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White House on Dads: Children Need Presence, Not Perfection

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Originally published on Youthradio.org, the premier source for youth generated news throughout the globe.

By Pendarvis Harshaw

Amid a news cycle dominated by the Gulf Oil spill and the President's response efforts, the White House is promoting a different advocacy effort this week.

"Children don't need people to be perfect, they need people to be present," said Michael Strautmanis, Chief of Staff to White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett. I spoke to Strautmanis about the administration's new effort, launched yesterday, to connect fathers with their children and promote strong families.

Below are highlights from the interview. You can find the full transcript at Youth Radio. And here's the interview audio.

(download mp3) Harshaw: What audience is this campaign targeting? Is there a specific demographic? Is it middle class, working class, or is it an all-inclusive initiative?

Strautmanis: The President has said it doesn't matter who you are, what your income level is, this is an issue we all need to focus on. There are plenty of middle class fathers, maybe they're spending a little too much time watching Sports Center at home instead of reading to their children. And there are other fathers who are working several jobs, maybe they're living with their children, maybe they're not, from all different levels of income and background who-- we want to help them engage with their families and with their children.

So this is an issue that touches everybody. We have great partnerships with women and women's organizations who've reached out to us. We're encouraging mentoring. I actually lead a mentoring program for young people here at the White House. And so we really think that when you're talking about participating in the lives of young people, these aren't women's issues, childcare and work-family balance, these are issues that everybody has to deal with, fathers as well. We all need to step up and do what we can to participate in the lives of these children.

Harshaw: Can you explain how this initiative will work and how will we know that it's working? How will we weigh the results?

Strautmanis: We'll know that it's working in small ways in individual lives across the country. But there are going to be important things as well. We are proposing a Fund for Fatherhood, Marriage and Family Innovation, a five hundred million dollar fund to advance responsible fatherhood, healthy marriages and family self-sufficiency. So we want to see comprehensive strategies to address these issues. We want to make sure there are improved outcomes for families focused on them. Are children participating in school? Are they staying in school and not dropping out? In the families that are struggling the most, are these families able to move towards self-sufficiency? Are these families able to find jobs and sustain employment? These children--are less of them involved in the child welfare system? So these are important measures that will have an impact yes on the individual children, on the individual families, but they'll have an impact in the communities, in the neighborhood. They'll be one more effort in our comprehensive work to improve our communities. I'm really glad that you all are focused on this. This is important to the President. And we all are looking for an opportunity to step up and do more.

Harshaw: Can you identify the most deep-rooted cause for the prevalence of absent fathers in our country?

Strautmanis: Boy, that's a question you'd get a lot of debate on. Everybody from the Fatherhood Leadership Group to the National Parent Teachers Associations, everyone else working on the ground has different reasons why they say this is an issue. But the bottom line is it's one we need to address.

So root causes for these issues are there, they're prevalent, and you'll get different opinions on them. What we want to do is we want to talk with those community based organizations. We've already gone out and had this conversation. We've asked them what they need, what it is we can do to help address this issue. And we've heard. We're establishing fathering courts, to help fathers who are leaving the criminal justice system and connect them immediately through the court system to employment and services. We've heard, why don't you just help us find ways that everyone can work together and get this information out to the community? So we've launched our website, fatherhood.gov. How can we get different agencies and the Federal Government to work together? So we've established an inter-agency coordinating group, to make sure the different agencies are working together in the local community to address these issues.

But in the end of the day, government can only do so much. At the end of the day it's got to be that individual father deciding to go to that parent-teacher conference. Or turning off that second loop of Sports Center and reading to their child. Or deciding that they're going to be the one to walk the child to school today and have that one conversation or that moment, that time to connect. The President does that. He wanted to show the country how important he thought this is. He's experienced in his own life what it's like not to have a father present. He's also experienced how to juggle the demands of a busy job with the demands of the most important job he has, and that is to be a father to those daughters. I have three children myself, and this is an issue that we all try to do better on and work hard to be our best. So I think working together, we want to move the ball forward here and help improve the lives of these children.

Harshaw: Is there anything else you'd like to put forward?

Strautmanis: I think that the most important issue is that, the children don't need people to be perfect. They need people to be present. So between fathers, mothers, adults, we can look around and see what we can do to participate in their lives, it makes a real impact.

Michael Strautmanis is Chief of Staff to Senior Advisor to the President, Valerie Jarrett. His interview with Pendarvis Harshaw was produced by Youth Radio. Also distributed by WAMU's Youth Voices, in partnership with the Latin American Youth Center and Youth Radio.

Also from Youth Radio-Youth Media International:

Obama and the Achievement Gap
Absent Fathers
A Father's Day Story from a Brand New Dad

Youth Radio/Youth Media International (YMI) is youth-driven converged media production company that delivers the best youth news, culture and undiscovered talent to a cross section of audiences. To read more youth news from around the globe and explore high quality audio and video features, visit Youthradio.org.