Life

Black fathers talk about challenges in a tumultuous time

ABOVE: David Wesley-Shanks Sr. and David Wesley-Shanks Jr., 10, pose Wednesday on the trampoline in their backyard in Ce
ABOVE: David Wesley-Shanks Sr. and David Wesley-Shanks Jr., 10, pose Wednesday on the trampoline in their backyard in Cedar Rapids. Wesley-Shanks Sr. said it is difficult knowing that his son is growing up in a world where he might face police brutality because of the color of his skin, but he has hope for the future. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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When David Wesley-Shanks’ son, David Jr., who is 10, heard the term “police brutality” on the radio, he was confused. He didn’t understand why those two words went together. Police, in his mind, are meant to protect, not harm.

“The question of police brutality, that concept doesn’t sound right to him. He once said he wants to be a police officer,” Wesley-Shanks said.

Knowing his son is growing up into a world where police brutality might be a reality his son has to face is hard, he said. Very hard.

With Father’s Day approaching, he talked about the challenges all fathers face — to protect their families — and the way those are amplified for black fathers like himself.

What worries him most is the emotional baggage his son will be faced with when he encounters racism in general.

“My son is a very expressive kid. He’s very open, very friendly, very welcoming to everyone, and he sort of expects that in return. I think about when he gets out in the world and he faces certain types of rejections and certain types of exclusion, and worry how he’ll deal with that,” Wesley-Shanks said. “Even today, as a child, when he deals with that with more normal childhood things, that can be difficult for him. I can just see him being filled with a lot of sadness.”

For now, he and his wife, Shayla Wesley-Shanks, try to protect their son as much as they can and shield him from the travails of the world. He enjoys playing video games, riding his bike, watching animé. More than protests or news about police shootings, right now their son’s biggest cause of stress is the coronavirus pandemic and not being able to see his friends and classmates.

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“He likes going outside, he has a very vast imagination, he likes to set up scenarios with his friends, copying from movies and things,” his father said. “He likes playing with his friends. That’s probably been the most difficult for him, especially when quarantining started to happen, social distancing, not being able to visit their houses, not being able to visit family. He was really sad. He likes being around people. He likes hugs.”

Wesley-Shanks is a software engineer at Collins Aerospace; his wife is a paraprofessional at Taft Middle School. They’re also registered foster parents and have had several children live with them over the last seven years.

He said the current moment is hard, but he still has hope for the future.

“Seeing the widespread awareness, and not only just awareness, but seeing more participation, that’s probably what’s making me the most hopeful,” he said. “I think this swell of a movement is much bigger ... And I think my son still wants to be a police officer. That makes me hopeful, thinking about the kind of change he might be able to bring.”

Frederick Newell of Iowa City said he and his wife try to buffer their children, who are between ages 5 and 14, from the problems of the world. They know that won’t always be possible, especially as they grow older and gain more independence, but for now, they hope to let them hold on to the innocence of childhood a while longer.

“I try to shield my kids away from a lot of the things happening in the world. I don’t want them to be fearful of the world,” Newell said.

Newell runs Dream City, a community nonprofit in Iowa City, previously called the Dream Center.

One of its programs is a Fatherhood Academy that has worked with more than 150 fathers over the last several years.

After recently losing a grant, the organization is holding a virtual fundraiser for the academy in honor of Father’s Day. It already reached the $5,000 goal after a flood of donations, and all extra money raised will go to a fund to help young fathers the organization works with purchase items such as diapers and clothes for their children.

Newell said addressing racism to help those fathers goes beyond police reform.

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It includes things like the criminal justice system as a whole, the educational system and access to economic opportunities.

It’s also about how the community as a whole views and supports black children, he said.

“It’s not just policing — it’s the community that calls the police on these young men,” he said. “I have fears just about every time my kids go out the door. No father, nobody should ever have to think those thoughts.”

Maybe someday, Newell thinks, things will be different and black fathers won’t have to worry about telling their children how to interact with police officers out of fear for their safety. Maybe someday, all their children will have the same opportunities to succeed.

“I hope that with what’s happening today, they won’t have to be out here protesting a few years from now or 30 years from now,” he said. “I’m also hopeful that with these conversations that are happening, our communities will create a community where we can all see each other as we are … and we can build a community that each of us can thrive in and not just a community people survive in.”

Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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