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Honoring thy father

Organization strengthens Native dads' spirits

MESA, Ariz. - Albert Pooley considers himself to be a pretty good dad. Which is probably a good thing, since, as president and founder of the Native American Fatherhood & Families Association, his goal is to inspire more Indian fathers to step up to become positive influences in their families' lives.

Having raised six children and now nine grandchildren, Pooley, along with his wife of almost 40 years, Julia, has had plenty of experience changing diapers, getting kids off to school and offering advice on dating. But the work he does now focuses much less on the nitty-gritty details of parenting and more on strengthening the spirits of dads who, he said, are too often blamed as the root cause of all their families' problems.

''Most family service offerings on reservations are focused on women and children, and have left the father out of the whole equation of the family,'' said Pooley, who's of Navajo and Hopi descent. ''Which is sort of backwards, since I believe fathers are a very important solution to the problems families face.''

In this interview with Indian Country Today, Pooley explained the growth of his nationally-recognized ''Fatherhood is Sacred'' program.

Indian Country Today: How did you come up with the idea for the Native American Fatherhood & Families Association?

Albert Pooley: Around 2001, I was asked to help to start a program for fathers on the Salt River Indian Reservation of Scottsdale, Ariz. I did that on a contract with the tribe, and basically what happened, they gave me some material on fatherhood. And I started teaching that for several months, and it was going OK.

After several months of this, I asked one of the fathers who was attending regularly what he felt about it, and he said, ''Well, it's OK, but it's like any other social service program.'' That kind of hit me pretty hard because I didn't want it to be like any other social service program. I wanted a program that really captured the men's attention and really helped them understand their importance of their roles as fathers. So, I started to develop my own curriculum.

ICT: And that's how the ''Fatherhood is Sacred'' program began?

Pooley: Yes, I started with it at that tribe and then started working with more and more tribes - we've now worked with about 20. The actual association was founded around the beginning of 2003. Our goal is to get fathers involved in the lives of their families in responsible ways.

The unfortunate thing is that a lot of professionals just don't know how to engage fathers. Most programs that serve men are very punitive in nature. Fathers are often told how dysfunctional they are, how bad they are, how sick they are - even in a program like Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the better programs that serves men and women.

ICT: How is your program different?

Pooley: We thought it was important to focus exclusively on Native Americans. I've been in the social services field since 1971, so I decided to use all my experience as an educator, a Native American, a father and a husband to form the basis of the curriculum. When a man walks through our doors, he's one thing and one thing only: a father. ... We make a special effort to make these men feel welcome, wanted and needed in our program. We don't try to make the dads feel guilty; we want them to be proud of what they are.

ICT: When you work with an individual father, what takes place?

Pooley: It's really a didactic process, like a classroom setting. ... This is not a parenting class, and this is not an alcoholism class. We want all the fathers to be going in the same direction, and that brings unity. We set out to define the purpose of life. We say the purpose of life is to have happy and safe families.

We say fatherhood is leadership - the most important kind of leadership. He's not the boss; he's not the ruler. We want men to understand that. If father is a leader, it's his responsibility to bring happiness and safety to his family. We also work on building fathers' moral character and integrity by helping them learn to keep their promises and be dependable. ... When you teach fathers principles, they are able to govern themselves. We really try to enhance their levels of thinking. And you know what? The men love it.

ICT: Do you work mainly with tribes in Arizona?

Pooley: We work with tribes in Arizona and quite a few tribes of the Dakotas and Nebraska - probably about 3,000 individual fathers to date. We really haven't gone out and told a lot of people, nor have we marketed like we should have. We first wanted to see that it works.

ICT: How do you measure success?

Pooley: For me, the best measure is when a father tells me he feels empowered to be a strong presence in his family, but we are also working toward becoming a best practice program. We do have a structured curriculum. The IHS out of Phoenix has identified us as one of their ''best of promise'' programs. We are also working with the Native American Center of Excellence Consortium out of Washington state to help us look at how we can better measure our impact.

A lot of the programs that are serving Native Americans today, particularly in the social services, are not really measured. We have a lot of money put into these programs - but are they really effective? In our program, we can begin to start measuring the impact on one individual at a time, looking at things like recidivism, education, employment, things like that.

Our main questions: Are men becoming more responsible fathers? Are they becoming more responsible husbands? Are they becoming more responsible to their communities?

ICT: What does Father's Day mean to you?

Pooley: It has a lot of meaning. I look back on my own father and think about all of what he did for his kids. My dad was only 5 foot, 5 inches tall, he was a Hopi Indian - he had a lot of courage. When times got tough, I had to stand on my dad's shoulders. Because that's what he gave me.