US­ING HER ‘STREET CRED’ IN WATTS

Jorja Leap lis­tens and learns in help­ing shed light on what father­hood is like for poor and black An­ge­lenos

Los Angeles Times - - ARTS & BOOKS - By Tre’vell An­der­son trev­ell.an­der­son@la­times.com

Jorja Leap is no or­di­nary pro­fes­sor; she’s got what many would call “street cred.”

Sit­ting in her of­fice at UCLA, where she teaches at the Luskin School of Public Af­fairs, she points to two pho­tos hang­ing above her desk. The first is of her with Fa­ther Greg Boyle, founder of Los An­ge­les’ Home­boy In­dus­tries, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that works to steer peo­ple from gang life. She’s done ex­ten­sive work with Fa­ther Boyle and the men and women he helps men­tor.

The sec­ond, in black and white, is of black and Latino men and their chil­dren. Th­ese are mem­bers of Project Father­hood, for­mer gang mem­bers and ex-cons with whom Leap has worked for the past five years at the Jor­dan Downs apart­ments in Watts. They are the sub­ject of her new book, “Project Father­hood: A Story of Courage and Heal­ing in One of Amer­ica’s Tough­est Com­mu­ni­ties” (Bea­con Press: 256 pp., $24.95). All pro­ceeds ben­e­fit Project Father­hood Jor­dan Downs.

“I knew the minute they started talk­ing, I had to bear wit­ness, and it be­came im­por­tant to me that their sto­ries were out there,” said Leap. “We don’t have books about poor black fa­thers. We have books about men of color who have raised them­selves up, but we also need to know of this ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Project Father­hood was started by the late Dr. Her­shel Swinger, a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist and for­mer se­nior vice pres­i­dent of Los An­ge­les’ Chil­dren’s In­sti­tute. The pro­gram pro­vides ther­apy, sup­port and train­ing for low-in­come ur­ban fa­thers.

In 2006 un­der Swinger’s lead­er­ship, Project Father­hood re­ceived a $7.5-mil­lion fed­eral grant to repli­cate it­self in smaller it­er­a­tions through­out Los An­ge­les County. Some of those groups have come to fo­cus their at­ten­tion on fa­thers in jail and gay dads. The one at Jor­dan Downs be­gan in 2010 when Michael Cum­mings, a for­mer gang mem­ber turned tow truck driver and gang in­ter­ven­tion­ist, pulled in Leap and an ini­tial group of fa­thers with whom he had al­ready been speak­ing.

“It was kind of like a dream come true,” said Cum­mings about the group’s for­ma­tion.

Leap jumped at the op­por­tu­nity to serve as the group’s “mas­ter so­cial worker,” as Cum­mings called her, be­cause it was a chance to re­turn to South Los An­ge­les, a place she calls home.

Un­til age 10, Leap lived in the South L.A. neigh­bor­hood of West­mont. Her mom and dad went to high schools in the area, and her grand­par­ents are buried there. Her first mem­ory of Watts, how­ever, cen­ters on what her un­cle called the “so­cial up­ris­ings” of 1965.

“I re­mem­ber not be­ing fright­ened by the ri­ots,” Leap said. “I re­mem­ber just want­ing to know why.”

Even­tu­ally, she would “learn about the kind of poverty in Watts and the eco­nomic dis­lo­ca­tion that ex­isted.” While pur­su­ing her mas­ter’s in so­cial work from UCLA, she re­quested a field as­sign­ment in South Los An­ge­les. There, she ex­pe­ri­enced a rev­e­la­tion as “a mi­nor­ity in a sea of black faces.”

“It is the mo­ment that changed my life,” Leap said.

A pe­tite woman, raised Greek, she found ac­cep­tance in a com­mu­nity where, as she said, many who look like her are scared to drive through, let alone work.

But Watts is where she felt she be­longed. “I’m ba­si­cally a gang­ster at heart,” she said, laugh­ing. “They know who’s one of theirs. They know who cares and who’s there for the photo op.”

Thirty-five years later, Leap has be­come an in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized gang ex­pert who calls for­mer gang mem­bers friends and fam­ily. In “Project Father­hood,” she show­cases some of their sto­ries.

The book is a cul­mi­na­tion of four years of con­ver­sa­tions and weekly meet­ings with the fa­thers of Jor­dan Downs that re­flect the au­then­tic lived ex­pe­ri­ences of th­ese men as they nav­i­gate par­ent­hood. The book, Leap said, de­bunks the myth of the ab­sent black fa­ther.

“It wasn’t the ab­sent black fa­ther,” she said. “It was not the con­ven­tional fa­ther, not the Bill Cosby fa­ther ... but he was a pres­ence in his chil­dren’s lives.”

The men who par­tic­i­pated and con­tinue to par­tic­i­pate are no dif­fer­ent from any other par­ent. “Th­ese men’s de­sires and in­ten­tions are to be providers, eco­nom­i­cally in­de­pen­dent, raise their chil­dren and they want their chil­dren to go to col­lege,” Leap said. “Who does that sound like? Ev­ery [sin­gle] per­son I know.”

Ac­cord­ing to Leap — who also wrote the 2012 book “Jumped In: What Gangs Taught Me about Vi­o­lence, Drugs, Love, and Re­demp­tion” — th­ese men have a so­phis­ti­cated, nu­anced un­der­stand­ing of race, as demon­strated by their con­ver­sa­tions recorded in “Project Father­hood” of the 2013 shoot­ings by for­mer Los An­ge­les po­lice of­fi­cer Christo­pher Dorner, the elec­tion of Pres­i­dent Obama and the death of Trayvon Martin.

“With the fa­thers, I have had the deep­est, most in­tel­lec­tu­ally in­for­ma­tive, hon­est con­ver­sa­tions I’ve ever had,” she said.

Leap hopes that those who read the book will take a les­son that can also be ap­plied to the un­rest seen in re­sponse to po­lice bru­tal­ity across the na­tion in cities such as like Fer­gu­son, Mo., and Bal­ti­more.

“It’s about poverty and about race,” she said. “Po­lice bru­tal­ity is the symp­tom.”

As co-leader of the group and a cen­tral voice in “Project Father­hood,” Cum­mings agreed the ex­pe­ri­ence has been trans­for­ma­tive for par­tic­i­pants and their fam­i­lies alike. It proves that “every­body can be a fa­ther no mat­ter what your sit­u­a­tion is or what it looks like.”

Cum­mings and Leap to­gether, with help from a num­ber of oth­ers, have also be­gun a Project Father­hood group at Jor­dan Downs’ neigh­bor, Nick­er­son Gar­dens. The plan is to “re­in­force what’s a strength in this com­mu­nity in a very real way,” Leap said.

“Watts is dif­fer­ent,” she con­tin­ued, “but Watts is worth it.”

Christina House For The Times

“WE DON’T have books about poor black fa­thers,” said Jorja Leap, who makes it her mission to de­bunk the myth of the ab­sent black fa­ther in her lat­est work.

Michael Robin­son Chavez Los An­ge­les Times

MEM­BERS OF Project Father­hood spread the word on the pro­gram while walk­ing by the Jor­dan Downs apart­ments.

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