Longtime friends Jesse Alex and Lamar Johnson Jr., could have dwelled on not having an active father in their lives while growing up.
Instead, they turned their shared experiences into a positive and created Dear Fathers. Created in 2019, Dear Fathers is a multimedia platform dedicated to celebrating fatherhood, brotherhood and mental health awareness among Black men.
The platform’s inception came from conversations the pair had about their similar upbringings. They would joke about not knowing how to grill or fish and dealing with absent fathers. They soon realized the pain they were laughing at needed to be unpacked.
“Talking more about it, we realized the effects of not having a dad, not knowing half of who we were,” Alex said. “From those conversations with Lamar, we started to research the Black fatherhood space to see what was out there.”
Alex said he and Johnson found that a lot of Black fatherhood brands focused on images, selling merchandise and hosting events. They wanted to dive deeper into those images of Black fathers.
“We created a media platform dedicated to telling stories about Black fathers from all angles,” Alex said. “We have a written storytelling series, a video interview series, a podcast featuring Celebrity and an Instagram Live series highlighting different Black men and fathers about their experiences.”
The pandemic caused the organization to pivot and go virtual like other companies. The change led to the birth of Str8 Mental, which provides Black men with free virtual therapy services. There is access to mental health professionals and a safe space to talk about current or past detrimental circumstances that have impacted their lives.
Since launching in May 2020, more than 700 men have joined the STR8 Mental meetings, which are on Zoom from 2-4 p.m. on the last Sunday of the month.
Brad Edwards, community organizer of Dear Fathers, said the sessions offer men a first exposure to therapy since most of them have never seen a therapist.
“They see they can talk with other Black men about what they’re going through and they can talk with a therapist who looks like them and can relate to them on all levels.” Edwards said.
Oftentimes, there’s a stigma that surrounds Black men and mental health. Many think they have to mask their pain and uphold this hard, “tough guy,” image, but that’s the beauty of Dear Fathers. Barriers are broken down and men have a safe space where they can be vulnerable and share what’s bothering them.
“I don’t think as Black men we want to be the way that we are perceived as hard and rugged all the time,” Edwards said. “I think we just have to be in the right space for guys to feel safe and I think that’s what we’ve created here.”
Alex, who aspires to someday be a father, believes that his interactions with other fathers like Edwards and the other men in the group have shown him examples of the type of father he wants to become.
“Since starting this platform and hearing the stories from fathers I don’t know or just being close-knit with guys like Edwards, Johnson and Ricky Hughes Jr, I’m learning from them all,” Alex said.
“I think understanding who I am and being in a place where I can show up for my kids will help me be a great dad since I didn’t have that growing up.”
Edwards, who grew up with his father in his life and is a first-time father of a one-year-old daughter, said he wants to show other men in the group what a great Black father looks and acts like.
“I had an example of what a great Black father looks like and I wanna help the other guys realize what that is,” Edwards said. “I want to give them the tools and gifts I learned from my father and build a community that way.”
The camaraderie and bonds formed through Dear Fathers are evident and its impact is something that Alex and Edwards both agree they want to continue.
“One thing we’re noticing is people are really buying into the fellowship and the brotherhood aspect of the community,” Edwards said. “I think it's understanding that guys are really appreciative of what we’re doing and really want to tap into that some more.”
Dear Fathers also has a book club called Books and Bourbon, which meets 7-8:30 p.m. the second Wednesday of each month.
Black men can gain access to Dear Father’s monthly newsletters, virtual events, podcast episodes and more by visiting www.dearfathers.com/join.