My Dad Was a Model for Change—His Version of Black Fatherhood Inspires Me To Fight for Social Justice

From a young age, I saw my father living out his purpose. Every Black dad is a changemaker in the future of their children—each deserves our support.

Father poses with his three sons
Photo: Courtesy of Robert Rooks

As the CEO of REFORM Alliance, a national organization dedicated to probation and parole reform, I work every day to fix a failed criminal justice system that has deteriorated public safety. Yet my most important mission is as a dad. Because cultivating the next generation can be the most durable and effective change. I do not believe there is such a thing as a broken man, but there are broken systems, and I believe that our children are most poised to fix these systems.

It's a painful reality that Black fathers have been doubted and underestimated. We've been told that we don't do our part. I've tried my best to prove them wrong. Having three Black sons of my own changed how I see the world. For the first time, I viewed everything, including the fight for justice, through the prism of fatherhood.

While that prism has evolved through the generations, there's a constant kind of worry that comes with being a Black father of Black boys.

Like so many Black fathers, I had "the talk" with my sons about how to interact with the police. I'm glad that I did because one of them thought he was supposed to run. There's so much I've tried to teach my sons, and I wonder whether it's enough.

Helping my children navigate the nuances of race in America can be overwhelming and daunting. Prejudice still permeates our society and will continue to for a long time. But I try to make sure that they know where they came from and how far we've come.

For many Black fathers, the feeling that our children are being set up to fail is a pervasive and painful undercurrent in our lives. Education and wealth gaps continue to stifle us. The unemployment rate among Black Americans is nearly double that of white Americans and remains higher than the national rate. Black people struggle to scale the income ladder, experience the lowest homeownership rates, and face insurmountable student loan debt after they graduate college.

Throughout history, we have had to confront the stigma of low expectations. My youngest son was not eligible for AP classes as a high school freshman. We advocated to get him into an AP computer science course, and ultimately we persuaded the administration to let him in. Not only did he excel in the course, but he also received the highest achievement award in the class.

Setting up my children for success makes me reflect on how blessed I am to have had an advocate in my own father. A man with courage, compassion, and conviction – qualities that our most pioneering civil rights leaders have modeled. In his autobiography, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, "I think that my strong determination for justice comes from the very strong, dynamic personality of my father."

I grew up as the son of a pastor who also instilled a hunger for social justice and a sense of responsibility to others. In fact, he met my mother, a retired army nurse, at an NAACP meeting, so justice and service were central to my upbringing.

From a young age, I saw my father living out his purpose. He built systems and infrastructure in Haiti and West Africa to help people eat and get healthcare. He showed me that you can dedicate your life to social good.

We took road trips throughout the South, just me and him driving from state to state, town to town, church to church, where he would preach. We ate fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and collard greens with kind souls from Texas, Louisiana, and North Carolina. They were strangers, but they welcomed us into their homes like family.

In every church, I would watch my father from the pews with boyish wonder, glancing at the other worshippers now and then to see their reactions to what my father was saying. It must have been magical because heads nodded vigorously, and "amen"s echoed like church bells. At that age, I didn't know what pride was, but I felt proud.

My father's voice was sturdy and melodic. I specifically recall his sermon about transformation and second chances. The message of redemption has stayed with me throughout my life, including in my journey as a father.

When I mentor young people, I think about my dad's sermons and how we're still working to translate them into action. We have inherited a criminal justice system that has categorically failed Black dads and their families.

In many ways, prison is the ultimate expression of where society believes Black men belong. Black Americans are locked up at five times the rate of white Americans. They are more than twice as likely to be on probation and nearly four times as likely to be on parole. Of the 800,000 parents who are incarcerated, an overwhelming majority – 92 percent – are fathers. Being trapped in the system makes it even harder for them to succeed as dads and takes an enormous toll on their children and families. And many, despite extremely difficult odds, fight for their freedom and the freedom of many others day in and day out.

After I helped to pass a landmark criminal justice reform initiative in California, I saw so many people waiting in line to clear their records, to go through the next phase of their life without the stigma and sole identification of being a felon. More recently, at REFORM, we have hosted job fairs in major cities to give system-impacted people the constructive empowerment they may have lacked earlier in their lives.

One of the very real and constant burdens Black men and boys shoulder is the threat to our existence and longevity. We die four years younger than white men and are twenty times more likely to be killed by a gun. We are dying from drug overdoses at more than triple the rate we once were. When I look at my high school yearbook, many of the Black faces smiling back at me are long gone, their young lives erased by violence. It pains me to think about how they never got to grow to their tallest height or become fathers. And how they never got to find their purpose. I think about how successful they could have been. I imagine them as strong, loving fathers.

The losses I have experienced in my life reinforce the gratitude I have for my family. When I see my three sons on the same football team, wearing the same jerseys, on the same field, all working toward the same goal, it fills me with immense pride. This year, they took their team to the state tournament, farther than it had ever gone before.

Richard Wright said that "men can starve from a lack of self-realization as much as they can from a lack of bread." I believe that, as fathers, we must help nourish the potential of our children as much as their stomachs. We must remember every dad, and every Black dad is a changemaker for the future of their children, their community, and their country.

Robert Rooks is CEO of REFORM Alliance, a national organization dedicated to probation and parole reform. He is the father of three sons.

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