© 2024 KGOU
Photo of Lake Murray State Park showing Tucker Tower and the marina in the background
News and Music for Oklahoma
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Project Fatherhood' Teaches Parenting Skills To Inner-City Dads


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. The Watts neighborhood in South Los Angeles is beset with poverty, unemployment and sometimes gang violence, but our two guests today believe it's also a community with great strengths. Mike Cummings and Jorja Leap work with men in the neighborhood, many with criminal records, to help them find something missing from their lives as they grew up - fatherhood. The men in Project Fatherhood have children, some from multiple relationships, and plenty of regrets about not being there for support and guidance as their kids grew up and, in many cases, for spending precious years in jail when their children needed a father. They meet regularly for intense and intimate conversations about issues affecting their relationships, including physical punishment, marital fidelity and spousal abuse, not to mention the chronic pressures of poverty, unemployment and the stigma of having served prison time. Mike Cummings, known to most in the community as Big Mike, is a former gang member who's now a pastor and co-leader of the program. Jorja Leap is a professor of social welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs who's spent years studying gang violence. Her new book is called "Project Fatherhood."

Dr. Jorja Leap, Michael Cummings, welcome to FRESH AIR. I thought we'd begin by getting to know each of you just a bit before we talk about the project. Mike, you grew up in Watts. Tell us a little bit about your family and what your early life was like, what the neighborhood was like.

MIKE CUMMINGS: I grew up in Watts. I came from a great home, started out at San Miguel Catholic School. I went to Catholic school up until the seventh grade. And at that time, my mom wasn't able to pay for my schooling. I ended up going to Markham Middle School, and the first day I was at Markham, some guys was trying to take my money and my nutrition. And at that time, the guys around the neighborhood I grew up in came to my rescue. And then that was the first day that I joined a gang - when I was in the seventh grade - so I would be able to protect myself while I was at school.

DAVIES: First day in middle school.

CUMMINGS: First day - actually, first day ever in public school.

DAVIES: And, as I understand it, you went - you stayed in high school and were a really good football player. Were you doing gang stuff and also keeping up your grades and playing football?

CUMMINGS: No. At that time, it really wasn't, I guess you could say, a gang. It was more of a social club back then. Most of the guys that I was with was athletes. And I went to Southwest College one year and played football. I had quite a few letters to go to quite a few major four-year universities. And then I ended up - started - I actually, you could say, was recruited and started selling drugs at that time.

DAVIES: Yeah, and why do you think you picked drugs rather than a potential career in football?

CUMMINGS: Well, you know, I think that I picked drugs than a career in football is because my reading and writing wasn't good. I felt that I probably couldn't really make it at a university, you know, academically. And then at the time, drugs - it was a lot of money and it was quick money, you know? Any time that you can have a '64 Chevy Impala, a '64 Chevy convertible, an Iroc and 10 to $15,000 in your pocket at any given time, that's what I chose at that time. It was a big mistake for me, but that's what I chose.

DAVIES: Now, as I understand it, you were also a tow truck operator while you were dealing drugs. You had more than one truck. What did you end up going to jail for?

CUMMINGS: I ended up going to jail for attempted robbery. You know, once I had - was selling drugs, I ended up using drugs. I ended up smoking crack cocaine. I ended up selling off my truck. The last tow truck that I had I actually sold it for a $50 rock. And I ended up pretty much hanging out on the streets, getting high on the streets, and I went to rob a guy right around 103rd and (unintelligible) and this young man was a paraplegian and I seen him over there. And I went over and he said that he wanted to buy some rock cocaine, so I asked him how much. He told me, I went back across the street, played like I was getting the rocks for him and he pulled his money out and I grabbed it and snatched it. But when he snatched me, as him being a paraplegian, his upper body was so strong that I was wrestling, trying to get away from him and I couldn't. And a young lady and another older Spanish lady came out and said they was going to call the police. And the police came. And the time they came he let me go; I broke and ran and hid in some bushes. And they was looking for me. And at that time, a neighbor came out and told him that I was hiding in the bushes. And that was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. And that's when I went to jail for attempted robbery.

DAVIES: And you were in jail how long?

CUMMINGS: I did about - almost 24 months, you know, fighting my case and serving time.

DAVIES: And, you know, you could've stayed in that life. What took you in a different direction?

CUMMINGS: Well, actually, what took me in a different direction is as once I was in jail fighting my case and going back and forth and I used to send letters home to my mom and tell her to send me some money, and every letter that I got, it wasn't no money in it. It was Scriptures. Then I got a little Bible and I just went from there reading the Bible and listening to my mom. And at that time, I got in trouble and I ended up in the hole and it was a one-man cell. And at that time, I just asked God to come and save me. And from there, since October the 10, '92, that's when I walked out of jail and I ended up going to church and getting saved and I've been in the church ever since.

DAVIES: Now, I know from reading about you that you have a stable life now. You have a tow truck business, you're a pastor, and you've been for many years doing, you know, work helping kids stay safe in communities where there are a lot of dangerous things going on. And I want to talk about Project Fatherhood. You know, if you wanted to attack the problems that plague Watts, there are a lot of things you could focus on, right? I mean, drug treatment, education, literacy programs, job training, conflict resolution, you know, reducing firearms. What made you want to focus on fatherhood?

CUMMINGS: I have three kids altogether. And the first two of them, I never spent no time with. I never was a father to them 'cause I didn't have a father, you know, so I didn't know what to do. And the main thing is is that we have to make sure that the fathers will be in the kids' life, you know, 'cause I know if my father would have been there to guide me, I don't think I'd have went through drugs, alcohol, gang and all the other stuff I went through.

DAVIES: And, Mike, I guess when you were pulling this together, I gather, one of the first people you called was Dr. Jorja Leap, our other guest. Jorja Leap, let me turn to you. One of the things you say is that you've been - I know you've been studying gang violence for a long time and you say that Watts always felt like a home to you. Why?

JORJA LEAP: My roots in Watts and South Los Angeles are very deep. My grandparents emigrated from Greece and settled in South LA. And I came of age as a young girl there until adolescence. And then my very first job was at Martin Luther King Jr. General Hospital in Watts. And it always felt like home to me. It was always part of my emotional DNA as well as my professional concerns.

DAVIES: So let's talk about how this worked. There was an incentive to get people to come to these fatherhood sessions regularly. Who wants to explain how that developed?

CUMMINGS: Well, the incentive is for the fathers to come - actually, it's a $25 gift card. But the incentive is given to the fathers for them to actually take their son out to either McDonald's, Burger King or Subway or even to the ice cream parlor so the father would have some change in his pocket to be able to go out and spend the day, you know, at the ice cream parlor or get a hamburger or something and spend time with the kids. So that's what the incentive was actually meant to be when we first started.

DAVIES: And if I read this right, you had to attend four sessions to get the card, the $25 gift card, right?


DAVIES: So you wanted some consistency to it.

CUMMINGS: We wanted some consistency to it. They had to attend four of the Project Fatherhoods there to actually receive the card. What we wanted to do is to make sure that they could be consistent, to come if they wanted to use that change there to go out and be able to entertain their kid. It's not much, but it's something that they can do to be one-on-one with the kid.

LEAP: And I would add that initially those gift cards were the focus of a lot of interest and attention. But as the group became more and more important, the gift cards almost became incidental. They were part of the program but they - the focus of the men truly shifted.

DAVIES: Now, as you describe it in the book, you addressed some pretty sensitive topics about these men's lives. One of them, for example, is when and whether it is acceptable to hit their kids. Jorja, you want to tell us some of what you heard from the men.

LEAP: Mike and I are looking at each other and nodding our heads and smiling because that was one of the sessions where I just got hung out to dry. And it was quite a discussion because all of the men began by saying, you know, my mama whooped me and I turned out OK. And there was sort of a moment where I said really because most of them had been incarcerated. Most of them had been involved in criminal activity at some time. And then there was this tremendous breakthrough when one of the men in the group talked about witnessing another child being beaten. And the child was beaten so brutally that he eventually died. And you literally could hear the sound of change happening in the room. And I don't want to make it sound like it occurred literally overnight because we did a lot of arguing about this issue, but the men slowly changed. And one of them who was the most dug in about it, named Donald James, later came back and talked about not hitting his nephew who he took care of who he really did want to hit.

DAVIES: And, Jorja Leap, you know, you had this background in social science and this point of view about what's healthy behavior based on research and data. And I'm interested in how you brought that to bear in the conversation. I mean, you know, you can sort of sense - one, you could imagine that here you are, this person with a lot of degrees, telling people in the neighborhood what's right and they're coming at you from their own experience.

LEAP: Well, and add on to that that I am mandated to report any instance of child abuse that I hear about; I'm a mandated reporter. So the men in the room also knew that legally I could get them into a lot of trouble, and they were very skittish about talking openly about this. What got to them was not saying it's bad to hit your children. What got to them was when I talked to them about the statistics that overwhelmingly over 90 percent of the people on death row in the United States of America were victims of child abuse. And these are men that do not want their children to go to prison. They do not want their children to be part of the, you know, the cradle to prison pipeline. And when I said this kind of abuse teaches violence and it's part of that cradle-to-prison pipeline, because of their love and concern for their children and their children's futures, that's how they began to hear the message. It's not the message of discipline. You know, hitting your child is bad. The message was this is where it might lead.

DAVIES: And did they make the connection between their own experience of getting hit by their parents and their immersion in a world of violence?

LEAP: No (laughter) no, not really they - because these were men, and I do talk about it in the book, they all talked about their profound - and Elder Cummings is one of the best examples of that. They talk about their profound love for their mothers. And their mothers may have in fact beaten them. But they had such love for their mothers and such regard that they saw this as an experience of their parents, their mothers in particular, loving them and caring for them.

DAVIES: Tough love, yeah.

LEAP: Yes, exactly.

DAVIES: Mike, you want to give us a sense of what role you would play in that conversation or in the sessions generally - yeah.

CUMMINGS: In the sessions generally me and Dr. Leap, we both co-facilitate. My role in that is I'm going to give my input and to make sure that they really understand why you can only use an open hand and not a closed fist. You know, back in the day, you know, with my grandmother and - you actually got smacked in the mouth, knocked down wherever you was at. So if you showed out in the market, you got hit in the market or you got whooped in the market. But in order for them to change to how to deal with their kids, you have to pat them on the backside with an open hand and that's one thing that they learned within Project Fatherhood. And, you know, they was like no, I couldn't do that. I got to really show them. But after a while, you know - you know, it just didn't happen overnight, you know? I feel if Project Fatherhood would have went from the pilot program through the next year, I believe that it'd just been a waste. But as we're coming up on the end of our fifth year, you can really see the fruits in the young men. So when you talk about programming, if it's not anywhere from four to five years, it's a wasted program, you know, because here it is now we have fathers that's dealing with situations that they really wouldn't deal with. I mean, you got fathers go to the school, check on their kids. You got fathers taking their kids to the doctor. You got fathers just getting the kids, taking them out on a Saturday outing, which would never happen if it wouldn't have been for Project Fatherhood, you know, really coming together.

DAVIES: They weren't doing that when it started.

CUMMINGS: No, not definitely.

DAVIES: It sounds like - on the subject of physical punishment, it sounded like your take is spanking with the open hand is OK and not beating with the fist.

CUMMINGS: Well, you know, I mean, I'm not going to really say beating with a fist, but, you know, when you talk about a single mother raising a young man, actually raising a young African-American man, pretty much the thing she can do is close her fist and hit him to make him just feel some pain about what she's trying to get across, you know? But, you know, as the fathers now, you know, open hand, pat him on the backside.

LEAP: And I do want to say that is, you know, Mike is great. That's California state law, the open hand. And I also want to tell you there was an - there were several instances, one with a man named Ben Henry, who brought in his two young daughters. And he said I want to whoop them but I'm bringing them into the group instead so we can talk to them. And it was one of those great moments where what we were all trying to sort of learn together came to fruition.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Dr. Jorja Leap. She's the author of "Project Fatherhood: A Story Of Courage And Healing In One Of America's Toughest Communities." Also with us - Big Mike Cummings, who is a facilitator, a community activist who's working in the program. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, our guests are Mike Cummings. He's a former gang member, now a community activist and pastor in Los Angeles. He worked with our other guest, Dr. Jorja Leap, on their project called Project Fatherhood. That's the title of Dr. Jorja Leap's book about the experience.

Jorja Leap, you write of a moment in, I guess, kind of early in these sessions when - it was in the middle of a discussion and two men entered the room. The discussion stopped. You want to describe that.

LEAP: Yes. The discussion stopped and I could see that they were carrying firearms. They were hidden away, but they were carrying firearms under their jackets. And they went around, circled the rooms, shook hands, bumped fists with everybody in the room - they did not come near to me - and sort of gave their sign of approval. And I leaned over to Mike afterwards to find out what had happened. And he just said, you know, they were folk from the neighborhood and they were letting us know that they sort of approve of what we're doing. And it was - it was a moment of unease. I didn't feel endangered. I didn't feel particularly frightened. But I knew it was kind of one of these turning points in the group. And it really was sort of a sign that even men in the outside who might not be ready, who might be involved in some questionable activities - maybe yes, maybe no - they were giving a sign that it was a good thing for this group to move forward.

DAVIES: And the fact that people knew who they were mattered. I mean, were these guys from the local gang - is that the Grape Street Crips?

LEAP: Well, the local gang is the Grape Street Crips. They certainly don't come with T-shirts that say I'm a gang member so that I could identify them or that anybody else could. At that moment, that was certainly my suspicion. I can also tell you the group would've gone forward whether or not they showed up and went around the room, but that was just kind of an added reinforcement. And this goes back to what I always want to communicate about Watts. This is a community with a lot of strengths that really fiercely cares about the future of its children in all different manner of expression.

DAVIES: And did attendance improve after that little visit?

CUMMINGS: You could say it improved a little bit, but it was already - the attendance was already up there. And like I said, we just have standing room only now. You know, it's something that they say it wasn't going to work. But, you know, all you have to do is to come through and try and sit down and talk. And once everybody open up and everybody feel comfortable with everybody, everything went well. You know, you can't just sit in there and come in there and sit down and everybody else talking. They're going to say what about you for you to see how - 'cause we do a check-in when we first start. How's the significant other? How is the wife? How is the child doing? What's going on this week since the last time we met? And people lay it on the table, and we deal with that before we move into our topic.

DAVIES: Tell us a little bit about the men who were regulars. I mean, people might have an image of who was there, but who were these guys? What were their backgrounds?

CUMMINGS: Well, you know, a lot of the guys' backgrounds was, you know, gang members, ex-gang members, ex-drug users, ex-drug dealers. Majority of them - a lot of them, you know, did time - a lot - quite a bit of time in prison. We have one guy that's in there, he did about 32 years in prison and asked him when he came out to take care of his nephew. And the one really learned how to actually chastise a kid, you know? You know, he spent 32 years in prison, so you know how they chastise people in there.

DAVIES: And were they employed most of them?

CUMMINGS: No. A lot of them wasn't employed. Maybe one, maybe two that was employed.

DAVIES: Mike Cummings is a former gang member and community activist in Los Angeles. Jorja Leap is a professor of social welfare at the Luskin School of Public Affairs at UCLA and the author of "Project Fatherhood." After a break, we'll hear more about some of the challenges fathers in the project face, including managing multiple relationships with the mothers of their children. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Our guests today are working with men in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles to help them become better fathers. Mike Cummings, known in the community as Big Mike, is a former gang member who is now a community activist and co-leader of the fatherhood program. His partner in the effort is Jorja Leap, a professor of social welfare at UCLA's Luskin School of Public Affairs who spent years studying gang violence. Her new book is called "Project Fatherhood."

There's a chapter in the book, Jorja Leap, called Baby Mamas. These guys have pretty complicated families, don't they?

LEAP: Yeah (laughter) yes, they do. But you know what? I can't - listen. I've been married twice and my husband's been married four times. I don't want to say it's only happening in Watts. I think most families are complicated. But these were complicated in a special way, let's put it that way.

DAVIES: Well, you want to give us, you know, an example of some of the dilemmas that they would bring to the group from their...

LEAP: There was a wonderful man, Ben Henry, that was married and had children but had had a relationship outside of his marriage and had a child from that relationship. And the woman that was the mother of that child would not allow him to see his son. And the son also developed autism or Asperger's or some kind of a neurological disorder. He was kind of juggling these two families and strained relationships and a child with special needs. And he was one of the fathers that, as Father Greg Boyle would say, I sort of stood in awe of him that he was dealing with so many different realities.

DAVIES: Right, I mean, it's hard enough to deal with your kids if they're at one home. I mean, a lot of these guys have kids at different homes from different women who they may have different relationships and sometimes antagonistic relationships with.

LEAP: Yes, very often antagonistic relationships, especially because there was jealousy and competition and the things that we see in multiple marriages and multiple relationships. And, you know, and there was such pride when men talked about being able to marry a woman, be married, have a wife; and the women felt this painfully as well. They wanted to be the most important woman. They didn't want to just be the baby mama. They wanted to be the wife. They wanted to be the significant other.

DAVIES: And there was a lot of discussion about the attitudes towards the women in their lives. And at one point, you write that it almost seems at times as if love had skipped a generation. They revered women they remembered from their neighborhood who took care of everybody. I don't want to characterize it; you can characterize it, but it seemed less respect for the women currently in their lives.

LEAP: There was both love but also great hostility, great antagonism, a certain amount of cynicism, a certain amount of mistrust. They felt that, you know, their women were always telling them what to do and how to run their lives and how to take care of their children. And when I - when I wrote love skipped a generation, their un-conflicted love - and I want to really emphasize this - their sort of pure love was reserved for their mothers and for their daughters. And their relationships with their significant others, to be very honest, just as much as they were learning to be fathers, they were learning to have those relationships as well. They were learning to be partners. They were learning to be husbands. They didn't have a lot of role models for this either.

DAVIES: Right, and dealing - both partners in the relationship under a lot of stress as economic, social, educational.

LEAP: I can't emphasize the economic stresses enough except to tell you that in the five years of the group's existence, the unemployment rate of Watts has bounced around between 50 and 55 percent. And you have to stop a moment and let that sink in that half the folk in Watts do not have jobs.

DAVIES: Now, Mike, you're married and have a daughter, right - stable family there for you. Did men look at you as different? Did you talk to them about their relationships with women, give them advice?

CUMMINGS: Yes, I do have a wife. I've been married now about, I think, my wife is going to get me, but I think about 21 years.

LEAP: (Laughter).

CUMMINGS: My daughter is...

DAVIES: That's a number you want to get right, yeah.

CUMMINGS: Right, my anniversary was May 14; it just passed. So I have a daughter that was 13 and for me, what I really wanted to do was to really be in her life and, you know, to really take care of her. I mean, I was at the hospital when she was born. I was in the hospital room. I seen her born. I took care of her. I hold her. I fed her. I provided for her - medical, dental, house, education. You know, this is something that I've never done. And it pays off, you know? She's 13 now; she's a straight A student. No, she's not a straight A student, she's an A-plus student. She's been getting A-pluses for, like, the last year and a half. You know, she very smart, very articulate. So I know if a father is in the home, I mean, the kids are going to be able to have something different than what a kid without a father in the home - you know, make sure that she got shoes and clothes and everything. It was just - that was something that I never did, you know? You can say that I provided for them. But dropping off money and not spending time or seeing how they doing or what's going on, you know, what happened at school today, you know? how you feeling? How you doing? Or even going on vacation, you know, for me is a big thing. I try to go on vacation every summer. I try to spend two weeks somewhere, you know? So, you know, that's what I give to the fathers, you know?

DAVIES: And you have a couple of grown kids from an earlier, more chaotic period of your life, right?

CUMMINGS: Yes, yes. I have a daughter and a son, you know, before I married my wife, yeah.

DAVIES: And what kind of relationship do you have with them?

CUMMINGS: Pretty much none. I mean, with my kids I have a great relationship with my daughter Michelle. But Michael - Michael, Jr. - you know, I speak to him every now and then just to make sure that he's OK and everything. And then sometime I tell the young men in the class that, you know, that a lot of times that you should really just focus on the one family and raising the one family. That way you can really spend more time with those kids, you know? At that, you know, instead of having to go over here and over there, you know?

DAVIES: And I guess you've had to come to terms with that and the regrets that you have from not having an earlier relationship?

CUMMINGS: Yes, I regret it, you know, I really do. I regret it 'cause it's not fair for the child, you know, it's really not fair at all.

DAVIES: Our guests are Mike Cummings and Jorja Leap. Jorja Leap's new book is "Project Fatherhood." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, our guests are two participants in a project in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Our guest, Dr. Jorja Leap, has written the book about the project. It's called "Project Fatherhood: The Story Of Courage And Healing In One Of America's Toughest Communities." Also with us - Michael Cummings. He's a former gang member, now a community activist, who leads a lot of the sessions in Project Fatherhood.

Jorja Leap, you tell a story in the book about an exchange with the guys and then you told the story of a woman you know named Carmen who had a regular guy - James I think was his name - and they had four kids together. Or they had - she had four kids, right, and she was expecting her fifth. He was the dad. And he was supposed to come for the baby shower, bring the cake; he didn't show. You want to pick up the story and tell us about that exchange.

LEAP: Well, he didn't show, and, you know, I maintained he was a good guy. He was going to show up, and he never showed up for the baby shower. You know, and she just sat at the baby shower sort of looking like she was going to deliver on the spot. And as events...

DAVIES: You were there 'cause you're friends with them - yeah, yeah.

LEAP: And I'm friends with them. And this is not a couple that is - this couple is not connected with Project Fatherhood. But I later learned - Carmen later learned that he was with a girlfriend and that he had an ongoing relationship. And I was heartbroken sort of on her behalf as well as disappointed because of my own faith in the relationship. And I came to Project Fatherhood and told the story. And I got my own treatment of tough love because the men all told me she should just kick his ass out of there and never speak to him again. And, you know, I came from the we need to talk about our relationships and why is there cheating and what's going on. And the fathers kind of made me eat a reality sandwich after I told that story. And it was good because they were - they were much more realistic about what was occurring than I was. And Carmen ultimately did break up the relationship and delivered the baby alone, so she knew more of the sort of the hood philosophy than I did. And it was a learning point for me.

DAVIES: Well, what struck me about that part of the book was you told the story and you said to these guys what kind of respect is that that this guy is showing that, you know, he's slinking around with another woman and skipping his wife's baby shower? And they say to you, oh, come on, Miss Jorja Leap. Don't you know we're all dogs? Men are all dogs, we just do this, as if to say that's - that's not going to change, I mean, the habit of just sort of, you know, promiscuous behavior and, you know, what most people would call cheating. And...

LEAP: Right, right.

DAVIES: Yeah, and it just, you know, it seems like it's bound to dramatically complicate your life if you're not going to ever settle down. And I just wonder if kind of did you ever reach any resolution with them about that?

LEAP: I really came to peace about this because I was happy they told me the truth. They didn't tell me, oh yeah, we got to try harder. We got to do better. They were presenting me with the unblemished truth and the reality of their lives. And what I learned - as kind of counterintuitive as this sounds - what I learned was to have a great deal of respect, number one, 'cause they're telling me the truth. And number two because they manage extremely complicated lives. You know, my joke is for some of them I really need an org chart to keep track of all the women and all the children.

DAVIES: An organizational chart, yeah.

LEAP: Right, but they manage these lives and they are dedicated to being involved with their children. Leelee Sprewell, a member of the group, was a man that had many children by many women. And let me tell you, this guy was on the phone 24/7 or visiting or checking in at schools. So what initially turned to kind of an exploration of my mainstream values turned into a sense of admiration for what they were carrying in their lives.

DAVIES: Jorja, you wrote that when Mike wasn't there - I mean, you know, he tries to get on vacation with his family once a year - that the sessions were different. How?

LEAP: (Laughter) That's a euphemism. The sessions went out of control. And Mike is a very modest man, but he is a leader. And when he was there the groups would get rowdy. The groups would get chaotic, but he always could bring them to control. And when he was gone, there was absolutely positively no way I could run this group without him. He would send surrogates. There were other people - Willie Elementary Freeman, Andre Christian - they helped me. They co-facilitated, but Mike is clearly a father to the fathers. And, as I said, he's very modest. He won't own this, but I will tell you that in his absence the group just did not function effectively.

DAVIES: And, Mike, you've been involved on the - literally in the streets and intervening and kind of helping kids get home safely. Do you do that a lot still?

CUMMINGS: Yes, I do that every day. It's called Safe Passage. We have a Safe Passage Program in Jordan High School. And, you know, Jordan High School is adjacent to the Jordan Downs Housing Projects. And we just make sure kids can get to school without being forced into any gangs, without being pocket checked, without being bullied or roughed up or anything like that. We're on the ground daily, in the morning and in the evening. And I'm also on campus at Jordan High School at noontime and lunchtime.

DAVIES: OK, now, you do this. You operate a towing business. You're the pastor of a church. How does that add up (laughter)?

CUMMINGS: Well, I'm up at 4 in the morning and I'm towing from 4:30 to 7. From 7 to 9 I'm at the school, and then from 9 to 12-12:30 I'm towing and at 12:30 to 4 - I'm at the school until 4 o'clock. After 4 o'clock I'm towing and I'm headed home about 7:15-7:20, and I do this every day.

DAVIES: Jorja Leap, one of the things that you write about is, you know, the affection that men have for their children and that you learned it's a common practice in Watts for parents to buy life insurance for even very young children. What's that about?

LEAP: This was a heartbreaking realization for me because they were - we were talking about death. There had been a death in the community. A little baby had been mistakenly shot and killed. And we began to talk about death and the men began to talk about life insurance. And we brought up the subject of fathers buying life insurance and all of a sudden people began to share that they bought life insurance on their children. And I had to question the men very carefully because I wanted to make sure I was hearing right. I couldn't even believe what they were saying. And what this was was one of the baldest statements of their reality that they didn't believe their children might live very long lives. And they were pragmatic about it. It's not that they didn't love their children. They adored their children. But it was their reality that they might not live. And they bought the life insurance, by the way, not to make money, but to pay for their funeral expenses.

DAVIES: Our time is short here, but I thought, before we say goodbye, I'd like to ask each of you - you've both spent a lot of time in this community working on these issues. And I wanted to give each of you a chance to maybe share an insight that's come to you over the years about maybe what works or what doesn't or something you've learned about how to conduct yourself and a skill you've acquired that you think makes a difference - Mike Cummings.

CUMMINGS: This is for me, Mike Cummings. For me, it's to continue - I mean, to always continue to be there. And the main thing that I really learned was to always do what I say. You know, if somebody asks me to do something or something like that to make sure that I can get that done, not to make broken promises. If I can't get it done, I have to tell them I can't get it done. But to me it's to always be truthful and upright with the people and then, you know, you could always serve the people if you was truthful to them at all times.

DAVIES: Jorja Leap.

LEAP: My life's passion has been working with marginalized communities in general, with gang members, their families - the generations in particular. And everybody wants to know what is the answer? How do we change things? How do we prevent violence? How do we intervene in violence? What I've learned in Project Fatherhood - and this has been the lesson presented to me the most starkly - is that the answer is not going to come from the outside; that we have leaders in these communities. We have men like Big Mike and men who are fledgling Big Mikes. And the answer to violence and the answer to marginalization must come from lifting up these leaders from within these communities, not coming from the outside with experts or with assistance because this is who these communities listen to, believe in and invest in. And until we do that, we're doomed to fail. Once we begin to do that, things will truly change in a meaningful way.

DAVIES: Mike Cummings, Jorja Leap, thanks so much for spending some time with us and sharing your story.

LEAP: Thank you so much.

CUMMINGS: Thank you very much.

DAVIES: Mike Cummings is a pastor and community activist in Los Angeles. Jorja Leap is a professor of social welfare at UCLA's Luskin School of Public Affairs who spent years studying gang violence. Her book about their program in Watts is called "Project Fatherhood." Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new book about an intense battle over the future of The New York Public Library in Manhattan. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

More News
Support nonprofit, public service journalism you trust. Give now.