Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks Before the Alliance of Concerned Men Town Hall Meeting on Fatherhood and Youth Violence
Thank you, Tyrone [Parker]. I appreciate your kind words, and I want to thank you for bringing us all together – something you do as well as just about anyone in this city.
Over the years, I’ve been privileged to work with you and your partners. Good, strong men who have become my friends. I’ve watched the Alliance of Concerned Men grow from a handful of frustrated – yet, ultimately, hopeful – friends and neighbors into what it is today: one of this city’s most powerful, and most successful, voices for change. You’ve helped to create peace in some of our most dangerous and divided neighborhoods. You’ve spoken out for communities in crisis. And you’ve stood up for families and individuals in need. This work has always begun in the same, simple way – by getting people together, by talking, and by listening.
That’s what today is all about. I’m grateful to be part of this discussion. And that’s why I want to talk to you this afternoon about the responsibilities we share and must fulfill. Responsibilities to ourselves, to each other, to our communities, and to the children who depend on us.
Of all the titles I’ve held in my life – lawyer, prosecutor, judge, U.S. Attorney, and, now, Attorney General – the one I’m most proud of is “father.” It says the most about me. It also means the most to me.
As Attorney General, I have the honor of serving as our nation’s chief law enforcement officer. Each day, I’m reminded of the threats we face, and I’m charged with protecting both the safety of the American people and the strength of our justice system. As solemn and imperative as these duties are, they often seem manageable in comparison to the awesome responsibilities that I feel as the father of three children. Being a good father is every bit as demanding, and every bit as important, as being the Attorney General of the United States.
Let’s be clear about one thing: a father’s role in the life of a child is irreplaceable. Research has proven this. For me, my own experiences parenting two teenage daughters and a 12-year-old son, is all the evidence I need.
I’m glad to be in the company of so many fellow dads and local leaders who want to focus on, and talk about, fatherhood. In the course of this discussion, I hope we will be open and honest enough to ask ourselves tough questions – father to father, parent to parent – about what our communities, as well as the federal government, can do to strengthen our families and support those fathers who are trying to do the right thing.
Open and honest communication is what the Alliance of Concerned Men is all about. I first saw this 13 years ago, when I was the U.S. Attorney here in D.C. That was 1997, the year that Darryl Hall was murdered by rival gang members in Southeast Washington. Darryl was just 12 years old, but he’d been an active gang member. And his tragic death illustrated an alarming problem. I visited the housing complex where he’d lived. That’s where I met Tyrone Parker. I watched as Tyrone and his partners brokered an unprecedented truce between the two gangs whose long-running feud had led to Darryl’s death. It was amazing to witness. Not only did the Alliance help enemies find common ground, they raised the spirit of a hurting city. They lifted up young people who, until that point, had seen only dark times ahead. They worked a miracle. And it was just the first of many.
I realize that this kind of extraordinary service is not done without great sacrifice. Many of you devote your time and talent, as well as your own money, to helping young people day after day. It’s difficult work, for you and also for those you’re working to help. One young gang member, a teenage boy who had been on the front lines of a gang war that you helped end this winter, put it this way. He said, “It’s hard to come in the room and make peace with someone who’s been shooting at you, who’s been trying to kill you.”
But if that young man can come together with his former enemies, if those who have suffered most can find healing through dialogue, then I know that we can, too. We must bring ourselves to ask tough questions and to demand more from ourselves and each other.
After all, we fathers have an opportunity today, as we do every day, to act responsibly in the lives of our children and to be better fathers to them. We can spend time with our sons and daughters. We can help with their homework. We can teach them to play well together. We can teach our sons to show respect to women. And we can teach our daughters to demand respect for themselves. We can serve as role models for how to interact with others and how to handle the challenges of life. Stated simply, we can – and we must – assume the responsibility of being involved in our children’s lives. By being involved, and by setting a good example, we each have the opportunity to impact our kids’ lives, as well as the future of our nation, in positive and profound ways.
Here in Washington, too many of our children are in need and living in pain. Too many kids have given up on themselves and given in to a life of violence and crime. As some of you recall, it wasn’t too long ago that our city was called the most dangerous city in the world. But for all the progress we’ve made our young men are still more likely to experience violence here than in almost any other city in the United States.
Let me give you the statistics: 2,500 active gang members; 5,000 loose affiliates; 156 juveniles crammed into a detention center meant to house no more than 88 youth offenders; hundreds of robberies; dozens of murders.
But behind these numbers are the stories of lost children, unrealized dreams, shattered families, and grief beyond measure.
The plain truth is that youth violence is far-too common. There’s no single cause and no simple solution. But we know one important contributor is the absence of a responsible, loving father. Here in D.C., where half of African-American households don’t include even one grown man, the implications of this fact could not be clearer.
If we are going to call ourselves “men” then we must act like men. We must nurture and care for those we bring into this world. That’s what a “man” does. We can’t leave this awesome responsibility only to the women in our lives who, nevertheless, do a superb job. And we can’t ask our communities to shoulder our obligations. This must end. Any man who can create a child must also help, in a meaningful way, to help raise that child.
I don’t pretend that this will be easy, especially for fathers who have been incarcerated. I come here with great respect for those of you who have made mistakes but have chosen to appear here tonight because you know that someone is counting on you.
People sometimes make bad choices. And some of these choices come with a prison sentence. But we can’t permit the incarceration of a parent to punish an entire family.
Today, more than 1.5 million American children have fathers in prison. More than half of these children are African American. Often, these kids struggle with anxiety, depression, learning problems, and aggression, undermining their own chances to succeed. In many cases, maintaining relationships with their parents during incarceration can improve the lives of these children. Yet, too often, our policies have failed to support these relationships.
We must find ways to help these men play a central role in their children’s lives. Research reveals that men who maintain strong family ties while behind bars are more successful when they are released. They have an easier time finding jobs and staying off drugs. And they’re less likely to commit new crimes after they leave our jails.
There’s a theme here: family connections improve public safety, and responsible and engaged parenting improves public safety. It’s time we started to think about reentry in that context.
It may surprise you to learn that approximately 700,000 people return to their communities from prison every year. Seven hundred thousand. And yet, only a small percentage of these people receive any help preparing for their return. Surely this failure must play a role in the fact that two-thirds of men released from prison are re-arrested within three years.
The good news is that here in D.C., and in communities across the country, we’re giving more attention to family. We’re also using science and evidence-supported policies, not political dogma, to tackle the issues of recidivism and reentry. I’m pleased that, last year, the Justice Department awarded $28 million under the Second Chance Act for reentry programs. These investments will support parenting training inside our prisons and reunification programs for when people are released.
I know that many of you have struggled with these challenges or are facing them today. And many of you have found innovative, productive solutions. I look forward to hearing your stories this afternoon.
And as we talk together, let us keep in mind the wise words of Eric Perry, the courageous D.C. teenager who summoned the Alliance last year to intervene in one of this city’s deadliest gang disputes. “Now,” he told reporters, “it is up to us to get our community back together.”
He’s exactly right. I look forward to working with all of you to figure out where we go from here and how we build the future that our communities, and our kids, deserve.