Many Englewood residents call Joseph Williams “the Black Mr. Rogers.” Just like the friendly television neighbor who celebrated children’s individuality, Williams works with other fathers to build up the youth in his community.

“These children are living adult lives,” Williams said. Many, he noted, are stuck between adults’ quarrels, burdened with caretaking responsibilities, or have already experienced loss. He often thinks about a moment in a pre-K classroom when a little boy shared that his father was dead. “I never forget that,” he said. “We’ve got to be there for those types of children who don’t have a father role model.”

Mr. Dad’s Father’s Club, the nonprofit Williams founded and now leads, uses literacy and mentorship to nurture the social-emotional learning of Chicago youth so that they are better equipped to handle the world around them. This year, they celebrated their fifth annual Father’s Day March, a family-friendly event filled with food, music, games, and giveaways.

“We show them that we can bring hundreds of people together and nothing [bad] can happen for a peaceful day,” Williams said.

Scenes from the fifth annual Father’s Day March on June 17, 2023. (Courtesy Mr. Dad’s Father’s Club)

Many young people in Chicago don’t always get that sense of peace. They say they rarely feel safe in their neighborhoods and often travel elsewhere just to enjoy a calm day outside. It’s a refrain that comes up nearly every summer, as rising temperatures and a lack of summer programs can contribute to a rise in gun violence. 

Chicago youth can be part of the solution, Williams said, but they need guidance and mentors for consistent support. Research indicates that positive role models can increase the resiliency of adolescents who are exposed to negative environments. In May, several teens accompanied Williams Downtown as part of Mayor Brandon Johnson’s plan to prevent a spike in violence over Memorial Day Weekend by enlisting community groups to intervene in potential conflicts. Johnson’s administration provided those groups with $2.5 million in private grants for fun and safe activities. 

“We have to set the tone,” Williams said, “and be the example for our youth.”

“There’s no playbook on being a great father”

At age 33, Williams knows what young people are going through because he has gone through it himself. He and his brother were raised almost entirely by his mother. His father was mostly absent, going in and out of prison. 

As Williams grew up and had children of his own, he aimed to learn from his father’s mistakes. “There’s no playbook on being a great father,” Williams said. “I wasn’t taught how to be a good dad and I didn’t know what to do, but I knew how to love.”

His own path was not without challenges. In 2013, when he was 23, Williams was sentenced to Cook County Jail for possession of a stolen motor vehicle. He was sent to jail for nine months. 

After he was released, he started volunteering at his daughter’s school, a commitment that would ultimately create a new organization. 

“I figured if I could get more in tune with my children and their education and what they’re doing, maybe I’d be out of trouble,” Williams said.

He was right. After reading to his daughter’s class one day in 2017, kids asked him to come back. He started going every week. His work caught the attention of other fathers who wanted to join. They began to volunteer alongside Williams and soon enough, they were rotating weekly reading shifts. Now there are over 150 fathers who volunteer for events and more than 25 do weekly readings in 12 Chicago public and charter schools. There’s even a mascot called Mr. Dad, a smiling Black man in a red Mr. Rogers sweater.

And as Williams grew his own organization, he became involved in the violence prevention charge in other ways. Shortly after he put together Mr. Dad’s first informal reading groups, he began working as a violence prevention staffer for Cure Violence, formerly known as CeaseFire, where Williams said he learned to be vigilant of signs that someone might need help. 

A father to look up to

Williams learned early on that the more kids know about themselves and their unique identities, the better they’re able to respond to conflict. He likes to bring in a mix of different fathers: everyday dads and people in leadership positions, including judges, congressmen, and activists. 

“You can’t be what you can’t see,” Williams said. “We want to catch them while they’re young and build them.” 

Now, Mr. Dad’s offers children between pre-K and third grade readings on building self confidence. Older kids, fourth graders to high school seniors, can get mentoring and one-on-one support. 

Raymond Keller and Joseph Williams Rita Oceguera for The Trace

Raymond Keller, a volunteer who does community engagement for the club — and is also the man underneath the Mr. Dad costume — said he is overcome with joy to be able to provide a father figure to kids in his community. He also didn’t have one himself. The work, he said, makes him step up to the plate to be present for his own kids, too.

Research shows that children are negatively affected when they are raised in a home without a father. Christopher Brown, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, said kids without a father are at greater risk of poverty, behavioral problems, academic setbacks, substance abuse, and suicide.

Boys without fathers who are looking for guidance gravitate to whoever is nearby, Brown said, and oftentimes their models end up being their own peers, who might also be struggling with similar issues.

Frances Mathews, a resident of Auburn Gresham, and the mother of one of Williams’ mentees, said that kids in communities like hers need access to safe spaces and resources like mental services and job opportunities. 

“The neighborhoods are so messed up because these kids feel like they have nothing to live for,” she said.

When you add adverse experiences like gun violence to the equation, Brown said, it can place the child at a greater risk of poor outcomes. But if a father is present, or even if father figures are present in the community, it can give children a better chance.

Mathews adopted her son, Marcus, when he was 6 months old. Now he’s 18 and has developmental delays, she said, and is learning at a sixth-grade level. On top of that, she said he lacked a father figure for most of his life and was depressed for a long time because he didn’t understand why his biological mother, her cousin, gave him to her to raise.

But then they met Williams last year through One Summer Chicago, which offers employment and internship opportunities to youth and young adults. She wishes they’d met him sooner. Mathews said Williams helped Marcus not only with his academic skills but also to understand his life through a different perspective. “You don’t have to worry about what you went through in the past,” Mathews said Wiliams told her son. “Worry about your future.”

After the program, Marcus attended a summer camp that Williams began to offer last year, thanks to a $15,000 Freedom Summer 2022 grant from My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, an initiative created by the Obama Foundation. The camp offered 10 young men a six-week paid opportunity to travel to different parts of the city where Williams introduced them to community leaders. Even after it ended, Mathews said, Williams has continued to check on her son. She said mentoring programs are important to give kids hope, guidance, and keep them out of trouble.

Participants aren’t the only people paying attention: On February 28, voters acknowledged Williams’ community work by electing him as the 7th District councilor for the City of Chicago Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability.  

Breaking the cycle of violence

Although he’s already had a number of notable achievements, Williams wants to do more. He’s taking a holistic approach to helping youth by also helping fathers. He currently mentors them one-on-one and leads fatherhood sessions with Chicago CRED, a gun violence prevention organization, but he wants to expand those offerings.

It’s tough being a Black man, Williams said. Fathers need help and resources, like jobs and medical coverage, he said, to be the best role models they can be. He does the best he can now, but said he would love additional funding to pay volunteers a stipend.

“We have a culture in America that does not prepare boys and men to be good fathers as well as it prepares women and girls to be good mothers,” Brown said. “We’ve got this huge focus on creating good moms, healthy kids, but we’ve left men and fathers out of the equation.”

Although 22-year-old Josiah Warren has only been part of the fatherhood sessions for four months, he found comfort in knowing that other fathers like him are also trying to resolve their problems and better connect with their children.

Warren said Williams, who also became a father at a young age, is a good role model.

Despite any problems between parents, Warren advises fathers that the focus should be on what’s best for the kids — no matter what. 

People outside Englewood think that the neighborhood is only defined by violence, Williams said, but residents are using their talents to grow and improve the area.

He wonders what it would look like if the money and programming sent Downtown during Memorial Day weekend were also distributed to the neighborhoods impacted the most by violence. “What does it look like when violence prevention is a 24-hour service?” Williams asked.

While working to heal the community, Williams is on a journey with his own family. On June 13, after about seven years, his father was released from prison. At the Father’s Day event, he met Williams’ wife and six children for the first time. There, he told Williams how proud he was. He wants to volunteer with Mr. Dad’s Father’s Club.