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March 21, 2013

Jail dance lets fathers, daughters take a few steps together

(Continued)

RICHMOND, Va. —

When the class begins, the men fall silent.

"How many of you are fathers?" asks Brian Gullins, a coordinator with the Richmond Family and Fatherhood Initiative.

Nearly every hand goes up in the room.

"What are your top three emotions about your own father?," he asks.

A man stands up and says his name is Tony.

"Hey, Tony," the men say in thunderous unison.

"My emotion for my father is anger. He committed infidelity and left us behind. That's when me and my brother got into the streets, took up drugs. My brother got killed. I am here. Thanks for letting me share."

"Thanks for your share, Tony" they boom again in one voice.

Some of the other men stand up to speak.

"My dad was chaotic."

"My dad was an alcoholic."

"My dad beat on my mother."

And after a few more, Gullins poses another question:

"If we asked your child to talk about you, what would that say?" Gullins asks. Some of the men stare at the ground, others shake their heads and sigh.

"If it's painful, then own it, brothers," Gullins tells them.

Joey Atkins is a husky man with blond hair and tattooed arms who has been in and out of jail for drug dealing and weapons-related violations.

He's been trying to repair his life, he says, for his daughter Alexis. He's even taking a Virginia Commonwealth University English class that meets inside the jail and is studying poetry.

So he listens intensely when he hears a prose-poem delivered to the class by Richmond activist and hip-hop artist Joe'i Chancellor. Her father went to jail when she was 9. He didn't come home until she was 21, she tells them.

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