Joseph T. Jones Jr. | Center for Urban Families

A holistic approach to economic and domestic well-being

Recognizing That Fathers, Families Make a Difference

Joseph T. Jones Jr. – Center for Urban Families (Photo by Matthew Rakola)

Joseph T. Jones Jr. knows all too well what it means for a child to grow up without a dad around.

“My mother and father divorced when I was 10,” he recalls. “When he left the home, we were so poor we had to move out of the projects. I ended up having all this time on my hands to run the streets.

“So the issue of fatherlessness has always gnawed at me. It seems so much the norm with my peers.”

“They focus on the entire family, but one thing that makes them unique is they are addressing this historical issue of marginalizing and oppressing fathers. ” —Raquel T. Hatter, The Kresge Foundation

Jones began using heroin at age 13. He spent 17 years addicted to drugs and in and out of incarceration.

Today he’s in recovery from his addiction and is a citizen who only wants to give back. He founded the nonprofit Center for Urban Families (CFUF) in Baltimore to strengthen his hometown’s most impoverished neighborhoods.

His idea was to help fathers and families achieve economic and domestic stability, though the effort is clearly a two-way street.

“Given where I was once in my life, I could do this all day long,” he says. “I took so much from the city, I needed to give back. I’m in a love affair with the city of Baltimore — all its grit and all its promise.”

Helping Families, One at a Time

Joseph T. Jones addresses graduates of the CFUF STRIVE employment training program. (Photo by Matthew Rakola)

CFUF is a recipient of a Kresge Foundation Next Generation Initiative grant, which gives a cohort of direct services organizations the opportunity to improve leadership growth and create organizational and action plans that center on family and workplace development to advance and accelerate social and economic mobility.

“We built a new 32,000-square-foot building, and on the front there’s a placard that reads, ‘Helping Fathers and Families Work,’” Jones says. “I didn’t want some guy walking past us to say, ‘Center For Urban Families … that must be for women.’ I wanted them to know there was a place in here for them as a man and as a dad.”

CFUF’s Practitioners Leadership Institute provides training to those who work with strengthening fathers and families and in related fields. (Photo courtesy of Center for Urban Families)

Jones’ vision is to elevate and equip fathers with the tools they need to be supportive of their families.

“Joe is known for saying, ‘There’s a difference between a deadbeat dad and a dead-broke dad,’” says Raquel T. Hatter, managing director of Kresge’s Human Services Program. “They focus on the entire family, but one thing that makes them unique is they are addressing this historical issue of marginalizing and oppressing fathers.”

A Fork in the Road

Fathers and children take a museum field trip. (Photo courtesy of Center for Urban Families)

The NextGen grant arrived at a critical point for CFUF, which was reevaluating the very core of its mission.

“First of all, we just felt very honored,” he says. “But we were in the middle of changing our DNA, reengineering the entire organization.”

Jones says he had grown increasingly frustrated with CFUF’s definition of what makes a successful outcome.

CFUF’s Couples Advancing Together program is designed to help couples move toward economic and domestic stability. (Photo courtesy of Center for Urban Families)

“The folks who really ascended to a place where they were stable in terms of their economic situation were with us three to five years,” he says. “So we wanted to change our model to focus on working with folks long term, but continue to do what we do at baseline.”

Kresge came along with its support just at the right time, he adds, helping propel the organization in the direction it needed to go.

“This is a big deal for us,” Jones says. “And to be in an environment with Kresge where you have big thinkers who are doing real systemic kind of work, this is the benefit of the Next Generation investment.

“We’re trying to create an ecosystem for our entire city, and they’re giving us the opportunity to see different approaches to uplifting people out of poverty.”

STRIVE graduates surround CFUF founder Joseph T. Jones. (Photo courtesy of Center for Urban Families)

Through Jones’ leadership, CFUF has become an organization that incorporates direct services, program design and policymaking to have a huge impact on the community.

CFUF is also helping to strengthen the human services sector as a whole, advancing urban opportunity across the nation. Its nationally focused Practitioners Leadership Institute is designed to provide training and information to strengthen the skills of those who work to support families, black male achievement and workforce development.

“When you think about Joe’s personal story, in the context of Baltimore and its history, and the fact he had a vision bigger than himself and undertook it, it’s inspiring,” Hatter says. “That’s a reason foundations like Kresge exist, to find those types of visionaries around the country and support them.”

Joseph T. Jones Jr.

An Interview with Joseph T. Jones Jr.

How has an organization like Kresge supported your own personal leadership journey?

We were in the Kresge Next Generation Initiative with 13 other organizations from around the country. Coming in, I did not have a true appreciation for what value we would fully derive from the learning community. When we began to know one another, those walls that come up when you first meet somebody, those walls began to shed away, and we began to learn about each other's work. And we began to lean on one another.

The work that we've been doing, particularly around racial equity and inclusion, has really helped to move us along. It was a very awkward conversation for many of us in the beginning. And over the course of the last year, just to think about the maturity of this group and the way that we have grown together and how we've grown as leaders, I think that is a value added that I had not anticipated getting from being involved with this very important initiative.

What advice do you have for up-and-coming leaders?

I’ve always felt like if i wanted to be the best basketball player in the world, I had to play against the best talent. I just couldn't play against people whose skills were the same as mine, because you can't grow in that. I have to be in it where people who are pushing me. People who are blocking my shot because that's when you perfect your craft. And I think it's the same thing in the human services sector, we have to think about those people we can surround ourselves with to help take our game to another level.

What makes an effective leader?

You have to develop the talent that is with you and around you. I think sometimes we get opportunities and we forget to think about what it would mean to invite someone along who maybe is not as seasoned. You have to think consistently about giving people exposure because that’s how leaders show up in very authentic ways that are helpful not just to the work currently but to legacy building and capacity building.

Kresge's Take

‘Emerging Ecosystem Leader’ Has Influence
NextGen supports families with a two-generation approach. (Photo courtesy of Center for Urban Families)

Baltimore’s Center for Urban Families is a standout example of the kind of nonprofit human services leader The Kresge Foundation seeks to engage and energize through its Next Generation (NextGen) Initiative.

“They have a specific focus on traditional systems of support that have historically excluded fathers,” says Raquel T. Hatter, managing director of Kresge’s Human Services Program. “That sets them apart from many other investments in our portfolio.

“I see them as what we call an ‘emerging ecosystem leader’ — one that has influence across multiple systems and implications for families and communities.”

NextGen is a two-year program designed to advance social and economic mobility using a two-generation, whole-family approach. It has three components: leadership development, development of a community practice and the creation of organizational and cohort action plans.

The Center for Urban Families puts a focus on fathers. (Photo courtesy of Center for Urban Families)

“NextGen allows us to engage with organizations we believe have the greatest level of impact within their communities and learn alongside them,” notes Joelle-Jude Fontaine, a senior program officer for Kresge’s Human Services team. “We’re learning from them, with them, as they learn from each other. It really is an incredible opportunity.

“Ultimately we’re trying to redefine what a high-functioning human service organization is. What would it look like? How will it impact the field?”

Grantees also collaborate in a learning network that meets twice annually.

“Though there’s a grant attached to the program, it’s really more about learning,” Hatter explains. “Bringing together high-performing organizations with a history of demonstrated outcomes and an emphasis on social and economic mobility to learn from one another, take in new information and see how they might use that information to advance the field can only improve overall outcomes with the communities and families they serve.”

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