Nicholas Ibarra | OBSERVER Staff Writer
Sacramento native Richard Johnson and New York native Imani Lucas were introduced at the Roberts Family Development Center in 2010. They worked closely and often talked about ideas of community and youth development.
In 2017, Johnson, 50, and Lucas, 48, conceived of United and Guided (UAG) as a way to give youth an opportunity to interact with adult figures to whom they may not otherwise have had access. Their goal was to improve kids’ mental health and well-being, while also breaking the school-to-prison pipeline and improving their community.
Their vision was realized in 2020 when they launched UAG. Their program was well received and rallied other concerned parents and community members who volunteered to help in their mission.
“We wanted to do something that was not only going to uplift young people, but then uplift their families and the community as well,” Lucas said.
UAG’s mission is to develop economic security and emotional wellness in traditionally marginalized communities through education, service learning and local ownership.
“A lot of the experiences that I had growing up as a youngster in Oak Park is why I do the work that I do,” Johnson said.
One of numerous ways they carry out this mission is through Papa Bear’s Village/Self Care Sundays. Every week, UAG visits Tahoe Park, inviting parents and their children to spend the day bonding over board games, food, sports and more. The gathering often includes dads who may have children who are adults or who live in other states, but they still come out because they know there are kids and young dads who need mentorship and support.
“It’s always been very important to me that they experience their own culture so that when they get older they are able to self-identify with who they are, since they are being raised by White people,” said Greg Rash, 63, father of adopted twins Juelz and Julzella. “Papa Bear’s Village provides a very physically and emotionally safe environment where my kids and I can go to learn and have fun. They provide a lot of support, answer a lot of questions and give a lot of positive feedback on the interactions they see between me and my children.”
Another outreach strategy they’ve implemented is conflict mediation and restorative justice, which they have been trained and certified in. This has helped them connect with Sacramento City Unified School District (SCUSD), which refers them to students who are struggling with behavioral issues and/or parents who have experienced conflict with administrators at school. These certifications have allowed UAG to get involved in minor crimes and altercations that have occurred on school campuses, assess these situations and formally address the problem instead of just punishing the students.
“These punishments typically fall on Black and Brown students, thus creating that school-to-prison pipeline, which we’re trying to break,” said Lucas.
Johnson and Lucas realized the difficulty teachers and administrators faced in relating culturally to the children, especially when it came to discipline. Because they have experience in after-school programs, they were able to relate more easily to the kids and their families. This gave them an advantage when it came to understanding child behaviors and being able to communicate on how to manage them with their parents, which led to overall better behavior in school.
“A lot of situations could be resolved if the people involved could just come together in a safe space and talk it out, but it’s up to those individuals to volunteer to speak with us, ” said LaShanya Breazell, 47, who’s a conflict mediator and volunteer for UAG. “If and when they do make that attempt, everything is kept confidential and judgment-free. We are here to make sure that these individuals are heard and understood. We are not here to make decisions or suggestions on your experiences. We are trying to guide the individuals into creating their own resolutions calmly, professionally and without harm.”
UAG has been involved in seven cases to date. Its contract with SCUSD began in March.
Other UAG outreach services include:
- “Real Pop Talk,” where dads meet to discuss things they may be going through. Its development as a podcast for UAG’s Parental Equity Project is in the works;
- Virtual Career Coaching, which helps manage job and career searches; and
- “Black Fathers Inc.,” a meeting UAG invites Black fathers to participate in at 6:30 p.m. second Tuesdays.
Johnson and Lucas made sure to mention all those who co-found and support UAG, they are: Dupree Herndon, Joseph Thomas, Joslyn Thompson, Vu Tran, and Sierra Duggan.
For Johnson, a lifetime Oak Park resident, seeing the amount of support for the program is special.
“To see these dads, some of whom I know personally, and how they’ve turned their lives around and give back to the community is beautiful,” Johnson said. “We now have this network of strong Black fathers who are mentors to each other. It all started from a group of concerned, caring and loving people from the community saying, ‘How can I get involved and what can I do to help?’”
Find out more about what UAG is doing in the community and how you can participate by visiting its website. Also, see how you can support the organization. Be sure to bring the family out for Self Care Sunday to bond with family, eat and get basketball tips from Johnson and the rest of the coaches and dads starting at 10:30 a.m. Sundays at Tahoe Park.