As a young man growing up in Sandtown-Winchester, Antoine Bennett ran with a crew he says “inflicted a lot of negativity on our community.” At 18, in a misplaced show of loyalty and bravado, he shot a man. He ended up spending three-and-a-half years in prison—a stint he called “frightening.”
Bennett got his GED in prison, read piles of books and felt compelled upon his release to give back to the community he’d once harmed.
As a 2012 Community Fellow, Bennett created Men of Valuable Action (MOVA), a leadership development program that strives to reduce recidivism among men in the community by promoting education, encouraging family stability and offering career development support. The program serves fathers who dropped out of high school or were formerly incarcerated, with the ultimate goal of helping those men be the best fathers to their children as possible.
“Fatherhood is the common denominator,” says Bennett, now 43. “We want to partner with these men to help them not only improve their lives but also help them improve the community by stabilizing the family unit—restoring them to the families they all want to be a part of, but don’t always know how.”
Coming out of prison, Bennett knew what he needed to get on track and get back into his own daughter’s life: He needed an education, a good-paying job, and a sense that he could be of value to her. He hoped to become the person she could believe in and he hoped she would recognize how willing he was to help guide her future.
Today, along with the help of several dedicated mentors, those are the same things he strives to personally provide the 35 men who have come through the MOVA program.
“Many times we look at African-American dads and assume they are deadbeat dads, not dead-broke dads,” he says. “If we don’t feel that we can help provide for our children when they need it or want it, it cuts us off at the knees. So whenever a gentleman is talking to me about his role as a dad, he almost always says, ‘I need to find a job.’ I haven’t met one man yet who said, ‘I don’t love my kids at all.’ It is always from a position of, ‘I wish I could do better.’”
MOVA helps connect men to GED programs, such as one run by 2013 Community Fellow Bernice Bishop and job-training programs, such as those at the Center for Urban Families. Bennett also hosts regular events for the fathers, such as “Dancing with Daddy”—a date night for fathers and their daughters or sons.
“We have movie nights free of charge with hot dogs, popcorn. We’ve had Halloween parties with candy, hot chocolate and, cider,” Bennett says. “At Christmas time we gave away over 100 toys—one toy per child. I can’t express to you the elation of dads being able to bring their kids to do something that makes them so happy. One dad had five kids, and every one of them walked away with a toy.”
Most recently, Bennett and his mentors have started a weekly financial literacy course with the men, using a curriculum from “Rich Dad Poor Dad,” a best-selling personal finance book by Robert T. Kiyosaki. The idea for the course came from a survey Bennett did of the MOVA participants that showed that budgeting and finances were a top need.
One of Bennett’s proudest accomplishments is the work he and the MOVA men did to clean up a small community park that had been a rodent-infested dumping ground and eyesore. The park had been restored once before, but fell into disrepair over the years.
Bennett and others envisioned the park as a place where the MOVA fathers could bring their children, where families could have picnics or enjoy outdoor concerts. With a grant from the Baltimore Community Foundation, and working with volunteers, MOVA tilled the ground, pulled up weeds, painted, planted flowers and repaired a gazebo. The process took a little more than a year, and Bennett is planning a celebration in August, with food and music.
“Many of the dads, if they don’t currently live in the projects, they come from there or their kids are still there,” Bennett says. “The park is a place where they can walk to and have some place safe, close and reliable where they can go to with their kids.”
And not insignificantly, the park restoration also provided the MOVA men a way to give back to Sandtown-Winchester—tangible, sweat-built reparations for the past.
“We feel it so painfully when men are not stepping up in our community,” Bennett says. “Men want to be of help; we want to solve problems. I’m telling you: If you give a brother just an ounce of encouragement by saying ‘this is who you are and this is how you can help,’ they identify and they do help. They do contribute.”