.

Citizen Fathers

After the ten men who introduced themselves as citizen fathers shared their complicated stories of struggles being good men and fathers, I began crying.  I was relieved by their candor and demonstrated commitment to continue being present to their responsibilities, particularly to their children, their growth as community role models – and (gulp), to healing hurts they’ve caused women.

When I looked up, I noticed Bill also had tears in his eyes. I expect the emotions his expressed were of pride at how far these men had come. Many had had deep angers and issues to overcome. Bill was clearly moved by how mature these men, who his work has long nurtured, have become.

The men, most who hadn’t had good father figures, now intentionally embraced their roles as leaders with self-insight rare in even the best-parented people.

Which brings me to Brad.

My relationship with Brad is oriented around my YMCA’s basketball court, where his official role is “court monitor.”

It’s a place where many different people congregate, not only for play and exercise but also for a sense of belonging and community. I especially appreciate its community ethic.

In particular, I’m grateful for ever-present Brad, who has become a friend and “dialogue partner” of mine, similar to Bill, only in less formal way.

Brad, like Bill, combines his professional job with his sense of purpose.

Dads in community strolling their children.

Not in the contract

Though it is not in his job description, Brad considers it his personal responsibility to serve as an unofficial father figure to countless children, teens and young adults who, with a mix of innocent boisterousness and occasionally hostile bluster, bang around on the courts. And not only with basketballs: on any given day there might be footballs flying, a baseball being pitched or soccer balls banking off walls.

Parented or not, and some aren’t, this group can get rowdy, even out of hand. But, if Brad’s working, the chaos somehow transforms into something like peaceful cacophony. It’s not that the balls don’t keep flying—as they must—that’s part of the point, right?

Here’s the clincher: Brad is paraplegic. In a moment of youthful recklessness, he was in an accident that left him paralyzed.

The quiet power Brad conveys from courtside, and not uncommonly from the middle of the court, is something to see.  There he is rolling right into the middle of balls flying everywhere or fists-on-the-brink of flying or a “F*** Yous!”-a-flying kerfuffle.

Witnessing Brad’s magic beats watching ESPN by a long shot in my “playbook.”

Parenting, like playing a sport, takes lots of practice.

If for no reason other then because there he is in living color, modeling every one of the lessons in all those parenting books (and not a few sports biographies) we all read.  And, yes, I’ve read nearly all of them.  Including Bill Doherty’s.  Still, I don’t know all the answers—and fail, frequently, while trying.  My only saving grace is in knowing I’m not the only parent who does. As the Fatherhood Project’s citizen fathers reminded me.

Which is exactly what Brad is: a citizen father, whose impact is modeled with the many youth who look up to him. And that would be just about every kid who frequents our YMCA.

Most delightful is seeing the little kids prance up to Brad and ask him point-blank questions their parents and others would wonder, but dare not ask. Or share little woes only a person who has had his share would understand without judgment, knowing Brad will offer a bit of solace or a smile or a distracting task, like asking them to rack basketballs for him.

Guys: meet the real man

Most touching though, is to catch a glimpse of a big teen-aged boy sprawled on the floor next to this good man.

These are not young men so well “socialized” they’d consciously seek out opportunities to sit still, no less next to a man who’ll never walk again–even if there were such people, young or not. But these guys, I expect, find a sense of non-patronizing belonging and connection with “crippled” Brad, whose wheelchair is only a detail that far from defines the full measure of his character. Whose unassuming wisdom is as profound as PhD’d Bill Doherty’s is.

And whose consistent presence and commitment to them is something, I imagine, they’d—we’d all–appreciate from a father.

These are the gifts Brad and Bill bring to so many: presence and commitment.  Both offer a living model neither would brag about.  But, I’ve benefitted from their presence and commitments, too, so I will.

Their lesson, to capture it in a half-time commercial-sized sound bite is this: Fatherhood isn’t fathering when it is defined only by big talk.

A father and son bonding by reading.

Fatherhood I daresay, is a skill that like basketball or business or billiards, must be practiced. Like the gifts of great athletes, the gifts of great fathers aren’t something that men are simply just born with. And, like gifted athletes, even the most gifted and practiced fathers make mistakes. In any case, their gifts simply cannot be expressed without many hours toiling away and learning between big events.

It helps to have great coaches—like Brad Fiedler and Bill Doherty—who show up for the boring practices, too, not just the occasional big game. Citizen fathers who are there over and over and over again in real life, with their children and/or others, in community with other people—all who are also learning by doing.

Including, the boys and young men who will be our communities’ future fathers.

 

Andrea Morisette Grazzini is a writer, consultant and participatory researcher. Her work has influenced numerous local, national and global conversations on cross-sector collaboration.  She co-founded the tech-company Peoplenet Communications Corporation in 1993.  And founded the cross-partisan initiative DynamicShift in 2009.

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