Sean Williams’ life changed four years ago at his local grocery store in Long Island.
Williams, a 37-year-old Black man and father of three, was running errands with his youngest daughter when a white woman approached him.
She wanted to commend him for “sticking around,” he said.
This wasn’t the first time Williams received this type of comment. In his predominantly white neighborhood, the stay-at-home dad recalled getting frequent praise from neighbors, who applauded him for being an involved Black father.
Williams knew why people were congratulating him: They were perpetuating the racist and pervasive myth of the “missing black father,” which purports that black fathers are too often absent from their children’s lives.
“I spoke with my friends who are all active black dads and asked them if they had similar experiences,” Williams said. “The answer was ‘yes.‘ ”
After the grocery store incident, Williams made it his mission to shatter a stereotype that he knew was baseless.
Data from the National Center for Health Statistics shows that the majority of Black fathers do, in fact, live with their children. The same study also showed that Black fathers are more likely to feed, bathe, diaper, dress, and play with their children on a daily basis than their white and Hispanic counterparts.
Williams aimed to debunk the misconception of Black fatherhood by creating an initiative called The Dad Gang.
He began by posting photos of him and his kids, now ages 15, 4, and 3, on social media. Then he started posting photos of other black fathers he knew.
“It started as an Instagram page, with the goal of focusing exclusively on positive stories, images, and videos of active Black dads,” Williams said. “I wanted to showcase the reality of Black fatherhood and rewrite the narrative.”
When he and some friends called out to Black fathers to share their stories, submissions started overflowing.
The account, which now has more than 112,000 followers, features dads doing it all: From braiding hair to dancing, teaching to cooking, The Dad Gang Instagram page shows Black fathers collectively smashing the stereotype.
Over the past year, The Dad Gang grew from a digital platform to a sprawling community of fathers across the country.
Last June, Williams organized a “Strollin’ with the Homies” event in New York, where more than 100 dads came together with their kids for a group walk.
“The purpose of the stroll was to visually demonstrate the strength of Black fatherhood. I don’t think anyone has seen Black dads congregate and connect on such a large scale like that,” Williams said. “It became a real movement after that.”
It was then that Williams decided The Dad Gang needed to transcend social media. He began organizing regular in-person events, including father-child karaoke, brunches, workshops, and community playdates. He also facilitated a discussion panel at Google, both in New York and Washington.
Edward Smith, 34, is Williams’ right-hand man and helps to facilitate the events and organize their efforts.
Smith’s own father wasn’t around when he grew up, and though he isn’t yet a father himself, “I wanted to help change the narrative,” he said.
“When you Google ‘dad,’ you rarely see Black dads,” Smith said. “There is such a limited, one-dimensional representation of Black fathers.”
“For too many years, it’s been projected that all Black fathers are not in their children’s lives,” said Kevin Riley, 32, a father of two children, ages 5 and 16 months, who has been involved with the initiative since the beginning. “The Dad Gang has become more than a platform; it’s a support group.”
Muhammed Nitoto, 36, agreed.
Nitoto is the mastermind behind the popular Instagram account Chronicles of Daddy, where he blogs about his experiences as a Black father of six.
“Images are powerful,” Nitoto said. “They change the perception of people, which is why it’s so important to have platforms that display Black dads in a positive light.”
Amid the recent reckoning of race in America, spurred by the killing of George Floyd, Williams said the need for The Dad Gang has grown exponentially.
“Now more than ever, we need to fight against injustice and social inequality, and bring Black fathers together,” Williams said. “I feel this is my purpose.”
Williams’ ultimate plan is to take The Dad Gang across the country — and possibly even the globe — by adding local chapters where Black fathers can go for support and community.
“It’s an ambitious mission to say we’re going to change the way the world sees Black fathers,” Williams said. “But we’re going to try.”